August 2, 2015 Ninth Sunday After Trinity
St. John 7:14-44
When last we looked in on Jesus we saw the apogee of His popularity during His earthly ministry of three-plus years. In the Bread of Life discourse He informed the multitude that, “You must eat My flesh and drink My blood,” and the crowds began to thin.
They did not suspect He was commanding some bizarre ritual. No, they understood quite well that He was demanding radical commitment. Following the Christ was about more than wearing campaign buttons and waving pennants: “Vote Jesus for Messiah!”
Then as now, people focused on their material condition and paid little heed to their spiritual health. If this Jesus could spread more honey on their manna, if He could remove the heel of the Roman boot from their necks, if He could get the crooked tax collectors off their backs . . . well, you’re darned right, Lord, I’m with You all the way.
But . . . “Eat My flesh and drink My blood”? He is ordering them to identify with Him in such a consuming fashion that He would become their very life. They must abandon themselves and live in Him and through Him and for Him.
He is commanding them to entrust Him with their lives, for He will put them to a far better purpose than they ever would.
Well, now, next Sabbath? No, I just remembered I have to rotate the wheels on my donkey cart, or something.
Our Lord arrives in Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles and begins to do what rabbis do on such occasions, to teach. He attracts a crowd. His star did not fade immediately, of course, and He remains a curiosity, as we know from the multitudes at His triumphal entry.
What’s more, the Bread of Life discourse took place in Galilee, and word of His shocking declaration there may not yet have reached the majority in the capital.
A word about the way John presents Jesus at the feasts of Israel is in order. The evangelist mentions Jesus’ attendance at three Passovers, and likely a fourth, as that seems to be his referent for the “feast of the Jews” in chapter 5.
We find also a reference to a “Feast of Dedication,” or Hanukkah, in chapter 10, and the appearance at the Feast of Tabernacles before us here in chapter 7. Jesus set out on the long trek from Galilee to Jerusalem repeatedly because, like all faithful Jewish men, He considered it a duty to appear at the temple on these high holy days.
These trips are useful to us in presenting a chronology of the Lord’s ministry. They serve another purpose as well. John portrays Jesus as the fulfillment of the feasts. As we have seen, His body is the temple (2:21). He is the light of the world and the living water to which the Feast of Tabernacles speaks (7:38-39, 8:12, 9:5). He is God’s Passover Lamb (1:29, 36).
These festivals celebrate God’s gracious acts in history in favor of His covenant people and point forward to the most magnificent of them all, the advent of the Messiah who would erase the stain of sin from the creation.
John presents Jesus of Nazareth as that Messiah in whom the feasts are fulfilled, who will preside over that eternal feast in the glory of the Father and the Lamb.
At the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus begins to teach . . . and the people marvel. Matthew makes the same point in his gospel, but the two take different approaches. Both are interested in establishing the Lord’s authority, but Matthew contrasts Jesus’ teaching to that of the scribes.
They constantly cite pronouncements of ranking religious figures of earlier eras whereas Jesus’ authority is derived from no one. “Verily, verily, I say unto you . . .” He needs no case law to lend weight to His words.
In John’s gospel, the Lord’s hearers wonder at how He could have acquired such command of the Scriptures without attending one of the ivy-covered rabbinical schools or sitting under the teaching of a great rabbi.
Cock your ear and you’ll hear, behind the respect, a note of danger. One who has attained vast knowledge on so important a subject from no known source might be a threat. He bears watching.
Jesus, of course, does cite a source, but one too preposterous to be taken seriously: “My teaching is not Mine, but His who sent Me.”
In once again claiming a supernatural relationship to God the Father, He does nothing to set the Jewish authorities’ minds at ease. To their ears, it’s akin to His answering an indictment for theft by saying, “And that’s not all; I pulled off a few armed heists as well.”
