IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 3, Number 41, October 8 To October 14, 2001

A Sermon on John 7:14-36

by Rev. Russell B. Smith

Jesus tells the truth about our inner motivations, but not many follow his example today. As a case in point, here's a list of new politically correct (i.e. properly obfuscating) labels that one of my email buddies sent me:

She is not quiet; she is a conversational minimalist.
He is not of below average intelligence; he suffers from minimal cranial development.
She is not a shopaholic; she is a boutique connoisseur.
He does not constantly talk about cars; he has a vehicular addiction.
She is not short; she is anatomically compact.
He does not get lost; he discovers alternative destinations.
She's not conceited; she has a highly developed self-esteem.
He is not balding; he is in follicle regression.

Politically correct speech is frustrating because it obscures the truth. It takes bitter truth and coats it in sugar, hiding the taste of raw truth. Popular speech obscures truth because we hate truth. Nobody likes a truth teller. Truth tellers are the prophets who reveal to us those things about ourselves that we don't want revealed. In John 7:1-13 we saw how people misinterpreted the truths that Jesus told them — they became advisors, despisers, or admirers. In John 7:14-26 we'll see how Jesus challenges us through his truth telling. He challenges us to stop relying on resumes, and to start questioning our assumptions and expanding our horizons.

First, realize that a major part of Jesus' role was that of truth teller. When we look at the Gospels, again and again we see amazement at Jesus' teachings (Matt. 7:29; Mark 1:22; John 7:14-15). It should go without saying that the things Jesus taught are worth our attention. However, there seems to be this assumption in contemporary Christianity that the only thing Jesus came for was to die on the cross to pay for our sin. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jesus also proclaimed truth to us. Jesus is God's last and greatest prophet who tells us true things we need to hear. The problem is that usually we don't want to hear the truth. Nobody likes a truth teller — look John 7:7: "The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that what it does is evil." Telling the truth about human nature ticks people off. When the darkness in our hearts is exposed, the first thing it does is try to destroy the light.

Shakespeare knew that truth, and he presented it in King Lear. King Lear was a mythical ancient King of England who, in his old age, decided he'd like to divide his kingdom among his three daughters and retire in comfort. At the start of the play, Lear gathers his daughters about, announces his intent, and then asks his daughters how much they love him. The first daughter, Goneril, speaks in flowing praise that her father is her all in all: "Dearer than eyesight, space and liberty; Beyond what can be valued, rich or rare." The second daughter Regan goes beyond that saying that nothing brings her any joy but her father's love. The third daughter Cordelia, rather than resorting to flattering Lear's vanity, tells the truth: "Good my lord, you have begot me, bred me, loved me. I return those duties back as are right fit, Obey you, love you, and most honor you. Why have my sisters husbands if they say they love you all?" She says "I love you like a daughter should." Lear, rather than laughing at his own absurdity at getting carried away by vanity, flies into a rage. He banishes Cordelia for not praising as her sisters did. And in this banishment, he set in course the events that would lead to Civil War, murder, and the destruction of his family. Nobody likes a truth teller — truth tellers are troublemakers.

But Jesus shows us that we need to stop relying on resumes. In John 7:14-15 the question was not whether Jesus had actually studied at all, but whether he had studied someplace with great prestige. Schools for basic study were readily available in those days, but only a few studied at the great centers of learning — Jesus hadn't come out of Harvard, Duke, or Stanford. Also, a standard technique for argument in the ancient world was to cite what other scholars before you had said. Argumentation was more a question of how many footnotes you had rather than how true your ideas were. Jesus didn't cite famous rabbis, and this further lent to the impression that he had not studied in the great centers of learning.

Nevertheless, in John 7:16 Jesus trumped the people's expectation of a resume by saying, "Here's my teacher," and turned the tables adding, "Anyone who legitimately wants to do God's will is able to tell if my teaching comes from him or not." Then he put them on the defensive by accusing them of disobedience to the Law in verse 19. When the people responded to his accusation, he brilliantly showed their hypocrisy in protesting his performing a healing on the Sabbath.

This debunks our tendency base our judgments on resumes rather than on the truth. When we meet someone, it is quite easy to be impressed with his or her degrees, position, and power. But those things have little to do with truth. When confronted with a new idea, most people look around to see what the rest of the people are doing before they sign on. It's so funny that opinion polls have become the measure of viability of ideas in our country! So, the resume of an idea is the catalog of people who have signed up behind it. We are encouraged to adopt ideas because a lot of people have signed on. But Jesus tells us in John 7:24, "Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment." We should judge truth on its merits rather than on men's opinions; we should judge truth on its reason rather than on resumes.

