Jesus is walking through Solomon’s Porch during the festival of lights, or Hanukkah (verse 22-23). This place is important; it was the porch or portico on the east side of the Temple and was called the “Porch of Judgment.” From this location, the King would make his judgments and exercise justice for those who were brought before him. And here is Jesus strolling through this historic location, physically embodying justice in this place of justice -- something his life and teachings were all about.
And into this setting again comes the identity question: “Hey, Jesus, stop keeping us in the dark. If you’re the Messiah, just tell us straight out” (verse 24). My belief is that Jesus is getting pretty tired of these questions. This need to question Jesus’ identity is sometimes called the messianic secret of John. John has used the term messias two times to explain to non-Jews who Jesus is. It is the equivalent term to christos, or the anointed one. But the questioners still don’t get it.
When I was a child I asked some fairly obnoxious questions of my parents. They were pretty typical kid questions. “Why?” “What does that mean?” “How do you know?” I was asserting my need to question the reality around me. I would love to say that this need to question authority and test the limits of my perceived reality stopped in my early years but, like many others, at times I continue to need proof for statements that are made to me.
This is what is happening in this text. Jesus has given the people around him numerous examples of his identity (verse 25). He has performed miracles and has become the Word made flesh. He has had others question his identity repeatedly. This was normal at the time. Folks who taught or prophesied were often asked to give proof of their deeds and the power behind their gift. But the questions in this passage go beyond that. They are questioning not only his identity but if his power is verifiably from God (verse 25). And as I hear that doubt creep into their questions, I am reminded that doubt is a constant companion to faith.
Faith and Doubt Many in our communities of faith experience doubt. They doubt their abilities to overcome difficult situations, they doubt if they will make it through without succumbing to an old addiction, they doubt their friends or parents are aware of how much pain they are in, and they doubt God’s presence in their lives and their connections to God. Doubt and questioning are normal parts of our lives as people and as persons of faith.
When we acknowledge that reality from the pulpit and in our teaching, we give permission for people of faith to admit their doubt and make it normative. And we empower folks to claim their own journeys. So often in church we talk about faith and that is a powerful thing to talk about, but to not claim the flip side of faith, the perpetual travelling companion of faith -- doubt -- means we are not leaving room for the real life experiences of people. Even the most faithful have moments of doubt.
My grandmother used to say that “God never gives us more than we can handle. I just wish God didn’t have such faith in me.” It’s a common saying and for me it expresses the doubt she felt in handling things all on her own. Then she would immediately start telling us that she really was not alone in the journey.
Jesus is saying much the same thing. He is telling the doubters that he is one with God, that he knows his followers, and that they know him (verse 26-27). He is continuing a strand of teaching from earlier in the chapter. He is using the same vivid image of sheep to describe his followers from the Good Shepherd passage (10:1-18). And he is declaring that he knows all who follow him and they know him for who he is. This is also a continuation of the questioning from the previous week’s text. Jesus is once again providing proof that his actions are sanctioned by God (verse 25).
Again we hear the allusion to a thief coming to steal the sheep of Jesus’ flock, but his followers are protected by One who is more powerful than any thief coming to do them harm (verse 28). There are two marks to being part of Jesus’ flock: hearing his voice and following him. The folks who are once again pestering him about his identity are not part of this flock.
You are preaching this text to people who have known hard times, who have been afflicted by disease and lost loved ones, who have been addicted and known loss, who have not felt protected from loved ones who abuse or belittle them. This is the context into which we are called to bring the Gospel message of peace and grace. This is the context into which we are called to bring a word of hope. We are called to help folks hear the voice of the shepherd and to follow him in their lives.
So how do we do this? We do it by being aware of what is going on in our communities and being true to that reality in our preaching. We do it by providing a way out of the lostness -- by providing again or for the first time a chance to be invited into a relationship with God. We do this by reminding our people of the gifts of God’s unmerited grace and forgiveness. We do that by once again bringing our people to the font to remember the gift of grace at baptism and to the table to remember the abundant hope we receive from the body and blood of Christ shared in the sacrament.