Archive for March, 2009
“And they lived happily ever after.” I cannot tell you how many stories I have read that find their terminus in this line, especially in the children’s books I share with my two nephews, Noah and Nicholas. And then, just in case we’re confused as to whether or not the story is really over, many of these stories include a postscript: “The End.” And usually, as I close the book, smiles break out on the faces of Noah and Nicholas and we all walk away with warm hearts. After all, who doesn’t like a happy ending?
Unfortunately, endings in real life are not nearly as cheery as endings in children’s books. In fact, come to think of it, I cannot recall a single real life ending that went completely “happily ever after.” Sure, I’ve known many people who have generally happy marriages and families and households, but, inevitably, there are always bumps along the way. Nobody lives happily ever after, free from all worries and cares. Real life endings just don’t work that way.
In our reading for today from John 11, we see what, at first glance, seems to be a possibility for an unheard of “happy ending.” As the chapter opens, Jesus receives news that one of his closest and dearest friends, a man named Lazarus, is sick. And the prognosis is not good. The disease is terminal. But even after learning of Lazarus’ desperate plight, Jesus assures his followers, “This sickness will not end in death” (verse 4). Now, after hearing this kind of astounding promise from Jesus, we may be tempted to write for ourselves what is sure to be a truly happy ending. A terminally ill patient. A miraculous healing. And everyone lives happily after.
But not so fast. Because shortly after Jesus makes his pronouncement that Lazarus will cheat his fatal infirmity, we receive the devastating headline: “Lazarus is dead” (verse 14). And the ending of this story quickly melts from happy to miserable. Indeed, even the verbs of this story key us into its anguished nature: “weeping,” “deeply moved,” “troubled” (verse 33). Clearly, this is no happy ending.
But perhaps even more unsettling than this story’s sad state is Jesus’ seemingly failed promise to offer a very happy ending. “This sickness will not end in death,” Jesus promises. But it did end in death! Lazarus died! Has Jesus made a false promise? Has Jesus given false hope? No! Because even though Lazarus has died, the story has not yet ended. Lazarus’ sickness has not ended in death because Lazarus’ story is not over yet. For Jesus makes his way to Lazarus’ tomb, now rancid with odor from his decaying corpse, and commands, “Lazarus, come out” (verse 43)! And Lazarus does. Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. And they all live…happily ever after?
As much as I would like to think that Lazarus and his family lived happily ever after, I know better. I’m sure there were family fights and quarrels and challenges after this momentous miracle. Indeed, by the very next chapter, people are plotting to take Lazarus’ life (cf. John 12:9-11). And finally, whether it be by the hands of assasins or by means of more “natural causes,” Lazarus did eventually die…again. And so, as happy as this story may seem for the moment, it still does not give us our allusive “happily ever after ending.”
Where, then, is a “happy ending” to be found? In a world where nobody lives “happily ever after,” is there any hope for a lasting joy? Yes. For, in the midst of Lazarus’ death, Jesus reminds one of Lazarus’ sisters named Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (verses 25-26). Jesus says, “There is a happy ending to be had. But it’s not to be had on this earth. You will die. But when you believe in me, you will live, even though you die. Indeed, you will never die. Here is your happy ending. You will never die.”
In these verses, Jesus reminds us that life on this earth never ends happily. Because life on this earth always ends with a funeral. But even though a casket and tears mark the end of life on this earth, Jesus promises that the end of life on this earth is not the end of life itself. For a new life awaits us: a life eternal with Jesus. A life that will never end. For Jesus is our resurrection and our eternal life. Now, the question becomes, “Do you believe this” (verse 26)? Do you believe that Jesus can and will give you a life that never ends? Because if you do, then this promise is for you: Even though you die, you will live. And you will live happily ever after. The (but the whole point is your life won’t) End.
Using metaphors is an art. Some metaphors are so well crafted that they work their way into the collective consciousness of our culture and even change our patterns of speech and thought. Others don’t fare quite so well. Forrest Gump says, “Life is like a box of chocolates,” and people cling to his words like a pearl that has unexpectedly, yet welcomely, been released from an oyster’s clutches. Did I just use a metaphor there? Other metaphors, however, don’t have quite the profundity of a Forrest Gump proverb. Enter the world of high school English courses.
