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One of the toughest things I have to live with is doubt. You might even say that there's a little bit of the agnostic in me. Now, if that's unsettling to you, consider this suspicion: and THAT is that all of us live with at least a little bit of doubt in our lives.
And yet, I take some comfort in knowing that I'm not alone. The scripture is filled with folks who faced the absence of certainty, who faced doubt. You don't need to look very hard for it.
Start on page one of Genesis, and before you've finished page two, the serpent is casting doubt in Eve's mind about the commandment of God to leave one tree alone.
God gave Adam and Eve only ONE commandment, and immediately they begin to question it, to doubt that it makes any sense.
The Hebrew slaves, on their way out of Egypt and headed for the promised land, spent most of their time doubting Moses. It's a wonder Moses accomplished as much as he did, considering all he had to put up with.
Now, doubt is a complicated matter. In its purest form it is an absence of faith. But in a more complex form it is the presence of uncertainty, the presence of ambiguity.
It's more comfortable to live our lives with everything all spelled out, crystal-clear, with no possibility of error. Wouldn't it be wonderful if everyone knew EXACTLY, without any doubt, how to raise children?
Wouldn't it be wonderful if we all knew EXACTLY, without any doubt, how to lead our lives?
Well, some folks do know, EXACTLY, without doubt, and unfortunately, a lot of those folks think that everybody else should live exactly like they do.
As United Methodists, we have doubt built into our theology. We believe that God leaves a whole bunch of decision-making up to us, to our reason, our experience, and our sense of tradition. And sometimes that can all get pretty murky.
But really, in some respects, I don't believe that Jesus intended it to be all that neat.
Sure, he laid out what would appear to be some straightforward rules and regulations in the sermon on the mount; but most of the time he was telling stories--parables--and expecting us to drawn our own conclusions.
Expecting us to muddle through our doubts and uncertainties.
Well, this morning we're going to do some more muddling. We're going to join Jesus in the presence of those who want neat answers.
Let's turn to the tenth chapter of the gospel according to John, beginning with the twenty-second verse. "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."
Jesus is supposedly minding his own business. We're not told that he's teaching or preaching or in any other way raising a ruckus. He's just THERE. So this should give us a quick hint that he's not going to be verbally attacked for anything that he has immediately done. Instead, some folks in need of certainty in their lives approach him.
"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."
Now when John identifies "the Jews" he's usually not referring to the Jewish people generally. He's usually referring to the Jewish authorities. So I would suspect that these are the Pharisees and the scribes and so on.
And in THAT context, we may wonder how objective they are in their questioning.
Although the request, "If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly," may seem to be the core of the message here, I would draw your attention to the question which precedes it, for the New Revised Standard Version and the King James Version give us different slants.
The NRSV asks, "How long will you keep us in suspense?" But the King James Version asks, "How long dost thou make us to doubt?"
And suspense can be positive, it can be upbeat, it can even show eagerness. But doubt, on the other hand, can throw a negative tinge on the request.
If we don't know who Jesus is, if WE have doubts, what kinds of doubts are those? Do we have feelings of suspense? Jesus IS a complex person. Well, at least I think so.
And although I do not doubt that he is the Messiah, there are passages of scripture that at times keep me in suspense regarding the person of Jesus. And after all, is this not to be expected of someone who is fully human and fully divine?
So we have suspense and we have doubt. And we have a bunch of folks who want a "plain" answer. But do they get it?
Jesus answered, "I HAVE told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me."
So what's he telling them? What's he telling US? In one of my favorite bible verses, the thirty-eighth verse of this chapter, he tells them, "even though you do not believe me, believe the works."
And I hear him telling them, "I could talk till I'm blue in the face, and you still might not believe me, or you might ignore me. But LOOK at what I'm DOING."
Jesus didn't just SAY love your neighbor; Jesus DID love his neighbor. Jesus loved every tax collector, prostitute, Samaritan, leper, you name it, that everybody else chose to avoid or ignore.
Even if he never said "love your neighbor," his works screamed so loudly he didn't NEED to say the words. And he never backed down from his words or his works. He carried them with him. All the way to the cross.
When I hear or read theologians go through all kinds of mental gymnastics to explain the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, that Christ died FOR us as a substitute for us, that he died in our place, I think that doctrine misses the point.
