No Plain Speech
Teach us to listen. Amen.
"The explorer returned to his people, who were eager to know about the Amazon. But how could he ever put into words the feelings that flooded his heart when he saw exotic flowers and heard the night-sounds of the forests; when he sensed the danger of wild beasts or paddled his canoe over treacherous rapids? He said, "Go and find out for yourselves." To guide them he drew a map of the river. They pounced upon the map. They framed it in their town hall. They made copies of it for themselves. And all who had a copy considered themselves experts on the river, for did they not know its every turn and bend, how broad it was and how deep, where the rapids were and where the falls?" It is said that Buddha obdurately refused to be drawn into talking about God. He was probably familiar with the dangers of drawing maps for armchair explorers.
We want plain speech plain words in Scripture. But that is not this day: just about anything written with the name of ‘John’ will not be plain in understanding. The Lamb at the center of the throne will be the Shepherd, so is written in the book of the Revelations. This book is anything but easy. The author writes of the battle between the Christians and the Roman empire, for the Christians of that day knew so very well Rome was not a place of rescue from danger not a place of enjoyment and peace.
In fact any kind of peace given by Rome was an outcome of brutal violence and propaganda. Plain speech had no place among those who belonged to Jesus for they were the ones to stand against imperial Rome and many paid for their lives in such beliefs. The conflict between good and evil began for the early church in the battle for their souls against the strong arm of Roman authority. Either stand with us or we stand against you and we know some of what happened to those Christians. Yet it was their faith that kept them from turning away from Jesus and the spiritual life promised them as their shepherd.
Christians then and now know and understand one cannot be loyal to an empire or an authority figure filled with lies and deceit and also be loyal in faith to God. Ponder the wars and uprisings in our day: the Rohinga’s displaced for beliefs that do not accord with their ancestral home. Christians in China having to hide in underground churches to worship. Even some in our own country who find themselves spiritually at odds with present or past administrations refusing to keep silent.
The leaders of the Jewish community in Jerusalem wanted some answers to why Jesus seemed so against them in their own beliefs. And what he tells them is anything but simple. He is a vexation to them, an annoyance to their leadership for he speaks in parables, in words that do not convey what they want to know. He and they are walking in the Temple during the Feast of the Dedication which we know as Hannukah. A joyous occasion marking the steadfast and heroic faith of the Macabees who stood against Roman rule 400 years before the coming of John the Baptist and overcame.
It is a feast of lights and joy but these leaders feel none of it. Tell us plainly… so Jesus tells them the things of God are not so plain. They are the ones who are not hearing, they are the ones who are not doing the works of God and he speaks plainly enough for them to understand that! And in not doing, not hearing, they are not his sheep for his sheep know his voice and follow him. Then the ultimate: the Father and I are One.
This is not one in person but one in purpose. He shares fully in God’s work which is also what he will imply these leaders need to be doing…as should we. They and we will know and understand Jesus through his works, experiencing his identity through what he does. This is not Decartes: I think therefore I am. This is an experiential understanding, a deeper level of knowing Jesus than words can describe.
Like the parable at the beginning, the people who made maps of the Amazon knew nothing of its beauty, its dangers, its sounds. We cannot know Jesus unless we experience him for ourselves. This is how those early Christians knew beyond any doubt they would be welcomed into the presence of Jesus no matter what Rome might do to them. This is how the followers of Jesus then and now will know we are his sheep for we listen to his voice in our hearts not our ears. No creedal statement no matter how comprehensive can take the place of our experience of being in Jesus’ presence, of being led by him.
There is no plain speech either in this gospel reading nor in the book of the Revelations for it is beyond words to try to speak of ones’ relationship with God especially in times of deep prayer and meditation. It is difficult to speak simply of the things of God: that is of the heart. And if our hearts are open, if we are listening to the presence of Jesus, we will be his sheep and he will lead us into life and into deep satisfying joy often indescribably delicious. Amen.