“Now in Joppa there was a disciple whose name was Tabitha, which in Greek is Dorcas. She was devoted to good works and acts of charity. At that time she became ill and died. When they had washed her, they laid her in a room upstairs. Since Lydda was near Joppa, the disciples, who heard that Peter was there, sent two men to him with the request, “Please come to us without delay.” So Peter got up and went with them; and when he arrived, they took him to the room upstairs. All the widows stood beside him, weeping and showing tunics and other clothing that Dorcas had made while she was with them. Peter put all of them outside, and then he knelt down and prayed. He turned to the body and said, “Tabitha, get up.” Then she opened her eyes, and seeing Peter, she sat up. He gave her his hand and helped her up. Then calling the saints and widows, he showed her to be alive. This became known throughout Joppa, and many believed in the Lord. Meanwhile he stayed in Joppa for some time with a certain Simon, a tanner.” – Acts 9:36-43
“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.” – John 10:22-30
For the last couple of weeks at the other churches I have been preaching sort of a mini-series of sermons – I didn’t plan it that way, it just kind of happened because that’s how the scripture readings fell – and this week’s scripture readings follow nicely on that series. So bear with me and I’ll fill you in on the highlights.
Over the past month or so, our scripture readings have included Jesus’ death and resurrection, Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus (a kind of death-to-the-old-life, birth-to-a-new-life kind of experience), and the story of Jesus confronting Peter after his resurrection about Peter’s denying Jesus three times on the night of his arrest, asking Peter ‘do you love me?’ and offering Peter forgiveness and a second chance. So for the past few weeks it’s all been about dying to the old and living to the new.
And in these stories the same themes keep cropping up: (1) Jesus is alive; (2) Jesus is Lord; and (3) Jesus is calling. Specifically, Jesus is calling people to repentance – an old-fashioned word meaning to ‘change course’ or ‘change direction’. We see this change of direction in Saul’s life after his conversion, and in Peter’s life after he is forgiven. I’ll going to get back to these three points, but for now let’s get to today’s scriptures.
We have two readings for today: I’ll start with the reading from John and use the reading from Acts to help bring out the meaning in John.
John writes: “The time came for the Festival of Dedication…” – which is an old-fashioned name for Hanukkah. So it’s winter-time. Jerusalem doesn’t get the kind of blizzards we get during the winter, but it was probably cold and windy and a bit damp.
And John says, “Jesus was walking in the temple in the Portico of Solomon”. The portico was like a covered hallway with pillars holding up the roof… if you think of the Harry Potter movies, some of the school hallways that have open windows on one or both sides, it’s that kind of thing. It would offer some protection from the elements (though not from the cold) and it gave covered space to move around in and often to sit in.
As Jesus and the disciples are walking through, all of a sudden Jesus finds himself surrounded by the Jewish religious leaders. John says, “the Jews gathered around him”. When John talks about ‘the Jews’ he means the Jewish religious leaders who opposed Jesus. This group might have included the high priest, the temple priests, scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, any or all of the above. John is not being anti-Semitic when he says ‘Jews’ – John was Jewish himself, so was Jesus and so were all the disciples. So it would not be right to read this passage as anti-Jewish – in fact what it really shows is how much the leaders of the Jewish nation had become alienated from the people they were leading. (Sound familiar?)
And the leaders say to Jesus, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” And Jesus answers, “I have told you, and you don’t believe.”
…which is kind of an odd statement. There’s no place in the Bible where Jesus stands up in front of the religious leaders and says, “I am the Messiah!” The only time Jesus actually says he’s the Messiah is when he’s talking to the Samaritan woman at the well, (John 4:25-26) but none of the Jewish leaders witnessed this. There’s one other passage when Peter says Jesus is the Messiah (Matt 16), and Jesus answers “My Father in heaven has revealed this to you” but he tells his disciples not to tell anyone.
So how did the religious leaders hear that Jesus was the Messiah? Here are a few possibilities:
- They had John the Baptist’s testimony. “…I am not the Messiah, but I have been sent ahead of him.” (John 3:28) John made it clear he was preparing the way for the Messiah.
- They knew Jesus had healed a paralyzed man. We know they knew this because they confronted Jesus about healing on the Sabbath. Now here’s a man who hadn’t walked in 38 years, suddenly healed – which should have been an indicator that something out of the ordinary was going on – and all they cared about was ‘it was Saturday’?
- Jesus answered saying, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” (John 5:46-47) Jesus brings up Moses because Moses is the one who wrote about the Sabbath – it’s part of the Ten Commandments. But Moses also wrote about the Messiah, and they missed it! And Jesus is saying if they really believed Moses, they would believe Jesus too.
- They knew Jesus healed a man who was blind from birth.
- This action divided the Pharisees, because healing the blind was considered the greatest of miracles. John tells us, “Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And they were divided.” (John 9:16)
- They knew Jesus had raised the daughter of a synagogue ruler from the dead. (Matthew 9:25) Jesus told people who witnessed the miracle not to repeat the story… but word got around anyway.