I came across a list of metaphors the other day used by high schoolers in their English papers. Their assignment was relatively simple: In order to enhance its imagery, write a paper using appropriate metaphors. The metaphor part these high schoolers have down. The appropriate part? I’ll let you decide:
- “She grew on him like she was a colony of E. coli, and he was room-temperature Canadian beef.”
- “She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up.”
- “Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.”
- “Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.”
- “The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease.” (I’m kind of curious. How did this student know how maggots leap when you fry them in grease?)
- “He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.”
Just for the record, I would like to venture a guess that the student using this last metaphor does not have a girlfriend.
All metaphors? Yes. An elegant use of this figure of speech? No comment.
In our reading for today from John 10, the crowds must have felt, to use a metaphor, like Jesus was a high school student awkwardly trying to craft metaphors for an assignment, no matter how quirky and coarse they might have been. Jesus begins, “I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber. The man who enters by the gate is the shepherd of his sheep…I am the good shepherd” (verses 1-2, 11). The metaphor here seems to be clear enough. Jesus is comparing himself to a good and kind shepherd who, rather than trying to sneak into a sheep pen to steel sheep, enters by the appointed means of a gate so that he can lovingly attend to them. But then Jesus begins to mix his metaphors: “I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep” (verse 7). At first, Jesus was the shepherd who entered the gate. Now, he is the gate itself. But if you read John’s whole gospel, things get even more confusing. For John calls Jesus the very “Lamb of God” (1:36). So here are the metaphors given us for Jesus: Jesus enters a gate to tend to his sheep, but he also is the gate itself. Jesus is a shepherd who keeps his lambs in safe pasture, but Jesus himself is also a lamb, being led to the slaughter. Is anyone getting confused yet?
What is Jesus trying to accomplish with all of these mixed metaphors? The apostle Paul answers thusly: “Christ is all, and is in all” (Colossians 3:11). Christ is all. That’s a lot. And that means that Christ’s work is so monumental, so consequential, and so comprehensive that no one metaphor can cover everything. So get ready for a lot of mixed metaphors to try to describe all the Christ has done. Christ enters the sheep pen by the gate. This means that we can trust Christ in our lives and in our hearts. For he does not come to rob or hurt us, but to help us. That is why he comes the way a welcome guest would come, through the front door. Christ is the gate for us sheep. This means that there is only way to salvation. And it is through the gate that is Christ. Christ is our good shepherd. This means that Christ leads us daily. He is never far from us. Christ is the Lamb of God. This means that, like the lambs used in the sacrifices of the Old Testament, Christ is a sacrifice for our sin. Indeed, he even takes away our sin.
These are only a smattering of Scripture’s metaphors concerning Christ. There are many more. Many more metaphors that describe Jesus’ love, grace, and compassion for you and for me. So today, take some time to consider your favorite metaphors for Jesus. Take them to heart and allow them to speak to you. For the metaphors describing Jesus are indeed beautiful, comforting, and even joy-inducing. So joy-inducing, in fact, that when you take the time to ponder them, you’ll be as happy as a kid in a candy store. And that’s a metaphor that, although it may not be terrific for your teeth, is guaranteed to be super for your soul.
In our bedroom, my wife Melody has a jewelry cabinet. She received it as a Christmas present from her mother a couple of years back, and she absolutely loves it. No more jewelry boxes with rings, necklaces, and earrings overflowing. Her jewelry never fit in those. That’s why, instead of a box, she has a whole cabinet.
Now, Melody does not wear particularly valuable jewelry. That’s why, when she found out that her new jewelry cabinet came with a lock and a key, she simply decided to leave the key in the lock. That way, she would never have any problem getting into her cabinet. So you can imagine Melody’s frustration when one day, she walks to her jewelry cabinet to find its key missing and its door locked. Who could have done such a sinister thing? Well, a couple of hours earlier, our nephews, Noah and Nicholas, had visited. Melody now had two suspects.
When she saw Noah and Nicholas next, the interrogation was brutal. The white room. The hard wooden chair. The bright light. Actually, it wasn’t quite that bad, but Melody was still relentless in her search for the truth. After all, she wanted her key back and, after some intense questioning, she believed the culprit to be Nicholas. She could see the guilt in his eyes. But Nicholas wouldn’t crack with a confession. For he knew that he had committed a crime. And with crime always comes punishment. And punishment is something that Nicholas could not bear to endure.
