Jesus, How Long Are You Going to Keep Us In Suspense?!? (John 10:22-30)

Imagine you’re sitting on an outer porch of the Jerusalem Temple during the time of Jesus. You’re at one end of a massive stone structure, as large as six football fields. And, you’re on a height, nearly ten stories up in the air. Just sitting and watching as the religious come to mark the eight-day feast of the Dedication of this very temple.

You’re sitting at the edge of a particular porch named for Solomon, famous for his wisdom–a place where people would come to teach and discuss the Torah. Jesus, the teacher and miracle-worker so many have been talking about over the past year walks in. Immediately people gather around him to ask him a question, now that he’s putting himself out there to teach in such a place.

You overhear them ask Jesus, “How long are you going to keep us in suspense?”…”tell us plainly” (John 10:24).

And you think, yes, I want to know too. Jesus, how long are you going to keep me in suspense…guessing, wondering, and having doubts about….”

  • what you’re doing in my life?
  • why it (whatever “it” is) is so hard?
  • why are there people who suffer so much? and what I’m supposed to do to help? or why I can’t seem to do anything to help?
  • why I’m hurting?
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Image: Dannielle Blumenthal (Flickr) CC-BY-2.0

Many, if not most, of us have questions that we feel like we’re waiting on God to answer. And, if you’re anything like me, you just wish that God would make it plain, and quickly!  at that. Make it clear. Give me the sign that explains everything, so that I can be at peace, knowing how it all works out.

To my fill-in-the-blank question, “Jesus, how long are you going to keep me waiting on ____________?” Jesus’ answer is nothing and everything, all at the same time.

Speaking of those who believe, Jesus says:

My sheep hear my voice;
I know them, and they follow me.
I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish.
No one can take them out of my hand.
My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all,
and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand. (John 10:27-30)

There are three promises here for those who believe Jesus is the Savior:

  1. “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”

    Notice that this isn’t a statement of causality, but of apparent fact. And “hear” is a continuing present tense. Even when we feel like we’re in suspense, stuck wondering. In the same ten minutes of prayer, I can start off venting, in sadness or frustration, “Jesus, how long are you going to keep me in suspense?!?” and still hear God, sense God guiding me in other aspects of my life. In this promise, I don’t receive an answer to the question “how long will you keep me waiting?” but I receive a promise that I’m still going to be one of God’s “sheep,” while I’m in suspense. I’ll not be abandoned, forgotten, ignored, put in a corner, or left-behind. God will be speaking to me, guiding me–even as I wait.

  2. “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.”

    Blessed John Henry Newman explained that “ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” Be honest with God. If you need to come to the Lord in prayer ten times a day to say, “Jesus, how long are you going to keep me in suspense about ________?” it’s okay. Those questions of prayer aren’t going to take you out of Jesus’ hand. Maybe Jesus gives us eternal life because in earthly time it indeed would take an eternity to answer all of our questions of longing, suffering, and frustration. Know that no matter how long–weeks, months, years, decades–you say to Jesus in honesty, “how long are you going to keep me in suspense?”–Jesus will not let you, his precious and beloved “sheep” perish. Waiting is not the same as perishing.

  3. “My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one can take them out of the Father’s hand.”

    A final reiteration of the three promises that are truly one. God the Father, the Creator of the universe is “greater than all,” over all things. Even outside of time. What we are in suspense about, God our Loving Father is not only aware of, but preparing us for. He’s speaking to us, guiding us through other people, through the words of Scripture, through the counsel of others…so that when the answer to our question, “Jesus, how long are you going to keep me in suspense?” comes–we’ll be ready.

As we listen to these promises, they are clear. Jesus has told us the biggest, most cosmic truths, plainly. But the details? Well, those are another story. As long as we’re human, I think the aspects of suspense, of wondering and guessing, are always going to captivate us. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Share it with Jesus. Be honest about what’s keeping you in suspense. Yet never lose sight of the big picture–of the promises made good through the Cross–these promises will last through eternity, where we’ll never be waiting again!

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He Knows You! (Ps 139:1-16)

“you understand my thoughts from afar” –Psalm 139:2

The idea that God is omniscient (aka all-knowing) has existed throughout human history, across all different types of religious belief systems. But if we’re honest with ourselves, the real sticking question is this—what does an all-knowing God know about me?

God doesn’t simply know that we exist and then take off, only to be concerned about us again when our earthly life ends. Not at all. God knows us in the deepest, most profound sense. Better than we know ourselves at times! God is with us in every moment—from when we were unformed in the womb to this very day. God doesn’t just know our words and thoughts in a literal sense, but truly understands them. God understands the complexities and contradictions that each of us carries. God knows each of us at our best, and at our worst—and stays with us, regardless.