So even if you set aside all the claims Jesus made – like ‘I am the bread of life’, ‘I am the good shepherd’, ‘I am the light of the world’, ‘I am the resurrection and the life’ – even if you set aside all that, there are still the miracles. Who else but the Messiah could give sight to the blind or bring life to the dead?
Hold that thought for a moment, and let’s turn to our lesson from Acts.
In this reading we meet a disciple named Tabitha who lived in Joppa, which was a seaside town near modern-day Tel Aviv. Tabitha’s name means ‘gazelle’ – a creature of grace and beauty. She was one of the first Christians, and Luke says her life overflowed with goodness and acts of mercy. She made clothing for people in need, and she gave generously to the poor. When she died suddenly the whole community grieved.
The people heard Peter was staying in a nearby town so they sent men to go get him, and Peter came. He heard everyone weeping, and they showed him all the things Tabitha had made for the poor, and they told him all about her. Peter was obviously moved by all of this. And they showed him Tabitha’s body. When they did, Peter sent them out, and got down on his knees and prayed. And then he looked at Tabitha’s body and said, “get up!” And she did! Can you imagine the rejoicing as Peter presented Tabitha to her friends alive?
Luke says the news of this miracle spread throughout Joppa, and many people believed in Jesus because of it. We can imagine how fast the news spread! Can you imagine if something like that happened in Carnegie? How fast would news spread, and how far would it go? “Story at 11” right?
But notice the people of Joppa did not put their faith in Peter. They put their faith in Jesus. They knew Jesus was the source of resurrection power. There was no question in their minds. They knew: Jesus is alive. Jesus is Lord. And Jesus is calling. They got it.
So how is it, with so much more evidence, eyewitness observations, and direct quotations, the Jewish religious leaders missed the message?
Jesus was right: he had told them. They just didn’t believe.
It’s always been a mystery to me how educated, intelligent men – religious scholars who spent their lives studying God’s word – saw the miracles Jesus performed and heard Jesus teaching the Word of God with absolute accuracy – how could they not know the Son of God when they looked him in the eye? (I also notice it didn’t surprise Jesus.)
In our passage from John, Jesus gives a few reasons.
- They weren’t listening. Jesus had spoken plainly, and backed up his words with actions. They could look at a blind man who had been given his sight – but they called Jesus a blasphemer, the son of the devil. Their ears were closed and their eyes were closed. There comes a point where Jesus says, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind,” (John 9:39) and the Pharisees immediately jumped on this, knowing he was talking about them.
- They were ignoring the evidence. Jesus said, “the works I do… bear witness… but you do not believe…”
- They didn’t follow Jesus. They were not interested in following Jesus. In fact they made fun of people who followed Jesus. They accused Jesus’ follwers of being easily deceived, or being under a curse.
- What’s worse… they tried to prevent other people following Jesus. Jesus talks about ‘the sheep of his hand’ – speaking of his people, his followers. The religious leaders didn’t want to be Jesus’ sheep, they wanted to have More accurately, they wanted to steal sheep. They were sheep rustlers, spiritually speaking. That’s why Jesus says ‘no one will take my sheep out of my hand’ and ‘no one has the power to seize my sheep out of the Father’s hand’. Jesus is putting them on notice: their days of rustling God’s sheep are over. (And that’s ‘plain speaking’.)
And then Jesus gives it to them really straight. He says: “I and the Father are one.”
That’s where our scripture reading ended today. But in the very next verse the religious leaders pick up stones to stone Jesus for blasphemy, for claiming to be one with God.
So what’s our takeaway from all this?
For starters, whatever the religious leaders did that day – do the opposite!
- They didn’t listen to God’s word, but we can.
- They didn’t believe the evidence of their own eyes, but we can.
- For 2000 years of history there has been evidence – people willing to give up their lives for Jesus’ sake – either in service like Tabitha did, or in martyrdom like Peter did. People don’t give up their lives for a lie. Jesus is alive, and Jesus is Lord.
- They didn’t follow Jesus, but we can.
- They tried to steal God’s sheep for themselves. We can avoid that kind of evil. We are not called to get people to follow us or to join us. Our job is to point people to Jesus. Yes, we’d like to have more people in the church. But our reason for being here is not to get more members. Our reason for being here is to be the family of Jesus here in Carnegie, pointing people to God.
Above all, and over all – we have can faith that Jesus speaks the truth when he says God’s sheep are safe in God’s hands. Nothing – no power, no authority – can steal us out of God’s hand. Take comfort in this, and take courage in it.
In this Easter season, remember the message: Jesus is alive! Jesus is Lord. Jesus is calling. And we can share this message in confidence that nothing will ever steal us out of Jesus’ hands. AMEN.
Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, 4/17/16