With crime always comes punishment. This is the way things work with parents and children, aunts and nephews, and, in the first century, this is the way that people believed things to work with God and humans. The ancient rabbis were unanimous in their teaching that punishment, or suffering, was the result of crime, or sin. Rabbi Ammi wrote, “There is no death without sin, and there is no suffering without iniquity.” If you were suffering, the rabbis taught, it was because you had committed a crime. And now had come the inexorable punishment. But the rabbis took it even further than this. For many of them taught that not only could a person be punished for their own sin, but also that a child could be punished for their parents’ sin. Some rabbis believed, for instance, that the untimely death of a child was the direct result of his mother’s dalliance in idolatry while he was still in the womb! This was the close connection that rabbis perceived between crime and punishment. And in the face of such crime, God’s justice could not and would not be commuted.
Thus, it is no surprise that, one day, as Jesus and his disciples are walking around and see a man born blind, they ask: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind” (John 9:2)? Jesus’ disciples knew the teaching of their rabbis well. There is no punishment without crime. But, in John 9, they weren’t following all these other rabbis, they were following a Rabbi named Jesus. And Rabbi Jesus had a different take on crime and punishment: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (John 9:3). This suffering was not the result of this sin or that sin. Rather, God was up to something in this suffering: he was using it to display his work.
The Greek word for “display” is phaneroo, from the word phos, meaning “light.” God, it seems, desired to bring this man darkened by blindness into the light of seeing. But God’s desire centered on not only the light of physical seeing, but the light of spiritual seeing as well. In other words, Jesus, through his eventual healing of this man born blind, desired to bring this man into the light of faith. And this is exactly what happens in the end: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” Jesus asks. “Lord, I believe,” the man responds (John 9:35, 38). And the man is brought into the light not only physically, but spiritually as well.
Perhaps you are in a time of suffering right now. If you do indeed know that your suffering is the result of some sin in your life, I would invite you to repent. But if the source of your suffering is somewhat more ambiguous, maybe you should ask God to shed some phos on your pain. Ask him, “Where are you seeking to display your work in my life?” And then wait. And trust. And yes, even rejoice. For God is using you and your pain to display his work. And, if you ask me, that’s a pretty special privilege.
I ran across a statistic the other day that caught my attention and hurt my heart. In a recent study, the National Center for Health Services found that a full 40 percent of children are now born out of wedlock in the United States. Compare this to statistics just 55 years ago, and you find a 700 percent increase in children born to unmarried parents. This is certainly frightening. And it is certainly against God’s Word and will. However, before some merely decry the demise of our society and condemn the transgression of our culture, we should perhaps reflect on how to considerately, gracefully, and thoughtfully gage a response. For although such a statistic does indeed call for a response, any response, in light of the gravity of this foreboding fact, should be a carefully crafted one.
In our reading for today from John 8, Jesus is drawn into what must have seemed to him to be a tragic situation. “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery” to Jesus (verse 3). Now, although I do not have the statistics for first century Jewish women who engaged in sexual activity outside of marriage, I feel fairly confident that they were significantly lower than 40 percent. For in first century Jewish culture, to have a woman participate in this kind of sexual immorality earned her what would have been better than the equivalent of a scarlet letter. For the punishment for such an immoral act was stoning. Thus, the religious leaders say to Jesus: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say” (verses 4-5)?
Before proceeding with the story, we must note a peculiarity concerning this woman’s charge. “This woman was caught in the act of adultery,” the religious leaders arrogantly announce. With whom? After all, this sin is a two person transgression. And the Mosaic Law, to which the religious leaders so smugly refer, clearly mandates, “Both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10). However, the intentions of the religious leaders do not center on upholding the integrity of Biblical Law. Rather, their intentions are more sinister. “They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing Jesus” (verse 6). For stoning this woman would break Roman Law, the secular law of their land. But refusing to carry out a death penalty would break Mosaic Law, the very law of God. The religious leaders are hoping to trap Jesus between the Law of God and the Law of Rome.
