All Saints Margaret Street | Evensong & Benediction Sunday 22 September 2019

Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 22 September 2019


Readings: Ezra 1; John 17.14-36 

The Feast of Booths or Tabernacles, during which Jesus goes up to the Temple to teach, was one of the three great pilgrimage festivals in Jerusalem. It was the most popular of them, drawing large crowds to the city.   Originally it celebrated the completion of the harvest, but it had become a commemoration of God’s care for his people in the wilderness – hence the living in booths. And it had become filled with a strong sense of hopeful expectation: a foretaste of the age to come, of the final harvest.  

Its main ceremonies used the symbols of water and light.  Each day water was drawn from the pool of Siloam and carried up to the Temple in procession, while words from Isaiah (12.3)  were sung:  “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation”.  As the water was poured out over the altar, Zechariah’s prophecy (14.8): “On that day” living waters would flow out of Jerusalem was recalled.   At night the Temple courts were ablaze with lights – recalling the preceding verse (Zech. 14.7) with its promise of unending daylight: “for at evening time there shall be light.”

It sounds rather like the Easter Vigil: just the kind of worship high church Anglicans delight in. 

But what Jesus has to say and the response of various groups in his audience reveals a failure to understand, to recognize the presence of God at work, and in consequence a determination to eliminate one who is seen as a threat to the religious status-quo.  

Jesus’s teaching follows on from the healing of a paralytic on the Sabbath recorded in Chapter 5.  While the other gospels speak of many healing miracles, John takes just one such miracle and probes its meaning to the deepest level. He wants the reader not just to see the effect but to understand the sign and to believe. But the parallel with the other gospels is close.  Mark (3.1-6) records Jesus encountering a paralyzed man in the synagogue on the Sabbath. The religious authorities see an opportunity to test his obedience to the law. Jesus exposes the murderous intent that lies behind their religious zeal.  So far from being upholders of the law they are in fact murderers – and from then on they set about plans to kill him.  Such is the crisis created by the fact that the “light has come into the world.”  What Mark compresses into a brief recital is – in the 4th Gospel – developed with remorseless logic in these long arguments with and among Jesus’ contemporaries. 

Jesus hearers in the Temple wonder he speaks with such knowledge of the scriptures when he has had no rabbinic education:  “How is it that this man has learning, when he has never studied?” 

The scribes were authorized teachers, trained and accredited by accepted teachers before them. Jesus did not have this authorization. He had not taken the proper training. They conclude that he was that he was simply propagating his own ideas.  Jesus denies any such arrogance. If their charge was true, he would be seeking to establish his own reputation, to build up a school of followers. 

But he is not doing so. He speaks only as the representative of the one who sent him – the Father –  “My teaching if not mine but his who sent me.”  Those who speak on their own seek their iwn glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true and there is nothing false in him.”  His only desire is that people should glorify God.  

But how is this to be known?   Only the one, “who resolves to the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own.”  And what does it mean to do God’s will?  Commentators have answered this question in two ways – neither of which inevitably excludes the other. 

Earlier in the Gospel, in Chapter 6, during the great Bread of Life discourse which follows the sign of the Feeding of the 5,000, people ask Jesus: “What must we do to be doing the works of God?” He replies: “This is the work of God that you believe the one he sent.”  

Throughout John, the response Jesus seems to want is trust in his person and words, out of which, he is convinced, good works will issue. 

St. Augustine heard Jesus asking his hearers to place their trust in him as their essential move in doing God’s will and so to come to know the truth or untruth of his claim. 

Luther was convinced that “wanting to do his will:” is coming into Jesus’ church, listening to his Word there, believing in him, and so being filled with the Spirit to go out and obey him radically.  

The truth of Jesus’ claim can only be proved by accepting it. What he claims about himself and his relationship with the Father cannot be the product of any human reasoning or insight. It can only be a revelation from God and if it is to be accepted and understood as such. It is a call to total commitment in obedient and living faith. There is no other way by which God’s revelation of himself can be received. And attempt to validate the claim by reference to some generally accepted criteria is to foreclose the possibility of revelation and to return to “the world.”   Only by subjecting our understanding of truth to his can we come to the complete truth. Our prayer, our stance before this revelation, this call to belief, must be that of another who encounters Jesus in the gospel and is asked “Do you believe?” and who says: “Lord, I believe: Help my unbelief.” 

The other approach is to see the quest for belief as not simply a matter of the head, of thinking, of asking if this claim is reasonable, but of doing the will of the Father by living out the teaching of Jesus. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. There is a simplicity and winsomeness in Jesus’ teaching, in his way of life that is self-authenticating. Living in love, even towards one’s enemies, and living in faith in the divinity of Jesus, may not make immediate sense but the experience of countless Christians has been that this experience, this living proof in our own lives, comes to confirm the truth of Jesus. As St. John Chrysostom said:  “If anyone lives a virtuous life, he will know.”  To aspire after doing what is good with earnestness is sufficient.   

Jesus’ appearance in the Temple, his appearance in the world, his revelation of the being and call of God, creates a crisis. The Jews are not an exception – they represent us all. We have to abandon our intellectual and spiritual securities in order to come to him.  Those who do accept and obey the calling of God – who do his will – know that they are in touch with the truth. 

There follows a series of rapid-fire encounters with different groups, pilgrims, the people of Jerusalem, the religious leadership; some hostile, others not. But throughout there is a sense of misunderstanding on their part. 

Jesus confronts those who accuse him of breaking the law of Moses by healing on the Sabbath. He takes them on in their own terms with a rabbinic form of argument; from the lesser to the greater.  The requirement that a male child be circumcised on the eighth day overrode the prohibition of work on the Sabbath. If this was possible in the case of a sign of life in the people of God, then surely it must also be true of the giving of life. 

He addresses those who wonder if he can indeed be the Messiah but who dismiss this idea because they know where he comes from. There was a belief that the origins of the Messiah would be hidden – but they know that he comes from a no-account village in Galilee. But as we learn in the Gospel, Jesus’ true origin is in God. 

If the ordinary people misunderstand Jesus’ origins, the religious leaders fail to grasp his destiny, where he is going. They, too, can think only in this-worldly terms: ‘“Where does this man intend to go that we will not find him? Does he intend to go to the Dispersion among the Greeks, and teach the Greeks? What does he mean by saying, “You will search for me and you will not find me” and “where I am, you cannot come.”’  As long as they do not believe, they are unable to see that just as he has come from the Father, so he is returning to the Father; and that return will be way of the cross. 

As St. Paul says, this is folly to Gentiles and a stumbling block to Jews. Such an understanding of the ways and wisdom of God challenges all our ways of thinking.  But if accepted it revolutionizes not just the way we think about God but also about his world and its people and how we act towards them.