Easter 4C fell on April 17th this year. I did not get this blog post out because I was at Camp Dogwood serving as a spiritual director for Western NC Via de Cristo. The entire retreat weekend was one flowery Springtime extravaganza except for the last night and last morning. It was a scalding 37 degrees Fahrenheit as the sun rose over Lake Norman. As I led worship the keen breeze moved me to recall a favorite hymn, Each Winter as the Year Grows Older, yet an odd hymn to be on my mind as I stood in the 37 degree weather beside blooming azaleas, dogwoods, and vines. Renewal was all around me, but the cold made it feel anything but renewed.
Back in Zion, my second son was leading worship, preaching sermons I’d crafted for him several days earlier. He’s a “religious development” major in college exploring how to create meaningful faith formation, and as his good tastes allow, he also loves the hymn Each Winter As the Years Grow Older. So there he was in Zion Lutheran preaching a text about renewal in a climate-controlled space, while I was standing in an open-air portico amidst panoramic Springtime renewal. And while I was freezing by the lake I had the warmth of “I am the vine you are the branches” gospel text, but warm and snug Stephen got the wintry Easter 4C gospel text.
John’s gospel says,
“At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” (NRSV, John 10:22-30)
So we are at the “festival of the Dedication”—–a festival born some 200-ish years before this gospel text was inked into papyrus. We celebrate the end of the desecration of the Temple by Antiochus Epiphanies, a Seleucid Greek king who pushed the Jews to adopt pagan rituals, practices, and gods, who even went a step further and erected an altar to Zeus in the Temple where sacrifices to the Olympian were regularly made. Antiochus Epiphanies (Antiochus IV) is no prize—essentially seeking to wipe out Jewish identity and culture. His nasty leadership was prime fuel for the Maccabean Revolts. And the Jews, led by Judas Maccabeus, ran him out of town on a rail and renewed the Temple to its intended purpose in 165 B.C. So this is the festival of the Dedication which we celebrate, and in the dead of winter she comes to us now as Chanukah.
Still, “It is Winter.” That’s what John says. And I can’t help but think that John is now speaking more of “winter” as a condition of our being rather than as a condition of meteorology or season. The questions that follow in the text belie this truth. The questions show us people caught in a winter of a spiritual sort. A people come to celebrate the renewal of the Temple, but do they themselves become renewed? The Temple is offered back to Israel’s God, but are the people offered back? The questions asked make us wonder, don’t they?
Aren’t the people standing there frozen in the past? Locked in ice? Held captive in a wintry time? Perhaps so much so that their hearts are frozen solid against God’s present activity taking shape in their present reality? Frozen in the past and “wintered” in the present—it’s one rotten predicament. It’s the predicament at the festival of Dedication and it is our 21st century predicament, too, isn’t it?
Don’t we consecrate/dedicate, essentially celebrate the new, of our structures and facilities to God, yet hold our hearts to ourselves, staving off the new? Don’t we hold those hearts frozen against God meeting us in others, in Sacraments, in relationships? Don’t our frozen hearts attempt to “E.G.O.”—to edge God out? Don’t our frozen hearts lock us into wintry patterns that exclude and create strangers where God desires to create friends, where God desires to fashion neighbors our frigid hearts forge enemies?
My mom says of such people, “They have a religion of ceremony but no heart knowledge of Jesus.” They are frozen in ritual and their life is not incarnational. They celebrate the sacraments but do not live sacramentally. The external is offered to God, but the internal is offered to self. We seem to like this pattern of living very much—for we live it all the time.
And I think what keeps us in this pattern is that the consecrating renewal of the external costs us nothing, therefore risks nothing. But the internal, that’s another matter complete and entire. For the consecrating renewal of the internal, the heart, means change, means coming into the unknowns of faith, means risking that our hearts will be changed by the God to whom they have been offered.
I think we realize that once those internal consecrating renewals occur our ways of being, seeing, thinking, feeling, living, perceiving, loving, etc., will be changed (and perhaps be ever-changing) by the God to who those are offered. This makes us queazy. So much risk? So much uncertainty? So much doubt? Right then we feel it—Winter is coming, so we join the first century folk around us at the festival and bark at Jesus:
“How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Don’t beat around the bush, Jesus! Don’t take the long way around! Bullet it for us! Tell us straight out! “Tell us plainly!”
Frozen lines prompted from frozen people. Terrified lines prompted from a people afraid of risk. It is Winter. And we are frozen. To quote the hymn, “The chill sets in a little colder; The verities we knew seem shaken and untrue.”
Faith is risky and uncertain and fraught with doubt—and at times it can be downright scary. But isn’t it most terrifying when it calls us out of frigidity and threatens to warm us to God’s living presence in our midst? Isn’t it terrifying when the untamed God works new workings in our midst? And isn’t our response to hold our hearts even tighter to ourselves, to thrust them more deeply into the ice of empty ritual, black and white dogma, lifeless doctrine, and the perennial celebrations of consecrating renewals done in years long gone?
You can tell we have thrust our hearts more deeply into the ice when the thing we have to say to Jesus is, “Tell us plainly.” It’s our whiney, frustrated way of saying, “We’d rather not wrestle in faith, wrestle in doubt, wrestle with God.”
- “Tell us plainly,” is the voice of those less into faith and more into fact, less into restoration and more into maintenance, more into product and less into process.
- “Tell us plainly,” is the cry of the basely faithless, the default setting for those drunk on empiricism, disinterested in mystery.
- “Tell us plainly,” is the demand of those who don’t wish to be made uncomfortable by the unknowns of faith.
And there it is—-we imminently prefer comfort to risk. It is Winter. And Winter has frozen us in comfort. The ice has set our hearts as stone against risk. Yet Jesus is discontent with our condition and says troubling things:
“I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.”
There is incredible danger in reading this text with the assumption that we are “the sheep.” It all too true that the sheep are not available for the snatching, but aren’t they the ones who follow Jesus into uncertainty and into risk? Aren’t they the dependent ones who rely on a Shepherd for answers rather than demand of him, “Tell us plainly?” Aren’t they called by his voice into the unknowns of faith?
Jesus knew discomfort. Jesus was often uncomfortable. And if these are experiences of the Shepherd, aren’t they also experiences for the sheep?
And isn’t comfort what so often seeks to snatch us from the Shepherd? Isn’t comfort what keeps us frozen?
Perhaps this is why Jesus says shocking things to us like:
- Let the dead bury the dead. Luke 9:60
- Sell everything you have and give it to the poor. Matt 19:21, Luke 18:22, Mark 10:21
- Forgive 70 times 7. Matt 18:21-22
- Love one another as I have loved you. John 13:34, John 15:12
- The Son of Man must die. Mark 14:21-23, Luke 24:7, Matt 26:24
- Greater works than these you shall do. John 14:12-14
Hymns writers, William and Annabeth Gay, get it. I think this is what they wrote the most comforting uncomfortable words I’ve heard in any hymn.
O Child of ecstasy and sorrows,
O Prince of peace and pain,
Brighten today’s world by tomorrow’s,
Renew our lives again;
Lord Jesus, come and reign!
Some part of this should make us uncomfortable, shouldn’t it? For people of uncomfortable faith it certainly should.