Jesus, however, is not so easily cornered. “If any one of you is without sin,” he replies, “let him be the first to throw a stone at her” (verse 7). Facing a relatively rare, at least in the first century, statistical anomaly of a Jewish woman caught in adultery, Jesus responds with another statistic: that of those who sin. And that statistic, whether it’s in the first century or the 21st century, has always hovered right at 100 percent. Well, 99.99999999999 percent (with some more 9’s in there as well). For there was one person who did not fall prey to this somber statistic. And he was the one who quoted it. Jesus, however, does not use his perfection to condemn this woman, but to forgive her: “Has no one condemned you?” Jesus asks. “No one sir,” the woman replies. “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin” (verse 11).
I’ve never really liked this translation of Jesus’ final words to this woman. “Go now and leave your life of sin,” although it’s eloquent, doesn’t really capture the sense and significance of the Greek. A more wooden translation would read: “Go from the now and stop sinning.” Even if this translation may seem a bit awkward, I don’t think its profundity can be overstated. Jesus says, in response to this woman’s sin, “Go from the now.” In other words, Jesus is telling this woman, “The way things are now are not the way they have to be. You can leave your present life mired in sin and brokenness. You can go from it. Your statistic of sin need not be permanent. It can change.” And here is the hope of this passage. It is hope for the 40 percent of unwed parents who live in this country and hope for the 100 percent of sinners who live in this country. Your sin need not enslave you, trap you, or rule you. The way things are now are not the way things have to be. For you can go from your “now.” You can go from your now and walk into freedom: freedom that is in Christ and through the cross. So, whatever sinful statistic is suffocating your spirit today, walk away from it. Go from your now. And remember, Jesus will be leading you the whole way.
On my desk, I usually keep one or more bottles of water. As a man who has a not-so-secret love affair with coffee, water on my desk reminds me that, in order to maintain my health and hydration, I can’t just drink the black stuff, I also have to drink the clear, and better for my kidneys, stuff. Melody, however, has called into question my affinity for bottled water. “Why can’t you just drink water out of the tap?” she asks me. The answer, of course, is that San Antonio tap water… Well, let’s just say I’ve tasted better. In that way, I suppose I’m a bit of a snob. Even if it costs me a little bit extra, I’ll take the clean taste of purified bottled water over the chalky taste of our tap water any day.
In the first century, people did not have the luxury of having bottled water on their desks or water coolers in their offices. In fact, any relatively clean water was a luxury. In the Ancient Near East especially, which is an arid area to this day, to have clean drinking water was a precious privilege, not a common commodity. And to use this water for something other than drinking? Unthinkable. Unthinkable, that is, unless it was used for a very special purpose.
The Jewish religious calendar contained three primary feasts. One was the Feast of Passover, commemorating God’s rescue of the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt. The second was the Feast of Weeks, where the Israelites would thank God for his providence at the onset of the harvest. And then finally there was the Feast of Tabernacles, in which the Israelites commemorated God’s gracious provision to them while they were wandering in the desert during the Exodus. According to ancient Jewish sources, a very moving and extravagant ceremony accompanied the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. “A golden flask…did one fill with water from Siloam. When they reached the Water Gate, they blew a sustained…blast on the horn. The priest went up on the ramp…and would pour out the water as libation all eight days” (Mishnah Sukkah 4:9). Did I hear this correctly? A priest would pour out valuable water from Siloam, most certainly suitable for drinking? Yes. Such was the pageantry of the Feast of Tabernacles. And the priest would explain the symbolism of such a profligate performance when he shouted, “With joy will you draw from the wells of salvation.” Water, poured out, symbolized the very salvation of God.
In our reading for today from John 7, we read this account: “On the last and greatest day of the Feast…” (verse 37). What feast is this? The Feast of Tabernacles, of course (cf. verse 2). “On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink’” (verse 37). Can you imagine the moment? The priest pours out precious water as part of the pomp and circumstance of the Feast of Tabernacles, and as it falls to the ground, and as people with parched lips look on longingly, Jesus announces, “Thirsty? I have water for you to drink. But this is not water to wet your whistle, this is water to saturate your soul. For this is the water from the very wells of salvation. And just as the priest poured out water to celebrate God’s salvation at the Feast of Tabernacles, I will pour out the water of my life on the cross to win God’s salvation.” As the Psalmist prophesies, using words that are meant to be placed on the lips of Jesus himself, “I am poured out like water” (Psalm 22:14).