No matter what your current situation in life is, you can be certain that God knows you, understands you, and loves you enough to remain with you through anything life brings. The question is, what is your response? Do you share your real self with God? Or, do you try and hide the messy, confusing, troubling parts of your life?

Hiding
Image: Sandor Weisz (Flickr) CC BY-NC 2.0

Turn to Him in prayer in today.

God already knows you and is ready to start a new relationship (or re-start an old one) with you, right now.

How Do You Feel About Having Your Sins Forgiven?

As today’s First Reading (1 John 1:8-10) reminds us:

If we say, “We are without sin,”
we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.
If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just
and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing.
If we say, “We have not sinned,” we make him a liar,
and his word is not in us.

We can intellectually accept Jesus’ forgiveness of one’s sins as true, a fact, a reality. But, how to you really feel about it, personally. That Jesus forgives your sins. 

During his earthly ministry, Jesus posed this question to Simon, a Pharisee, in the midst of a symposium-style dinner discussion:

“Two men were in debt to a banker. One owed five hundred silver pieces, the other fifty. Neither of them could pay up, and so the banker graciously canceled both debts. Which of the two men will love the banker more?” (Lk 7:41-42*)

What’s the answer? Obviously the man who owed the larger sum of money.

But in Jesus’ 1st century Palestine and our modern American culture, which man would typically be considered the “good” one?

Most of us would have to admit it’s the man with less debt. The one who merely owed 50 silver pieces. He might be able to pay that off. He’s more responsible. More self-reliant. He’s not too bad.

So why is he the example of being “wrong” in the story?

Jesus’ point must not be about personal finances, but about love and gratitude in our relationship with Him. Let’s enter back into the story of the banker and the two men in debt. Imagine you’re the man who owed 500 silver coins–and had it forgiven. How would you feel?

What’s the immediate human reaction to that kind of free, gracious generosity?

It’s a mix of emotions: “Wow.” “You didn’t have to!” Feeling unworthy of such a gift. Maybe even feeling worse that you could never repay this person. Maybe feeling ashamed that it came to this point.

And it’s the same way with Jesus’ free gift of forgiveness of our own sins. There’s no way we could “earn” our way out of the wrong we do as human beings. We can’t pay it off.

The question is, how do we relate to Jesus who gives us an enormous (worth more than any earthly sum of money!) free gift of forgiveness? Is our response that joyful, grateful love for someone who gives us an incomprehensible, amazing gift?

Or, is our response something else–thinking we owe Jesus back, imagining that Jesus dislikes us for having gotten into debt in the first place, assuming we can do it ourselves and pull ourselves up by our own “bootstraps” of personal piety, wondering if this forgiveness is “for real” and “for keeps,” or if there are hidden strings attached.

We’re not saved by our own good works. We are saved for good works. Those good works flow from the love and gratitude we feel toward Jesus in our relationship with Him. We joyfully desire to extend that love to every person around us. Not because we think we “have” to in order to make up that debt or prevent Jesus from having to be like the banker in the story and forgive our debts to begin with, but because it overflows–we can’t contain that joyful love.

And this is precisely the context in which Jesus gave this example. There was someone who couldn’t contain the love she knew because Jesus had freely forgiven her. This someone was a woman, a poor woman from the city whom everyone knew was a sinner, someone who certainly didn’t have any of the external acts of religious piety. She hadn’t been someone known for “good” behavior.

Yet at some point before this dinner, she encountered Jesus and received forgiveness from her sins (i.e. Lk 5:30-32). She is living in a state of forgiveness that overflows into love and gratitude that simply looks ridiculous to those who haven’t experienced it. Just imagine…a poor woman entering a banquet dinner-panel discussion of men of the religious elite. Instead of staying on the side, like she was supposed to, she starts to bathe Jesus’ feet with her tears, anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive ointment, and even kisses his feet. This is overflowing, joyful love and gratitude! (to say the least!)

As Christians, we’re like that man with a debt of 500 silver coins. We’re like this woman bathing Jesus’ feet. We’ve received a forgiveness we could never earn and are now living in that forgiveness, that salvation that is and continues to bring peace (Lk 7:50).

But what if that’s not you? If you feel a bit awkward about it. Like a man who owed only 50 silver coins and maybe didn’t really need that banker to forgive his debt. Consider what’s holding you back. What’s the barrier?

It’s okay to be honest with Jesus. Open your heart to him. And when we think about this woman who loved so extravagantly, it might have taken some time. Her forgiveness could have come days, weeks, or even months before this dinner. What’s most important is that her open, free, honest love does come, and brings her closer to–not farther away–from Jesus.

 

Wipe our Debt
Image: Flickr “Image Money” CC SA 2.0

 

translation: The Message + my own translation edits

a version of this post originally appeared at NewEvangelizers.com

The Last Moment Before the Next

From the final Gospel of Advent*

“In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high shall break upon us” (Lk 1:78)

And isn’t that how God always happens.

