Sunday’s sermon: A Multitude of Questions

Text used – John 7:37-52

  • It’s always how the story goes – how the story makes its major twist. Well … maybe not always, but it is an age-old story.
    • Think of the Marvel Comic Universe – Iron Man, Captain America, Black Panther, and all the rest
      • Hero’s story is introduced
      • Hero becomes adored by crowds
      • Hero experiences a major setback
        • Loss of a major battle
        • Loss of a loved one – friend or family member or heroic comrade
      • Major setback leads to doubt
        • Doubt of mission
        • Doubt of the power of good in the world
        • Doubt of self
        • Doubt that comes both from themselves and those around them
      • Hero makes a colossal interior effort to overcome doubt just in the nick of time
      • Hero is even stronger on the other side of the doubt
        • Stronger in power
        • Stronger in purpose
        • Stronger in conviction
      • Hero saves the day
    • And while it’s difficult for us to watch those doubting parts – difficult to watch the hero beat themselves up and doubt themselves and wonder aloud if they’ve made any sort of difference at all – part of the reason it’s so difficult for us to watch is because we know how true-to-life that experience is.
      • We know the struggle of being doubted
      • FLIP SIDE: We know the struggle of doubting
      • We know how jarring doubt can be – jarring to our sense of self, jarring to the tenuous and fragile ordering of the world around us, jarring to the beliefs we hold dear. And yet doubt is as human an experience as breathing, especially in this day and age.
        • Live in an era of proof
        • Live in an era of scientific discovery
        • Live in an era of empirical fact over perceived reality → the measurable over the unmeasurable, the head over the heart
        • Often, we don’t trust a theory or proposal until it’s been tried and tested and thoroughly dissected by others, a process that requires doubt in its most honed and zealous form.
    • And certainly, that’s not always a bad thing! Medically speaking, where would we be if both practitioners and scholars centuries ago hadn’t doubted that blood-letting did anyone any good? I shudder to think! No, doubt is surely not always a bad thing … and yet, it makes us uncomfortable, doesn’t it? We don’t like to be doubted, not by others and especially not by our own selves. And we are especially uncomfortable with doubt when it comes to faith. For centuries, various elements of the Church have tried to squash doubt as quickly as possible – calling it heresy, calling it witchcraft, calling it apostasy, calling it anything and everything possible to drive it from the life of the Church. But how helpful is that, really? And how Scriptural?
  • Seems to me that today’s Scripture reading is full of doubt – full of questions not meant to innocently glean information but to reveal a perceived falsehood in line with a particular agenda
    • Context for today’s encounter with Jesus
      • Text begins: On the last and most important day of the festival[1] → backing up to the beginning of ch. 7, we learn this is the Jewish Festival of Booths[2]
        • Fall festival of thanksgiving
        • Reminder of the years when the people of Israel wandered in the wilderness after Exodus from Egypt → thankful for the ways God provided for them in the wilderness
        • Characterized by the building of huts made of branches that are reminiscent of the huts erected by the people of Israel in their time in the wilderness
        • One of what used to be three Pilgrimage Festivals → holy festivals when Jewish males were required to travel to Jerusalem to offer sacrifice at the Temple[3]
        • So for today’s Scripture story, Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem to celebrate and to give thanks. But, of course, Jesus is Jesus, and word is spreading fast and furious about all of the astounding things he’s been doing – the good and the not-so-good.
          • Water to wine
          • Healing
          • Hanging out with Samaritans (in Samaria, no less!)
          • Feeding a huge crowd with just a few loaves and fish
          • Walking on water
          • Teaching → all these inexplicable statements about living water and living bread and eternal life
          • Making all sorts of “I Am” statements that come perilously close to heresy  → Jesus’ “I Am” statements = same linguistic formula used by God when Moses was given God’s most holy name at the burning bush
    • Needless to say, when he went to teach in the Jerusalem synagogue during this Festival of Booths, Jesus was far from avoiding being noticed. → made sure of that in the beginning of our text this morning: Jesus stood up and shouted, “All who are thirsty should come to me! All who believe in me should drink! As the scriptures said concerning me, Rivers of living water will flow out from within him.”[4] → couple of interesting things here
      • First, flash forward with me for a minute to Jesus’ crucifixion in Jn’s gospel → Remember that all the gospels have different accounts of what happened at Jesus’ crucifixion. John’s account is the only account in which, after Jesus has died but before he’s been taken down from the cross, one of the Roman soldiers pierces his side with a spear, “and immediately blood and water came out.”[5]
      • Back to today’s Scripture: not exactly sure what “scriptures” Jesus is quoting here → not a recognized citation out of the First Testament
      • Also interesting that gospel writer is helpful for readers with a little explanation at this point (theological hindsight that we get a lot of in Jn’s gospel) – text: Jesus said this concerning the Spirit. Those who believed in him would soon receive the Spirit, but they hadn’t experienced the Spirit yet since Jesus hadn’t yet been glorified.[6] → But remember, John’s gospel was written around the turn of the 1st century roughly 70 yrs. after Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, so it’s definitely not an explanation that those in Jesus’ hearing that day would have received.
  • Explanation that would clearly have been beneficial for those in Jesus’ hearing → You see, this is where the doubt starts to seep into our story this morning. This is when the barrage of questions begins.