But Jesus continues: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him” (verse 38). Because Jesus has poured out the water of his life on the cross, our souls need never be parched. For a gusher of Jesus’ water of salvation can run through our beings. And so, the same question Jesus asked of those gathered for the Feast of Tabernacles, he also asks of us: “Thirsty? I have poured out the water of my life so that you can drink from the water of salvation.” So drink deeply. For this is a source of water that never runs dry. For this is a source of water that is the very grace of God. And it doesn’t even taste chalky.
Promises, promises. How many promises are made only to be broken by the morass of reality and life? “I’ll meet you there at three,” the plumber promises. At four, we’re still waiting. “This project should take two months,” the contractor pledges. Four months later, we’re wondering why our kitchen cabinets still don’t have any doors. “The check’s in the mail,” the client vows. Sure it is. We’ve all heard that one before.
We live in a world of broken promises. This seems especially true in politics. The promises of politicians often appear to be nothing but outlandish guarantees mixed with unrealistic expectations. Woodrow Wilson, for example, when running for president, promised to keep the nation out of World War I. Franklin Roosevelt promised to keep the nation out of World War II. Whoops. Then there was Herbert Hoover’s 1928 pledge to end poverty. Then October 28, 1929 hit. So much for that promise. But even the Great Depression didn’t stop Lyndon Johnson from recycling this same promise in 1964 as he promised to win the war on poverty. And we’re still waiting.
It’s easy to understand our pessimism toward promises. After all, others break their promises to us and we break our promises to others. There are always reasons we break our promises, of course. Sometimes we run out of time. Sometimes we run out of money. Sometimes we just plain forget. Sometimes we never intended to keep our promises in the first place. And sometimes, our promises seem so outlandish and so unrealistic, that they strain the bounds of even the most trusting naiveté.
Such seems to be the case in our reading for today from John 6. Jesus makes this promise: “I am the bread of life,” Jesus announces. “He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in my will never be thirsty…I am the bread that came down from heaven” (verses 35, 41). Never go hungry? Never be thirsty? Bread that comes down from heaven? That sounds about as realistic to me as a pledge to end poverty. And so the people listening to Jesus, themselves familiar with the pervasiveness of preposterous pledges, respond with skepticism: “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know. How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’” (verse 42)? “Come on, Jesus,” they’re saying, “You can’t pull the wool over our eyes with this kind of outlandish statement. We weren’t born yesterday, you know. This is sure to be a broken promise.” As John regretfully records: “On hearing this promise, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it’” (verse 60)?
One of the most poignant statements in the writings of the great church father Augustine comes in his admission that he once thought, along with the incredulous disciples of John 6, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Augustine writes of his initial impression of Christ and his promises: “As I was passing into early manhood, the more defiled by vain things I became as I grew in years. I could not imagine any substance, but that which could be seen with these eyes. I thought not of you, O God, under the figure of a human body” (Confessions VII:1). Christ, come down from heaven? God in human flesh? “No way,” was Augustine’s initial answer. Nothing but some empty promises.
The Apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 1:20: “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ.” “God keeps his promises,” Paul says. They can never and will never be broken. Our call, then, is to trust in these promises, even when these promises seem to be outlandish and hard. For no matter how outlandish and hard they may seem, they’re still true. After all, these promises are spoken to us not by some politician, but by our living Lord. So lean on his promises today. In the end, you won’t be disappointed. And that’s a promise.
The winter of 2004-2005 was a warm one. But it wasn’t the temperatures outside that were soaring; rather, it was the fevers of countless thousands around the United States as they came down with winter’s most antagonistic ailment: the flu. The Chiron Corporation, based out of Great Britain and the world’s second leading supplier of the flu vaccine, had its supply suspended by the US government early in the flu season when worries about the safety its vaccine arose. This left only domestic suppliers distributing the vaccine, effectively cutting our supply of this much needed inoculation in half. The result? At nearly every clinic doling out the vaccine, there were long lines full of worried patients hoping to receive their shot first before the preciously scarce supply ran out and the flu wreaked havoc on their health.