Breaking upon us.
Surprising us.
Seemingly not there, and then suddenly there.
There like never before.
There all along.

We see the dawn coming. We know the dawn comes. And yet, to experience it takes one’s breath away.

Thank you, God, for those divine shocks.
Thank you for the Dawn from on High.
Let that Dayspring break upon us.

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Donald Jackson. Luke Frontispiece: The Birth of Christ (Lk 2:1-20)

 

*yes, missing in action this year due to Dec 24th falling on a Sunday

God, Do You Care?

If you’ve said yes to that overwhelming, “love of God poured into [your] heart” (Romans 5:5) and have been following Jesus as His disciple for some time, you’re probably finding that you’re not as tempted by certain serious sins as you might once have been. You’re not thinking of rejecting God, of leaving the whole “Christianity” thing behind, as if it’s just an optional add on to one’s life. These types of “wins” are great progress, great encouragements and consolations from the Holy Spirit in your life!

But, when we’re seeking to love God and do His will, certain new temptations arise. Things that seem smaller and less noticeable, yet can still bring darkness and desolation to our relationship with Jesus.

One of these is feeling that God simply doesn’t care. Doesn’t care about your problem. Doesn’t care about your needs. Just wants you to be His follower–and that’s it. Period. A relationship where you give, and God doesn’t give back.

Feeling like God doesn’t care isn’t a sin, per se–but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a way that the Evil One, literally “the Accuser” as translated in the Bible, accuses each of us, to try and persuade us that we’re following Jesus alone, we’re ministering in His name, without His care for us.

A dramatic example of this comes when the disciples are transporting Jesus by boat, across a sea at night (Mark 4:35-41). They’re diligently following Jesus. Yet, when a storm arises at night they see Jesus sleeping and cry out, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Shocking that in such a moment their words aren’t, “Stop the storm!” or “Wake up! Help!” And, it can be quite the same for us. We can feel that God doesn’t care. The sneaking feeling that God doesn’t care stops us from being truly honest and direct with God in prayer. It prevents us from saying what we really mean–in the case of the disciples, “we’re scare, please save us!”–and makes our relationship with God seem less like a real, personal relationship.

A more mundane example comes while Jesus is at the house of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (Luke 10:38-42). Martha, feels overly burdened by her service. We know from Jesus’ later response that it’s not that her acts of service are bad or need to stop, but that feeling burdened is what’s truly weighing her down. Her first words to Jesus in this moment of desolation and hurt? “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving?” Much like the disciples in the boat, her very first words question does God care? It’s only after that that she asks Jesus to solve the problem, “Tell her [Mary] to help me.” However, even this petition doesn’t necessarily address the issue, as Martha might still feel burdened, even if Mary were helping.

From both these examples, we see that as followers of Jesus we’re likely to hit moments in our life where we feel like God just doesn’t care. The Holy Spirit seems distant. Jesus seems impersonal. The “Accuser” tells us that God wouldn’t care about problems as “human” as ours. When these moments hit, have the courage to be bold, to be honest with the Lord. “Lord, I feel like you don’t care. Please help me know that you do.” God will never be taken aback or stunned by our honesty. God loves us in the same way a parent profoundly loves a child who is able to say what he or she is really thinking. If we’re in such a hurt, sad, scared, or burdened place that our entire prayer is followed by tears or silence–that’s okay. Tears, silence, and even language that seems beyond words are all genuine ways we share with God, and allow Him in, making ourselves open to experience His loving care, when we need it the most.

When we feel like God doesn’t care, we don’t need to beat our selves up, or think that we’re awful followers of Jesus, not even worthy of the name “disciple.” No. Not at all. We see that some of Jesus’ closest followers in the 1st century experienced just the same thing. Like them, when we turn to Jesus–he answers. He doesn’t condemn us. God comes and cares for us all the more, in ways we may not have even imagined. When it seems like God doesn’t care, tell Him.

a version of this post also appears at newevangelizers.com

Father and daughter
Flickr: Kim Davies (CC BY NC-ND 2.0)

Working On the Wrong Bread

Today’s Gospel reading ends with a convicting line from Jesus: the work of God is believing in His Son (Jn 6:29). If I’m to do the work of God (and I want to in my life, right?) it’s not cleaning the house, writing emails, or organizing files–it’s believing “in the one he sent.”

To understand it more fully, let’s put it in context. This whole series of related events starts when a large crowd is follows Jesus because of the physical healings they’d seen him perform–signs of his true identity. Jesus then asks one of the Twelve disciples, Philip, “Where can we buy enough food for them to eat?” Philip bluntly responds that there’s no way they’d possibly have enough money to buy food for that many people (Jn 6:7).

This provides the occasion for another sign from Jesus. Instead of buying food, Jesus multiplies five loaves and two fish such that over five thousand people were fed.