But of course skeptics want to critique what they hear, to decide the question of validity for themselves. Jesus ratchets up the tension another notch: “If anyone wants to do (God’s) will . . .” His message, which originates on high, is not subject to human validation, it is self-authenticating.
Who will receive it? He who seeks to serve the Father. That one whose motives are pure will grasp instinctively the sacred truth of the words that tumble out of the Lord’s mouth. He will not split hairs and parse words but will clutch the wisdom of God to him like a coat of fleece on a raw winter’s day.
Is it not so today? Those who resist divine truth would thrust and parry over points of logic which will never be resolved . . . not on this side of glory, anyway. The earnest seeker picks up the Scriptures and begins to read and the scales fall from his eyes. This is no credit to him, for the Holy Spirit has enabled him to search and to grow, to learn and to know.
This matter of motive is paramount. Religious teachers seek their own glory and they yearn to receive it from men. Not so God the Son. I do not denounce others to exalt myself. I remember an old preacher friend of mine saying over coffee one day, “You and I have never done anything from an unmixed motive in our lives.”
I recall it so vividly because I knew it to be so true. This is why we still retain, after all these centuries, the split chancel. You hear the pure truth that comes from God from one side and the flawed interpretation of a fallible man from the other. Let never the two be confused.
I think of the old theologian who said, “I know I’m wrong about a lot of things. I just don’t know which ones.”
Jesus wants nothing less than honor from men. He knows our hearts too well. He would rather come down with a case of leprosy than the plague of human applause. His sustenance is His Father’s approval, won in the hardest school of obedience any man has ever known. You can trust every word He ever uttered because He does not need you to validate it.
He whose motive is pure – in a relative sense -- keeps the law, for the law expresses God’s will. The Jews revere Moses as law-giver, yet they violate the law he brought and taught. Jesus produces an example, one from close to home: They’re out to kill Him . . . and murder is against the law.
He must be deranged: “You have a demon. Who is seeking to kill You?” But who is the real law-breaker? Even on the view of the authorities, He has violated the law only once, when on His previous visit He healed the man who had been lame for 38 years at the pool of Bethesda on the Sabbath.
Those authorities break the law when they circumcise on the Sabbath, which they do regularly. The law said a male child must be circumcised on the eighth day following his birth. For one born on the Sabbath, by their reckoning of time, the eighth day was the following Sabbath. They chose to observe one part of the code and ignore another.
Circumcision is a rite of perfecting: When the excess skin is pared away, the child is cleansed . . . and can be clean. How much more useful, then, to give back rather than take away . . . to give back to a man the use of his legs . . . to make him whole. The practical trumps the ceremonial, and grafts itself into the spiritual. Who but God . . .?
And, by the way, circumcision began not with Moses, whom you revere, but with Abraham, and so should have priority over what came later. Lurking in the background is the overarching truth they are willfully missing:
The One who came to fulfill the law, the Sabbath and the circumcision, the One who speaks on His own authority, the One who knows and follows perfectly the Father’s will . . . is arbiter over all. To deny Jesus on earth is to deny His Father on high.
Some may think Him demon-possessed; those would be the pilgrims from the Jewish dispersion who have traveled from afar to attend the festival. The Jerusalemites in the crowd, however, know their leaders, and seem to harbor little doubt that they are capable of murder. They are aware of the scathing reaction to Jesus’ Sabbath healing.
They go so far as to wonder if the authorities have more information about this mysterious rabbi. Might they know that He is in fact Messiah? Is that what has them rattled? We have to admit that He has performed wondrous signs. Who could do more?
But we know by now, you and I, that faith based in miracles is but an inch deep, a beginning and not an end. True faith eats His flesh and drinks His blood.
Still, for the Pharisees and the chief priests, messianic fever is burning far too hot. When Jesus claims to know God, to have been sent by Him, the time for action has come. They dispatch the temple guards to seize Him, but . . . His time has not yet come.
Jesus declares that He will soon disappear into a place where none can follow, precipitating still another misunderstanding.