In our text for today from John 5, we read of a man who had been invalid for some 38 years (see verse 5). And although John does not tell us what his precise malady was, we can surmise that he was at least lame, if not paralyzed.
Now, if you read the story of this invalid man carefully, you may have noticed an anomaly in your text. This man’s story begins in verse one, proceeds to verse two, then on to verse three, and then verse…five? Yes, verse five. What’s the deal with this? Did someone forget how to count? Was the number four unlucky and so they decided to leave it out, kind of like the thirteenth floor at a Las Vegas hotel?
The modern day chapter and verse divisions of the Bible come down to us from a man named Stephen Langton, who was the Archbishop of Canterbury from 1207 to 1228. When he first divided John 5 into verses, there was indeed a verse four that read thusly: “From time to time an angel of the Lord would come down and stir up the waters. The first one into the pool after each such disturbance would be cured of whatever disease he had.” Since Langton’s enumeration of this text, however, scholars have discovered better and older manuscripts which leave these words out. Indeed, even many of the ancient manuscripts which do include them only do so with an asterisk, marking these words as non-original. Thus, most modern versions of the Bible either include verse four only as a footnote, or not at all.
Despite the fact that these words were probably not part of John’s original gospel, they do provide us with valuable information concerning the superstitious air that surrounded the Pool of the Bethesda. The legend went like this: The first one into the pool when it bubbled received the pool’s precious and healing vaccination. Everyone else was out of luck. You can imagine the long lines that formed around this pool. For this pool’s bubbling elixir was scarcer than a flu vaccine.
The problem for the invalid man of John 5, then, would have been clear enough: Due to his ailment, he could never make it into the pool fast enough to receive its precious healing. In fact, he could not make it to the pool at all. Thank God he didn’t need to. Because rather than making it to the pool, one day, a man named Jesus makes it to him. And he makes it to him with words of healing: “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk” (verse 8). And the man does.
Is there, or has there ever been, a place in your life where you wonder if will “make it?” Make it to the next paycheck. Make it to the next meeting. Make it through the sickness. Make it to the end of the week when today’s only Monday. The promise of John 5 is that the point at which we feel as though we just can’t “make it” is precisely the point at which Jesus makes his way to us. He makes his way to meet our needs, comfort our pains, and even forgive our sins. In fact, some time after Jesus heals this man, he meets up with again. And the way John describes their second encounter is worth noting: “Later Jesus found the man at the temple” (verse 14). Jesus sought. And Jesus found. He made it to the man he was looking for. And he’s made it to you too. So tell Jesus what’s on your mind today. He’s right next to you to listen and to help.
Oil and water. Night and day. Sweet and sour. Republicans and Democrats. Longhorns and Aggies. Some things just don’t go together.
Galileans and Samaritans. This was the “oil and water” combination of the first century. These two people groups despised each other. The Galileans considered the Samaritans spiritual “half-breeds.” According to 2 Kings 17:24-41, Samaritans were the result of intermarriages between Gentiles and Jews after Assyria exiled the bulk of the Jewish nation in 722 BC and brought in Gentiles to live alongside a remnant of Jews still in Israel. When these Jews intermarried with these foreign people, they also began worshipping their foreign gods. Thus, Samaritans were born. And hostilities between Galileans, who were pure-breed Jews, and Samaritans, who were half-breed Jews, only intensified with time. Allow me to share two examples, both from a first century Jewish historian named Josephus.
In AD 9 during the Passover feast, a group of Samaritans snuck into the temple at Jerusalem, the Galilean place of worship, and scattered human bones over the temple floor, which, understandably, dramatically increased tensions between these two people groups (cf. Antiquities, 18.29-30). Then, in AD 50, a Galilean man was brutally murdered while on his way to worship in Jerusalem. This so enraged the Galileans against the Samaritans that Josephus records that the Galileans “massacred them, sparing no one regardless of their age” (cf. Jewish War 2.232-237). Needless to say, the relationship between the Galileans and Samaritans was shockingly hostile.