Because it is my contention that Christ did not only die for us as a SUBSTITUTE for us, but that Christ also died for us as an EXAMPLE to us. And that example tells me that THIS is what love is all about.
Love is giving so much of yourselves to the world, to others, that the evil in the world can't stand it anymore; and can be content only with your destruction. And it's a tough example to follow.
So what's the problem with these folks who want a plain answer? Jesus tells them:
"but you do not believe, because YOU do not belong to my sheep."
Now, does that mean that if they DID belong to his sheep, that they would believe? Is this something similar to joining a club? And all they need to do is join the club and they will believe?
As if, all we need to do is JOIN the United Methodist Church and we will believe what the United Methodist Church would have us believe? Fat chance.
Or do we have a chicken and egg dilemma going here? Which came first: believing or belonging? Do we belong in order to believe, or do we believe in order to belong? Or maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe the two automatically fit together. Personally, I like that idea. For me, it is like grace and salvation. I can't have one without the other. I am saved by God's grace.
So Jesus has told his questioners what their problem is. They don't believe because they don't belong. But he is helpful to them. He tells them what it means to belong.
"My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me."
And in HEARING the voice of Jesus, or the voice of God for that matter, we are talking about more than a physical act. We are also talking about a WANTING to hear, a NEED to hear. And that motivation moves us to an understanding and a relationship with God.
We're not talking about just seeing the words on a page of a Bible.
We're talking about a deep-felt need to figure out what it all means to us. Jesus had thousands, maybe even tens of thousands, physically hear his voice.
But I'm sure that among that multitude there were many who were just wishing that he would go away and leave them alone. Those who were threatened by his teachings. And beyond their physically hearing, DID they really hear?
And Jesus says of his sheep, "I know them." HOW does he know them? Does he know US? Have we sought to make ourselves known to him?
Of course, in our heads, we can acknowledge that God knows us, we can acknowledge that God knows everything, and is omniscient. But what does that DO for us in our hearts? I believe that the knowing of which Jesus speaks is a two-way street.
He could IDENTIFY those who WANTED to be known by him. Does GOD know that WE want to be known by God? Does our prayer life send those signals to God?
And finally, Jesus tells his questioners what those who belong to him do: "they follow me." They don't merely BELIEVE that Jesus is the Messiah, but they DEMONSTRATE it by paying attention to his teachings, by following his instructions.
And then Jesus goes on to tell those puzzled folks that those who belong to him are not just an earthly crowd. This is not just a short-term club who want to feel good while they wander around Judea with their new-found teacher.
"I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand."
You know, I have trouble with the concept of "eternity." Eternity is something that is simply beyond my comprehension. So I struggle to come to terms with the messages that Jesus is trying to send me when he talks about eternity.
When I was much younger, my parents often taught me, and my siblings, that education carried one of the greatest values on this earth. And they would clarify this by saying, "Nobody can take it away from you."
And when we have ANYTHING that no one can take from us, I believe that we have confronted eternity. And BELIEVING that we have something that can never be lost is to BELIEVE that we too will never perish, that we too can have eternal life.
Jesus preached eternal values. He told us that we can have those eternal values. He showed us that with those values we can be eternal.
But this doesn't come out of your garden-variety self-help book. This doesn't come from a here-today gone-tomorrow teacher. It comes from an eternal source.
"What my Father has given me is GREATER than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand."
What God gave Jesus is greater than all else. What God has given US is greater than all else. And NO ONE can snatch it out of God's hand. NO ONE can touch it.
It IS eternal.
And it is important to note here--and we find this throughout the gospel according to John--that Jesus does not pretend to be the source of our eternal values. He constantly gives God the glory.
But Jesus DOES establish his authority: "The Father and I are one." Well, I like Jesus' answers. But those who were listening did not. "The Jews took up stones again to stone him."
Maybe they had decided that he had not told them plainly that he was the Messiah. Or maybe they just didn't want to hear it. Maybe it was too troublesome to them to hear it. Or maybe they were still confused.
Do WE still look for plain answers to take away our doubts? Could anything be plainer than Jesus saying, "I HAVE told you. The works that I do." I suspect that Christians will always have some doubts, healthy doubts.
And that's why I keep reading about Jesus words and works: to learn more about him. But I would like to consider myself one of Jesus sheep: "My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me."
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