This leads us into the second challenge that Jesus, the truth teller, lays before us. Not only do we need to stop relying on resumes, but we also need to question our assumptions. While there are plenty of prophecies saying the messiah will come from Jerusalem, the group in John 7:25-29 seems to be relying on Malachi 3:1: "Then suddenly, the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple, the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come." The picture is of the Messiah suddenly and mysteriously appearing from nowhere. Remember though, that by this time Judaism in Israel had developed into a blend of faith and nationalism. Many Jews of that time expected a Messiah who would boldly deliver Israel by the sword. They conveniently forgot the Suffering Servant songs of Isaiah, which picture the Messiah as suffering and dying for his people. They let their nationalistic assumptions drive how they read Scripture. Their assumptions drove how they found truth.

How do we assume truth is found today? Is it through abstract logic? Is it through philosophical method? Is it through practical experience? While these things are valuable, the Scriptures clearly tell us these are not the definitive way we discern truth. In John 7:17 Jesus told his hearers what they needed to discern if his words were true: a heart that sincerely desired to do God's will. If you would discern truth, you first must orient your heart toward doing God's will. Do you rise each day asking, "What great things are you going to do today, God?" Do you make an effort to perform God's will each day? Orientation of the heart is key. If you seek truth and your heart is oriented anyplace other than God, you will not find it.

In 1949 Billy Graham was going through a crisis of faith. He was wrestling with what he thought were contradictions in the Bible. He was putting the vast resources of his mind to the task of puzzling out logically and rationally these apparent contradictions. He describes it as the intellectual battle of his life. Then before a conference in Los Angeles, he went out to the woods to pray. Listen to his own words: "I remember walking down a trail, tramping into the woods, and almost wrestling with God. I dueled with my doubts, and my soul seemed to be caught in the crossfire. Finally, in desperation, I surrendered my will to the living God revealed in Scripture. I knelt before the open Bible and said: ‘Lord, many things in this Book I do not understand. But thou hast said, "The just shall live by faith." All I have received from thee, I have taken by faith. Here and now, by faith, I accept the Bible as thy Word. I take it all. I take it without reservation. Where there are things I cannot understand, I will reserve judgment until I receive more light.'" Billy Graham had to subject his assumptions to faith. He had to subject his heart, soul, mind and strength to faith. It was shortly after that prayer that Billy Graham started his famous Los Angeles Crusade that was scheduled to last three weeks and went on for eight. He preached with the authority of one hungering for the will of God.

Let me be clear. I am not making a plea for ditching logic or rationality. I am a big fan of logic. I enjoy rational thinking. Science is invaluable. Experiential truths are important. But trust me on this — they cannot answer the deep questions of the heart. They cannot tell you why you're here. They cannot explain your value in the face of the vastness of the universe. They cannot provide meaning for you. Every statement of meaning, even a denial of meaning, is a statement made in faith. I am saying that faith is the trump card — it provides meaning to all else. Thus, we need to subject our logic, rationality, and experience to faith.

To put it bluntly: We need to check our agendas at the door. The best way we can do this is through pursuing the disciplines of solitude, worship, prayer, and Bible reading. These disciplines put us in direct encounter with the living God — the God who is there. If you would pursue truth, work on these disciplines.

What do these disciplines do for us? They help with the third challenge that Jesus, the truth teller, lays before us in John 7:30-36: the challenge to expand our horizons. Here the irony is rich. Jesus is clearly talking about his going to heaven after his crucifixion and resurrection. His hearers in the story take it to mean that he's going to leave Palestine. We as the readers have this overwhelming sense of irony — we know something that the crowds do not. And we are left with a feeling of superiority. But each instance of irony — and John's gospel is filled with irony — should cause us to consider the limits of our own understanding. We are finite creatures before an infinite creator. Our capacity for self-deception is astounding. Our tendency is to remake our creator in our image, whether it's the fuzzy celestial Santa Claus of the New Age movement or the eclectic and sensual gods of Hinduism. In expanding our horizons, we simply acknowledge that God is much grander than we can possibly conceive. This does not negate the reliability of what we can know about God through Scripture. Rather, it shows that we can never have comprehensive and complete knowledge of God.

Jesus, the truth-telling Savior, comes into our lives and tells us to stop judging by appearances, to question our assumptions, and to expand our horizons. When we do this, we move out of our comfort zone. We risk. We show our weakness. And in this act, we find that God is there and we enjoy relationship with him in a deeper, richer way. Take that to heart. Amen.