“Now Jesus had to go through Samaria” (John 4:4). Of course he had to go through Samaria. For Jesus was a Galilean (cf. Matthew 2:19-23). And no Galilean would ever willingly travel through Samaria unless travel plans absolutely demanded it.
While traveling, Jesus meets a Samaritan woman and tries to strike up a conversation. Her response is telling: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman” (John 4:9). This woman can simply not imagine that a Galilean would want to talk to a Samaritan.
In spite of strained national and political relations, and in spite of the cultural and religious mores that divide them, Jesus presses on. He talks to her about her relationally broken life (for this woman had been married five times and now had a live-in boyfriend) as well as, on a lighter note, worship differences that separate Galileans and Samaritans. Following their conversation, this woman finally responds, “I know that Messiah (called Christ) is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us” (John 4:19, 25). And then, Jesus drops his bomb: “I who speak to you am he” (John 4:26).
The gospel of John is well known for preserving the “I am” sayings of Jesus. “I am the bread of life” (John 6:35). “I am the light of the world” (John 8:12). “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11). Many biblical scholars see these statements as a testament to Jesus’ divinity. For in Exodus 3:14, we learn that “I am” is God’s given name. Thus, Jesus appropriates God’s name as his name. The first “I am” statement in John’s gospel, however, is not be found in John 6, or in John 8, or in John 10. No, it is to be found in John 4:26: “I who speak to you am he.” A more wooden translation would read, “I am! This is the one speaking to you.” This, then, is a forthright and unequivocal statement of Jesus’ divinity. And he shares it not with a fellow Galilean, but with a half-breed Samaritan.
As Jesus finishes his conversation with this woman, John records that his disciples are “surprised to find him talking with a woman” (John 4:27). I’m sure they would have been even more surprised to know what he was talking about with this woman. For Jesus was telling this woman that he was the God of the universe.
God often says of himself, “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Exodus 3:6). God, it seems, is the God of many. Other names can be lined up behind God’s “I am” as well. The God of Moses. The God of David. The God of Daniel. The God of Galileans. The God of Samaritans. Our God is the God of all. And our God desires to say, “I am your God too.” Do you take him at his word?
On a shelf in our apartment, there sits a small toy tractor. It isn’t worth much. In fact, I bought it from the Dollar Store. But it has been a delight for practically every child who has visited us. In fact, one time, when we were still living in Corpus Christi, a mother stopped by with her two sons, Elijah and Jonas. Jonas, the younger of the two, as soon as he noticed the green of the tractor, became fixated on it and almost immediately headed over to grab it. His glee was palpable. He “drove” the miniature farming vehicle across our living room carpet, making motor noises all the while. Elijah, however, was not so amused. He headed for Jonas and, with grit and determination in his eye, yanked the tractor from his little brother’s hands.
It’s interesting, isn’t it? Up until the point Jonas began to play with our tractor, Elijah showed no sign of interest in our cut rate toy. But as soon as it became precious to Jonas, it became prized to Elijah. And so, he had no choice. He had to ruthlessly commandeer the tractor from his little brother. What led to the value of our tractor skyrocketing so suddenly? Well, it seems that jealousy is not a sin reserved just for adults. Rather, it is a temptation that troubles even the youngest of our children.
In our reading for today from John 3, we find a prophet named John the Baptist in the midst of a promising season of ministry. The gospel writer tells us that “people were constantly coming to be baptized” (verse 23) which, when your last name is “the Baptist,” is probably a sign that your ministry is doing well. But jealousy concerning John’s ministry begins to subtly creep in. “Some of John’s disciples…came to John and said to him, ‘Rabbi, that man who was with you on the other side of the Jordan – the one you testified about – well, he is baptizing, and everyone is going to him’” (verses 25-26). The complaint of John’s disciples can be summarized thusly: “John, Jesus is killing our ministry potential! Our baptisms are down 25% from this time last year while his are up 37%. Those baptisms could have been ours!”
Sound familiar? Jealousy is a way of life for many. Except that our jealousy usually centers on things far less essential and far more mundane than how many people are being ministered to. How much money somebody else makes. The job that somebody else works. The complexion that somebody else has. These are the things that many of us find ourselves jealous of. Our executive director, Greg Styles, recently bought himself a brand new Chevrolet Silverado Crew Cab Texas Edition with a spray-in bed liner. When I saw it, I have to confess, a twinge of jealousy welled up from somewhere inside of me. It’s so clean and has that new truck smell. It has so many options. And, as a Texas Edition, it’s so big! It’s much bigger than my 2005 base model Regular Cab Chevy Silverado. That’s why tomorrow, I’m going to go and find me a Silverado, Alaska Edition. Alaska’s bigger than Texas, right?