    • Begins benignly enough with the affirmations of some – text: When some in the crowd heard these words, they said, “This man truly is the prophet.” Others said, “He’s the Christ.”[7]
    • But there are others in the crowd who aren’t convinced. – text: But others said, “The Christ can’t come from Galilee, can he? Didn’t the scripture say that the Christ comes from David’s family and from Bethlehem, David’s village?” So the crowd was divided over Jesus.[8] → Divided indeed! Is this man before them another prophet – revered but not a singular occurrence in the history of the people of Israel? Or is he the Christ, the Messiah – the One sent by God to save the people once and for all? Or is he something else entirely? The seeds of doubt begin to take root and grow.
    • Next part of Scripture reading can be divided into two curious occurrences
      • 1st occurrence: Some wanted to arrest him, but no one grabbed him. The guards returned to the chief priests and Pharisees, who asked, “Why didn’t you bring him?” The guards answered, “No one has ever spoken he way he does.[9] → So clearly, these guards had orders to arrest this rabblerouser Jesus and his followers … but by their own admission, they were so taken in by his words – by the mystery that surrounded and infused the presence of Jesus that they just … couldn’t do it. I hear awe and even a little bewilderment in their response to the chief priests and Pharisees: “Why didn’t you bring him?” “No one has ever spoken the way he does.”
        • See the flip side of doubt in this → Sometimes doubt closes us to possibilities and newnesses, but there are other times – times like this one – when doubt actually leaves us more open. The Roman guards’ doubt in their orders to arrest Jesus not only left the crowd open to the possibilities that Jesus’ words and teachings offered, but it left the guards themselves open.
      • 2nd curious occurrence = reappearance of Nicodemus (“he of the midnight meeting and desperate questions” → Remember, we read about Jesus’ first encounter with Nicodemus, the Pharisee and Sanhedrin member, about a month ago. We talked about Nicodemus’ questions, and how he was a man seeking more than just answers but seeking God’s Truth in all its glory and fullness and immeasurable grace. And here, in this next episode of questioning and doubt and testimony, we find Nicodemus again. – text (following the guards’ awe-filled declaration): The Pharisees replied, “Have you too been deceived? Have any of the leaders believed in him? Has any Pharisee? No, only this crowd, which doesn’t know the Law. And they are under God’s curse!” Nicodemus, who was one of them and had come to Jesus earlier, said, “Our Law doesn’t judge someone without first hearing him and learning what he is doing, does it?” They answered him, “You are not from Galilee too, are you? Look it up and you will see that the prophet doesn’t come from Galilee.”[10] → This is such a fascinating encounter! The Pharisees attempt to disparage the intelligence of both the guards and the crowd by declaring that they only believe in Jesus because of their ignorance of the Law, clueless to the fact that one of their own (Nicodemus) has in fact already sought out this subversive and problematic Jesus to learn from him and believe in him. And when Nicodemus speaks up in an attempt at a mild but logical defense of Jesus – basically asking the Pharisees to hear him out based on the precedence of the Law they’ve already cited themselves – they scorn him and tell him to “look it up.”
        • Fascinating because I have to wonder what was going through Nicodemus’ head during this whole exchange … and what was going on in his heart
        • Fascinating because same doubt that left the guards open to Jesus’ teaching and Truth has closed the Pharisees to that same Truth
  • In a strange, inextricable, and powerful way, Doubt itself is a character in this strange little gospel exchange that John gives us.
    • Rev. Dr. Nancy S. Taylor, senior minister at Old South Church in Boston, addresses the unescapable presence of doubt in this story and the way it speaks to our faith: It is reasonable to assume that in every worshiping congregation there are people who lost their faith in the course of the past week, those who never had faith, and a great many for whom belief and doubt are strangely mixed together. … [In these challenging circumstances, John hopes] to pluck up our courage and equip our minds, hearts, and spirits for the arduous (and not so easy to defend or explain) journey of Christian discipleship. … John urges us to follow Jesus, even when we do not understand him. He aches for us to listen to Jesus, even though Jesus’ words and stories are perplexing. The author suggests that we trust the gentleness and openness of Nicodemus. He asks us to wonder and marvel at the defiant behavior of the temple police. He points to the uneducated crowd who find Jesus exceedingly compelling. … In other words, if we cannot see Jesus directly, we can at least see and experience him indirectly, through the eyes and lives of those who have risked everything, even their reputations, to follow him. Their witness is trustworthy.[11] → It was only after making it through the doubt – wrestling with it, going toe-to-toe with it, slogging through it and coming out the other side, possibly battered and bruised but still making it through that the heroes we talked about found themselves stronger, more convinced of their purpose and convicted in their mission. Maybe … just maybe … that’s the way it is with faith. And if that’s the case, maybe that’s why we do this “faith” thing together – to hold that openness for one another in the face of each other’s doubts and provide the trustworthy witness for one another in the most challenging moments. Amen.

[1] Jn 7:37.

[2] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sukkoth-Judaism.

[3] https://www.britannica.com/topic/Pilgrim-Festivals.

[4] Jn 7:37-38.

[5] Jn 19:34.

[6] Jn 7:39.

[7] Jn 7:40-41a.

[8] Jn 7:41b-42.

[9] Jn 7:44-46.

[10] Jn 7:47-52.

[11] Nancy S. Taylor. “John 7:37-52 – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels – John, vol. 1. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 246.

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