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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Rivers of Water from the Faithful Heart, Part 1
John 7
Delivered at Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church, Durham, NC
Pentecost May 27, 2007

God created humanity as social beings, and one of the most obvious ways that we display our social natures is in the building of cities. Augustine of Hippo called his magnificent account of the history of God’s relationship with humanity The City of God. In it he explores the ways that those people who have been called to be the people of God live a distinctive life of love in the midst of the City of this World. The very word we use to describe the organized, culture-making, productive life of humanity, civilization, comes from the Latin word for city, a community of people working together.

Our own city is a complex web of interdependent people, institutions, organizations, structures, and edifices. We depend on certain stores for food and gasoline and other components of our lives. Hospitals, manufacturing plants, distribution centers, research labs, malls, apartment complexes, and all manner of buildings and organizations grow up in cities, mutually dependent on one another and on services such as roads, water supply, sewer systems, electrical grids, phone wires and towers, police patrols, jails, and garbage collection. My making these lists does not even begin to reveal all of the complicated interdependence that cities require.

The major events of the world are often connected to cities. We speak of Washington when we talk about decisions that affect the entire world. Nairobi, Baghdad, Paris, Johannesburg, Los Angeles, Beijing, Moscow, Atlanta, Athens, New Delhi, Saõ Paulo, Cairo, and New York all shape our awareness and understanding of the world and its people. Even the Bible gives special prominence to cities. Rome, Babylon, and Nineveh stand out for their power and oppression of others. Jerusalem symbolizes the relationship between the people and God, and its character wavers from faithfulness to self-serving and disobedient. After the exile, the people long for Jerusalem. In the visions of the consummation of all things, a New Jerusalem descends from on high, in contrast to the human centered effort to reach God at the great city of Babel.

In this passage from John 7, Jesus appears in Jerusalem, a great city. He has traveled secretly, for his safety, to the festival of Sukkoth, or the Feast of Tabernacles, the Feast of Booths. He did not announce his plans to go, even to his teasing brothers. He probably was still trying to make up his mind whether to make the trip. When he did join the throngs of people, he let himself remain inconspicuous and hidden in the crowds going to celebrate the harvest and make offerings and to live in huts and tents as a reminder of their ancestors who lived in huts and tents between Egypt and the Promised Land. Even more than usual, Jerusalem was filled with the hustle and bustle of activity. There were special plants to be brought as an offering to God. There were tabernacles to build. There were friends to see and relatives to locate. Officials gave readings and rabbis taught in the open places.

The crowds brought excitement and joy, but also tension and anxiety. We know from other stories, not everyone was honest about prices and trading. Visitors might be worried about thieves and unfair merchants. Local residents might worry about the rabble that could be coming to town for the festival. The crowds who did not measure up to their spiritual stature annoyed the proud Pharisees and Scribes. Herodians and Romans would be concerned about political and military intrigue that could be going on among the many visitors.

Jesus had a reputation from previous trips to Jerusalem. He had already crossed enough leaders and shown up enough pretentious religious pretenders that plots had been launched to kill him. He was not taking chances on letting that happen. He knew that if he was going to have to die, it should be on his terms and at a time when his mission would be ready to go forward without him. This was not that time. His closest followers were loyal, but they did not understand who he was or what they were called to do.

When he did not make a grand entrance at the beginning of the festival, people started talking about him. “Where is he?” they asked. The differences of opinion about him became a regular part of the conversation. “How ´bout them Eagles?” “What’s the price of gas today?” “Think it’s gonna rain?” “Do you think Jesus is a good man or a deceiver?” “What’s for dinner?” However, it was not just an insignificant matter. This was a big deal, like asking which presidential candidate you are planning to vote for. The people were confused, and on top of that, talking about Jesus could be dangerous. Verse 13 says that no one would speak openly about him for fear of the Jews.

This is a good point for us to think about the terminology used in this passage. Many times we read about the Jews in this passage. Yet often, the choice of that word in our modern English context misleads. In verse 13 it says the people were afraid of the Jews, yet the people who were afraid were also Jews. We could conclude that they were afraid of themselves, but that would not make sense. It is obvious in this passage and in most of the Gospel of John, and in some other New Testament texts, the term “Jews” has a specific meaning that does not include all of the people who are from the genetic heritage of Jacob’s offspring. For that matter, Jesus himself is a Jew, from the lineage of Judah and Tamar. We could misread this chapter and think that all Jews were against Jesus, if we did not stop to think that all the people who were following him were, as he was, Jews.

So when it says they were afraid of the Jews, it means that they were afraid of the Pharisees and Sadducees, the leaders of the Jews, the ones who were in power, who interpreted the laws, who controlled the economy, and who defined the social pecking order. They had their own police force, and they would use it against people who did not conform to their directives. They could keep people out of the temple and out of the synagogues. Everyone knew that these official leaders of the Jews, these religious and political authorities, did not like what Jesus was saying and doing. All knew that they did not like to see an outsider like him have such a following. They were glad that Herod had gotten rid of John the Baptist and saved them the trouble. But Jesus did not stay out in the wilderness. He kept coming into their midst, into the city, to face them down where everyone could see and hear. Everyone could see how red in the face they got, how they clinched their teeth, how they turned aside to whisper to one another, and how they tried to push Jesus into a corner. So they were afraid, like when the principal comes walking around the corner or when the boss wanders through the cubicles.

This chapter reveals that there was a lot of confusion in Jerusalem. People seemed to be wondering about Jesus, disagreeing on whether he was a good teacher or a clever charlatan. They wondered whether he was right in his interpretations of the law or whether the Pharisees were right in saying he was a lawbreaker. They were confused by the leaders who challenged Jesus and disputed with him but did not seem ready to condemn him.