John, when his disciples fling darts at Jesus with their jealous words, refuses to play along. “He must become greater; I must become less” is John’s simple response (verse 30). Simple as these words may be, however, they are certainly not easy. For our human nature desires greater things, not lesser things.
Yet, when we are instructed to become “less” by John, we are not being asked to do anything that Jesus himself has not already done. The Greek word that John uses for “less” is elattoo. The author of Hebrews employs this same word when he writes, “But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9). The word for “lower” is also elattoo. Jesus, the author of Hebrews says, unjealously lowered himself to this earth so that we did not have to be lowered in the ground forever because of death. Now, we are called to unjealously lower ourselves to proclaim his greatness. And, as elattoo as that task may sometimes be, it still seems pretty great to me.
As a teacher, my wife Melody is always trying to make her classroom at Concordia the best that it can be. That is why she loves buying General Mills products. You may have heard of their “Box Tops for Education” program where each box top you clip and mail in is worth ten cents for the school of your choice to assist them in purchasing everything from books to computers to playground equipment. And so, Melody is always reminding me, “Don’t forget to clip the box tops!” And, as her dutiful and doting husband, I always assure her that I will do my best to remember.
That is why I was surprised when, a couple of months ago, I found Melody rummaging through our trash. “What are you doing?” I asked with a tinge of cynicism in my voice. “Looking for box tops,” she answered. “But why?” I shot back, “I’ve told you that I’ll do my best to remember to clip them for you.” “Yes,” she responded, “But you’re always forgetting. I’ve gotten to the point where I just don’t trust you to clip them anymore.”
“I just don’t trust you anymore.” Even though these words didn’t concern me all that profoundly because they were spoken about some relatively minor box tops, depending on their context, these words can rend a heart. For they usually come from a person who has been betrayed so profoundly, or hurt so deeply, or let down so consistently that all faith that they once placed in someone has now evaporated. “I just don’t trust you anymore.”
In our text for today from John 2, we read about a time when Jesus’ ministry was skyrocketing in popularity. “Many people saw the miraculous signs Jesus was doing,” John says, “and believed in his name” (verse 23). The Greek word for “believed” is pisteuo, meaning “faith” or “trust.” In other words, the crowds that adored and applauded Jesus had come nowhere near the point of not being able to trust Jesus anymore.
Sadly, the same thing cannot be said for Jesus’ estimation of those who so readily revered him. For John continues, “But Jesus would not entrust himself to them” (verse 24). The Greek word here for “entrust” is also pisteuo. Thus, although the people trusted in Jesus, Jesus did not trust in the people.
But why? Why would Jesus be so cruel as to say something like, “I just don’t trust you anymore”? John tells us that Jesus “knew all men” (verse 24). In other words, Jesus knew of their sinfulness, he knew of their depravity, he knew of their malicious objectives, and he knew that, at the moment he did finally entrust himself to them, their shouts of adulation would quickly dissipate into cries of “Crucify him!” Thus, Jesus did not entrust himself to the people…at least not yet. But this was soon to change. Because Jesus, even though he has no good reason to trust people, for people are sinful and depraved and malicious and fickle, is nevertheless bent on trusting them anyway. He nevertheless is bent on trusting us anyway. As the apostle Paul writes, “We speak as men approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel” (1 Thessalonians 2:4). And the Greek word for “entrusted” is none other than pisteuo. Christ trusts us, Paul says. And he trusts us with something much more precious than ten cent box tops. He trusts us with the very message of his salvation. He trusts us with the very message of his cross. And he trusts us with this most precious message, not because we deserve such trust, but because he loves us.
So, now that Jesus has trusted you, the question becomes: What will you do with this precious trust of the gospel? Will you entrust it to others even as it has been entrusted to you? I pray that you will. Because if there’s one thing we could all use more of, it’s a little more trust.