The next day the crowds catch back up with Jesus and he explains to them, “I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”

They’re thinking too concretely. Too concerned with the earthly details. Seeing the trees but not the forest. Perceiving that being around Jesus is working out okay for them, right now, but not interested in the broader implications. We can develop a similar outlook. It’s not a bad thing to recognize and be fed by the tangible blessings God provides for us. But, if we start to view God as some kind of cosmic-Easter-bunny who sprinkles tasty treats in our life, then we’re missing the fullness of who God is and His plan for all humanity.

See, God doesn’t want us as His consumers. We’re not in some kind of contractual relationship with God where we do good, and God gives us good things–material blessings, health, etc. We don’t seek God merely hoping for more loaves and fishes. Through Jesus, God’s Son, we receive the Holy Spirit and are supernaturally empowered to be co-workers with God, co-heirs, beloved children–members of a Body, in genuine, intimate relationship with God.

This is how belief and work come together. When we believe, we see what Jesus’ signs point to. When we believe, we share in God’s work, rather than laboring on our own. We might be doing the same activity as before–but now our activity is joined to God, we share in Jesus’ priestly, prophetic, and kingly identities in the world, and if we’re open, God’s love overflows through us, through our work.

Today is also the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, reminding us that the Church affirms the dignity and co-creativity we engage in with God through our human labors. Let us pray that all of our work flow more and more from ardent belief in the Son of God, so that we might behold, more and more, the fullness of God’s mission we partake in. As today’s Office of Readings, Feast of St. Joseph the Worker (cf. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, no. 33-34) notes:

“By his labor and abilities man/woman has always striven to improve the quality of his/her life…In the face of this vast enterprise now engaging the whole human race, men/women are asking themselves a series of questions. What is the meaning and value of all this activity? How should these benefits be used? Where are the efforts of individuals and communities finally leading us?..Where men and women, in the course of gaining a livelihood for themselves and their families, offer appropriate service to society, they can be confident that their personal efforts promote the work of the Creator, confer benefit on their fellowmen, and help to realize God’s plan in history.”

Amen.

Belief–>Work.

And when in doubt, the work is to believe, to be attentive to Son’s signs, and let the Holy Spirit take care of the rest!

Beyond Fans and Followers

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a popular sermon title

Are you a fan or a follower? Quite a few Christian preachers and teachers (including Catholic ones) have used these images as the basis for helping us move beyond merely liking Jesus, to actually following Him. And that’s a good thing. But one particular passage of Scripture gives us unique insight into precisely what kind of followers God desires us to be.

Coming back into Jewish territory after performing powerful deeds among the Gentiles, Jesus is surrounded by a crowd. So surrounded, he actually stays right by the sea, where he’d come across by boat (Mark 5:21). Jesus heads off to respond to the desperate pleas of Jairus, a synagogue official whose daughter is gravely ill. At this point, we see that this isn’t just a crowd of fans, they are followers (vs. 24). They follow Jesus and even press in upon him! Yet during this movement, a woman from within the band of followers makes her way up to Jesus–and touches his garment (vs. 27).

Just imagine the scene, how difficult it would have been for this one follower to push her way through an in-motion crowd of followers, to get to one person–Jesus–the person the entire group was following. Physically, it’d be tough to follow Jesus directly from among this moving crowd. But this woman also suffered from hemorrhaging bleeding. She wasn’t even physically well. On top of this, to the rest of the Jewish followers, she would have been considered ritually impure or unclean for having this medical condition. They would not want her near them at all, lest any of them be “infected” by her impurity. Imagine the disapproving looks, or even those who use their bags, cloaks, or walking sticks to keep her back. And yet, she makes it to Jesus!

None of us aims to be just a fan of Jesus. We want to be followers. But following is complex, why? Because we’re inevitably part of a crowd, part of a community–we have to interact with others, get close to them, and follow Jesus together. In church life, it’s possible to happily exist among the crowd of followers, but never make that decisive move to reach out to Jesus with the faith that He can heal, forgive, or transform whatever it is in our own life.

Why do we stay passive as followers? Maybe it’s our own pride, we struggle to admit that we can’t do it on our own, we can’t earn our way to heaven, we need Jesus to heal us personally. Or maybe it’s that we want to appear “normal”–not “too Christian” or “too holy” for a “regular parish” (whatever that is!). Maybe we’re comfortable as a follower, just moving along with the crowd, and don’t think Jesus would respond to us; we don’t want to “bother” Jesus by touching his cloak.

This woman is saved by her faith. She leaves in peace, cured, and called daughter by Jesus.

This is what awaits any one of us, any person who comes to Jesus in faith. God does not reject any one who comes to Him.

Don’t just follow. Be transformed by the power of Jesus.

a version of this post also appears at http://www.newevangelizers.com