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Read John 7.

So here are the brothers of Jesus. They believe that Jesus should make his public debut at the Feast of Tabernacles. He ought to perform signs and wonders and wow the masses at just the right time and place so that he can be assured of success.

The Feast of Tabernacles was a week long festival when the Children of Israel would live in little tents. Sort of like a national camping trip. Feast of Tabernacles is also a harvest festival. The Israelites who left Egypt over 1000 years before Jesus were not farmers. They were brick makers. They survived off their livestock. They value food and supplies that have their own legs – stuff that they can herd. When they settle in to a new land and can begin to grow crops, their entire economy shifts.

And the shift in economy can change their spirituality. Wandering in the desert, you find water where you can – wells, streams, and pools. You don’t expect it too often. But when you’ve settled and start growing crops, you depend on rain. Rain is the one factor about farming that you cannot do much about. It depends on the gods. So if the newly arrived Children of Israel go to the local Canaanite County Extension agent for farming advice they are likely to receive brochures on pagan sacrifices that satisfy the rain gods. (Have you ever wondered why Israel kept leaning on false gods? It wasn’t because they just wanted to try something new – it’s because they believed that it was profitable and promising.)

So the purpose of the Feast of Tabernacles was to remind people of their roots. They were nomads who lived in tents in the desert. God cared for them and brought them into a land of plenty. Good things came from God, not from pagan rituals.

The final day of the festival is called Hoshana Rabbah. On this day the prayers for water and rain are spoken. By the time of Jesus, prayers were also included that the Messiah would come soon. Every year the same prayers would be spoken just as they always had been. The same rituals performed, just as they were expected. And deep down people have a reserved hope that streams of water will spring forth from the temple in Jerusalem and flood the desert. (But if that happened, what would they do next year?)

You can understand why Jesus’ kin would advise him like they did. If he were to arrive and perform his miracles in the holiest city of the land at the time when the expectations of Messiah are high. Jesus’ brothers are offering him the best religious and political advice available. If he wants to be a public figure, then there are some expectations that he has to fulfill. He can gain more disciples if he moves his ministry closer to Judea and conforms to the expectations of the traditionalists.

Jesus will not fit into the expectations of the traditionalists. He hadn’t so far ...

  1. He healed on the Sabbath
  2. He dared to teach Greeks
  3. He doesn’t come from the right place (He’s from Galilee!)
Jesus has been sent by God and he speaks on behalf of God. He isn’t interested in fitting into the agenda of the religious institution. He isn’t interested in affirming traditions that have never been questioned. He isn’t interested in creating a following.

But Jesus does go to the Festival on his own terms and in his own time. And on the last day when the ram’s horn is sounded and the prayers for water are being spoken, Jesus does the unexpected. He shouts, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him."

Notice that the reviews about Jesus are mixed. Some say he is the prophet. Some say he is the Christ. Some say he is good. Others say that he doesn’t fit the profile. It’s not Scriptural. He isn’t from Bethelem. He’s from Galilee. He is a deceiver.
Notice that the crowd is divided over Jesus. Isn’t Jesus supposed to be a unifier? Aren’t we all supposed to get along? Pay close attention: Jesus himself did not divide the crowd, rather they divide themselves because of their willingness to accept Jesus or their refusal to escape their own traditions.

There’s a word here for us. Jesus cannot be tamed and made palatable. He is not soft and mushy so that we can mold him to our agenda and our timing, rather he is on God’s agenda.

Have we committed ourselves to Christ or to our traditions? When our faith is more rooted in dead traditionalism than the living Christ, then Christ is made into a rubber stamp that approves our projects and our long held notions – even if they are not very godly. Now here’s what’s difficult – if we have molded Christ to fit our own expectations we are probably not aware of it. No one intentionally sets out to tame Jesus and his teachings. It happens over time because we become invested in what we know.

One Pharisee that day was taking that deep breath and asking the right questions instead of reciting the same old answers. We’ve seen him before, our friend Nicodemus. In the midst of the anxious Pharisees who want to jerk Jesus down, Nicodemus is reminding his peers to be their best. Instead of cursing the crowds and calling them fools, instead of claiming superiority and all-knowledge, Nicodemus is asking, "Does our law condemn anyone without first hearing him to find out what he is doing?" … And they shut Nicodemus off by insulting him.

To be so resistant and stiff-necked is to make the same mistake as the Pharisees. Are we going to be open to new possibilities and the Spirit of God like Nicodemus? Or will we act like the anxious Pharisees? They were so threatened to let go of their traditions and their assumptions that they not only dismissed Christ, but they attacked anyone who dared just to consider what he was doing.

The living stream of water is the teaching of Christ. You can jump in and drink, but not if you’re afraid of getting wet.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 22 February 2009

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