Part of their confusion came because they did not know what the Pharisees and Sadducees said when they were in private meanings. They did not know of the plans to kill Jesus. They did not know how they plotted to put Jesus on the spot, to try to turn the crowds against him. They did not know what the Pharisees said about them, their own people, when they were behind closed doors. Instead, the Pharisees and Sadducees were pretty good at keeping their public image spic and span. They tried to stay on the high ground in their challenges to Jesus. They were performing for the crowd. Jesus was better at moving the crowd than they were, but they mostly kept themselves at least in a respectable position.

Don’t get me wrong: the conversations were heated. More than once, the exclamation rang out, “What’s wrong with you man? You're crazy!” For instance, when Jesus asked why they were looking for an opportunity to kill him, people in the crowd were exasperated. They knew of no plots to kill Jesus. They responded, “You have a demon!” which was their way of saying, “This man has lost his mind! Who’s trying to kill him? Here we are trying to listen to everything he says. Maybe the Pharisees are right about him.”

Jesus pressed on and clarified his point, and before long more of the crowd was catching on about who was out to get Jesus. He pushed the conversation back to his last visit to Jerusalem when they got all over him for healing the lame man by the pool of Bethzatha. At that time, the Pharisees had stopped the man on his way to the temple because they saw that he was carrying his sleeping mat. They had reminded the formerly lame man of the Sabbath law, which stipulated that he, should not be carrying something around. Not having been able to walk before, it had not occurred to the formerly lame man not to carry his mat when Jesus said, “Take up your mat and walk.” So he told them that the man who healed him had told him to carry it. When they found out it was Jesus, they were so tired of the way that the seemed to flaunt the Sabbath laws. They got after him for his sloppy ways, but he gave them a long lecture about Moses and where Moses got his authority. He made it clear that he could do nothing apart from God, but that they would not know the power of God if it slapped them in the face. All they were concerned about was getting recognition from other people.

Jesus did not want them to forget what he had been telling them that day, so he brought it up all over again. He pointed out that they considered it legal to perform circumcisions on the Sabbath. Circumcision was an important religious rite that showed in the body the commitment to serve God. Jesus did not challenge whether they should do that on the Sabbath. He simply compared the symbolic value of circumcision to the healing of a lame man’s whole body. How could that kind of work of God not be right on the Sabbath?

People began to wonder what was going on. Knowing that the authorities were plotting to kill him, they were puzzled that he could be so open in his criticism and not be arrested. The tide of confusion began to turn toward clarity about Jesus. Now they began to second-guess the Pharisees. “Are they hiding the truth from us? Do they already know that he is the Messiah and just don’t want the secret to get out?” But all the confusion did not go away. People started debating fine points of Messianic lore. They were saying that the Messiah would come dramatically and his origin would be unknown.

Jesus answered their disputations by boldly saying that he had been sent from God. And he challenged the Pharisees’ authority by saying to them that they did not know him. It made them mad enough to try to arrest him, but he got away. More and more of the crowd began to believe that Jesus was the Messiah. They talked about what he said. They recounted the things he had done. They listened as people told how he had stood up in the face of the rich and powerful and claimed to have higher authority than they. They looked for more opportunities to hear and see Jesus.

As the Pharisees heard this happening among the crowds, they went into a caucus with the Sadducees. In their private chambers, they agreed to give the orders that the temple police should arrest Jesus. So the guards and the leaders went out to find him. He continued to speak to the crowds. The timing never seemed right to make the arrest.

The climactic scene of chapter 7 comes when Jesus speaks on the last day of the festival. This was the highest day of the festival, the Great Supplication, when the worshippers paraded seven times around the Temple and made special prayers for the quick coming of the Messiah. The Messiah was on their minds, and Jesus was present to address their longings. The Gospel says that he was standing among the crowd, and he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, and let the one who is faithful to me drink. As the Scripture has said, ‘Out of the faithful one’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” All who were students of the scripture heard the echoes of the Prophet Isaiah. (These quotations are taken from the NKJV).

Isaiah 44:3
For I will pour water on him who is thirsty,
And floods on the dry ground;
I will pour My Spirit on your descendants,
And My blessing on your offspring;

Isaiah 55:1
“Ho! Everyone who thirsts,
Come to the waters;
And you who have no money,
Come, buy and eat.
Yes, come, buy wine and milk
Without money and without price.

Isaiah 58:11
The LORD will guide you continually, 

And satisfy your soul in drought, 

And strengthen your bones; 

You shall be like a watered garden, 

And like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail.

The worshippers were walking in procession and among them were some who carried the Torah scrolls. Perhaps they had already heard a reading from Moses. Jesus had spoken of Moses earlier in the week, and now they heard in his words the echo of water flowing from the rocks in the desert. As Jesus said it to them, these rivers of water would flow from them to the world. What an amazing proclamation he made.

Some began to say out loud, “This is really the prophet.” Others said, “The Messiah has come.” Yet the spin-doctors in the crowd began to dispute about whether the Messiah could come from Galilee. To be Galilean was not so bad as to be Samaritan, but it still raised questions about one’s lineage. Ethnic purity became the manipulative tool of the powerful against the commoners, as it so often has in the millennia since Jesus was on the earth. If the Pharisees from Jerusalem could get the festival attendees to be concerned about bloodlines and pedigrees, they could distract them from the truth of what Jesus was saying. Some confusion remained, but the temple police did not dare arrest Jesus on this day.

(Continued in next post)

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