On the final day of the week-long feast, the grand finale, if you will, the Lord proclaims, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.”
The Feast of Tabernacles, held in the autumn to celebrate the harvest, is no paltry county fair. It is the last festival on the calendar each year. It is, according to the first-century historian Josephus, “the holiest and the greatest festival among the Jews.”
The barley, the wheat, the grapes, all have been gathered. The people call it “the season of our gladness.”
It includes a daily water rite. The people bring their palm fronds and willows to the temple, make of them a thatched roof and march round the great altar. A priest takes up a golden pitcher, walks to the pool of Siloam and fills it with water.
He returns through the Water Gate as the people chant Isaiah 12:3: “With joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation.”
The priest carries the pitcher up to the altar and pours it out as an offering to God. A choir of Levites sings the Hallel – Psalms 113-118 – to the accompaniment of flutes. When they sing “O give thanks unto the Lord” (118:1) and “O work now then salvation” (118:25) and the closing phrase “O give thanks unto the Lord” (118:29) the worshipers shout and wave fronds toward the altar.
This pageant is at once a celebration of God’s good gift of water, a dramatized prayer for rain and a remembrance of the water that sprang from the rock at the touch of Moses’ rod.
Now, on the last day of the festival, the people march round the altar seven times to commemorate their ancestors’ seven laps round the walls of Jericho that brought those walls tumbling down.
For some in attendance, the link between Moses and Jesus has already snapped into place. When Jesus miraculously fed the 5,000, He was delivering manna, as the people believed Moses had done.
That association grows stronger in many minds with the Lord’s offer of water. Moses had provided it when he struck the rock in the wilderness. And had not Moses promised, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst, from your brethren. Him you shall hear . . .” (Deuteronomy 18:15)?
This latter-day prophet claims to have the same power, and He has already demonstrated His strength to back up His words with mighty acts. Might One greater than Moses be here?
And running through the story like a golden thread is the fulfillment theme. The evangelist leaves nothing to our imagination. He blares it like a foghorn: “But this He spoke concerning the (Holy) Spirit, whom those believing in Him would receive . . .”
God’s provision for His people in the wilderness, symbolized by the harvest celebration after they entered the Promised Land and pictured in the water-pouring rite at the Feast of Tabernacles, reaches its climax in Christ, the living water.
Jesus will dispense life in the Person of the Holy Spirit and this life will flow out of believers for the gain of others as God gathers in His disciples from the wilderness of sin. The fields will bloom with a riot of blessings as more and more enter through the portal of grace into the kingdom of God.
Have you received God’s mercy? Proclaim it.
Have you received God’s grace? Celebrate it.
Have you received God’s life? Share it.
If you participate in God’s life – if you eat His flesh and drink His blood – you are rich beyond measure. What do the rich do? The best of them practice philanthropy, the love of man. They scatter blessings among those who have not.
But the things they give will rust and rot; the blessings you pass on will abide forever.
What does Messiah bring? One thing He brings is division. Is He in thrall to a demon? Is He a prophet? Is He the Christ? He claims that He knows God and we do not. The chosen people know not God? What manner of arrogance is this?
In the crowd, factions form. Pharisees link arms with Sadducees: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
The evangelist draws from his bottomless well of irony once more: This man cannot be the Messiah; he hails from Galilee in the north. We all know Messiah will come from Bethlehem to the south. And the reader chuckles, knowing Bethlehem is Jesus’ birthplace . . . and, more than that, just as He says, He came from God.
Well, then, we know whence He comes but when Messiah – the real one – appears, we won’t know his origin.
The descendants of such as these are with us today, seeking God in mystery and spectacle, overlooking Him in a mother’s touch, a rose, a sunset . . . in the plain people whom He loves and who love Him.
This Jesus who came to fulfill the law fulfills the feasts as well. And because He does, on one soon-coming day we will all banquet at His table. His name be praised. Amen.