Southminster Presbyterian Church

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Taking Sides

Ken Onstot

Scripture: John 7:10-52 (selected verses)

            I once read a story about two couples describing their first

visits to churches in their neighborhood. The first couple visited a church they described as dead. The hymns were old and boring. The pastor repeated himself a lot, probably because he didn't have much to say. And the church was unfriendly; only a couple of people even bothered to speak to them. The other couple visited a church they said was vibrant. The hymns were familiar, so everyone sang out. The pastor's sermon was easy to follow, and after the service several people came up to greet them. The story concluded by saying both couples visited the same church.

            In a way that is what happened to Jesus.  Jesus provoked

opposite reactions. Some people adore him, others despise him, but interestingly both groups pointed to the same evidence to prove their case.

            Let me show you what I mean.  John 7:12 says, [Slide 1] "And

there was considerable complaining about him among the crowds. While some were saying, [click 1] 'He is a good man,' others were saying, [click 2] 'No, he is deceiving the crowd.'" This reminds me of the spin people put on political figures. If a politician changes his or her position on an issue, some call it "flip-flopping" or "pandering." Others call it "flexibility" or "growing." It all depends on the spin.

            The same thing happens to Jesus.  In John 7:15 we read,

[Slide 2] "The Jews were astonished at it (Jesus' teaching) saying, [click 1] 'How does this man have such learning when he has never been taught.'" For some people Jesus' lack of formal education makes him all that more impressive. But in verses 48-49, the Pharisees, the scholars trained in Jewish law, say, [click 2] "Has anyone of the authorities or of the Pharisees believed in him? But this crowd, which does not know the law-they are accursed.'" Some are impressed by Jesus' lack of formal education, others are put off by it.

            Another example.  In verse 19 Jesus says, [Slide 3] "Why are

you looking for an opportunity to kill me?" The crowd responds, [click 1] "You have a demon! Who is trying to kill you?" But a few verses later some of the people from Jerusalem says, [click 2] "Isn't this the man whom they are trying to kill?" It's not paranoia if they are really out to get you.

            The most interesting issue is the question of Jesus'

origin-where he comes from. In John 7:27, the religious authorities say about Jesus: [Slide 4, click 1] "Yet we know where this man comes from; but when the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from." Here the fact that Jesus comes from a known family in Nazareth is used to discredit him. But two chapters later in John 9:29 these same religious authorities say about Jesus, [click 2] "We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from."

            This is particularly interesting because many people think

they know where Jesus is from, but really don't. In John 7:41-42 we read, [Slide 5, click 1] "Others said, 'This is the Messiah.' But some asked, [click 2] 'Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he? Has not the scripture said that the Messiah is descended from David and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David lived?'" The Pharisees give two arguments for rejecting Jesus: 1) They know where he comes from, and 2) He comes from Nazareth in Galilee, which is not where the Messiah is supposed to be born.

  However John knew and John's readers knew that Jesus was born in

Bethlehem. John's gospel does not say this. John's gospel gives no details about Jesus' birth. But we know that John is aware of stories about Jesus that are found in other gospels but not included in John's gospel. For example, John's gospel does not mention Jesus instituting communion, serving bread and wine at the last supper. But John assumes knowledge of this when talking about Jesus feeding the 5000. It is very likely that John and John's readers knew that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Which makes the words of the Pharisees all that more ironic. They want to discredit Jesus by saying, 1) We know where he comes from, and 2) He comes from Nazareth. But in reality they don't know where he comes from, because John knew and we know that he came from Bethlehem, the very place where the Messiah was expected to be born.

  Actually, this indicates an even greater ignorance about Jesus'

origin. In John 7:16-17 Jesus says, [Slide 6] "My teaching is not mine but his who sent me. Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own." The point is not just that Jesus is from Bethlehem but that Jesus is from God. Which means that the key to your attitude about Jesus is your attitude about God. If you really want to know God, if you really want to give your life to Someone greater than yourself, then Jesus will begin to make sense. [Slide 7: Blank]

            Three years ago one of the Academy award nominees for Best

Pictures was a movie called Life of Pi, based on a novel by Yann Martel. In this case Pi refers not to the number in mathematics but to the nickname of a boy from south India. Early in the book Pi talks to his biology teacher Mr. Kumar, an avowed atheist. Mr. Kumar tells him, "There are no grounds for going beyond a scientific explanation of reality and no sound reason for believing anything but our sense experience. A clear intellect, close attention to detail and a little scientific knowledge will expose religion as superstitious bosh." (p. 27).

  That's what Pi hears from Mr. Kumar.  Later as an adult, Pi disagrees

with Mr. Kumar, but he respects that at least Mr. Kumar made a decision. Pi says,

It is not atheists who get stuck in my craw, but agnostics. Doubt is useful for a while. We must all pass through the garden of Gethsemane. If Christ played with doubt, so must we. If Christ spent an anguished night in prayer, if He burst out from the Cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" then surely we are also permitted doubt. But we must move on. To choose doubt as a philosophy of life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation (p. 28).

  Faith is not a matter of just looking at the evidence.  It is a matter

of making a decision about what to do with the evidence. It's a matter of taking sides.

  Later in the novel Pi speculates on what an agnostic might say on his

deathbed when suddenly he enters a tunnel of white light and is confronted by a vision of heaven. He says, "The agnostic, if he stays true to his reasonable self, if he stays beholden to dry, yeastless factuality, might try to explain the warm light bathing him by saying, 'Possibly a f-f-failing oxygenation of the b-b-brain," and, to the very end, lack imagination and miss the better story" (p. 64).

            You can look at the positive things Jesus does in people's

lives and you can say, "He is a good man," or you can say, "It's all psychological manipulation." You can go to church and say, "These people are deluded," or you can say, "They are right! People are sinners in need of God's grace, and here they are." The church is evidence for its own central premise. You can denounce the church as full of hypocrites. Or you can be grateful that there is room for more. And that's the better story.

"Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the LORD our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care."

Psalm 95:6-7