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No Need for Suspense


John 10:24


Most of us enjoy suspense. We enjoy suspense, that is, as long as the suspense pertains to entertainment, but not if it pertains to life.  We enjoy the suspense of a detective story or a good novel.  We enjoy the “suspense”, as it were, of hearing the opera singer sustain a high note so very long that we can’t imagine her sustaining it longer. We enjoy the suspense of the football game when victory and defeat are decided on the last play of the game.

But where life is concerned we find suspense agonizing – like the suspense of waiting until a loved one is through high-risk surgery, or the suspense of waiting to see if we’ve been accepted into the university course that will set us on our life-work, or the suspense waiting for the jury to decide if we are going home acquitted or going to prison for ten years.  Suspense here is terrible. Suspense is agonizing where life is concerned.

This latter kind of suspense was the kind that drove some people to shout at Jesus, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” We can readily understand what drove them to shout.  All Israel had awaited the Messiah for 1400 years.  What could be more urgent than knowing whether Jesus of Nazareth was the long-awaited one or not? Throughout Israel ’s history different individuals at different times claimed to be the Messiah. In each case some enthusiastic people gathered around the claimant, only to find themselves let down. By now many were jaded. Most were sceptical. And then the Nazarene had appeared. He seemed different from most people, different even from most Messianic pretenders. At the same time, he hadn’t rid Palestine of the Roman occupation – yet. Then again, perhaps he wouldn’t rid Palestine of the Roman occupation until he had a bigger following.  So what were people to do? Join themselves to him and risk making fools (or worse) of themselves?         Or not join themselves to him and risk missing the blessings of the Messianic Age? “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.  Prove yourself to us. Convince us first, and then we’ll side with you.”         They wanted our Lord to say starkly, unambiguously, “I am the Messiah of Israel, the Saviour of the world, the One promised of old.”

I:[a] – We hear people say as much today: “I would certainly get serious about God if only he’d prove himself.”         People often say this in distressing circumstances.  I came to know a young man who stutters as you have never heard anyone stutter. He finds his stuttering a public humiliation, more hideous than the worst skin disease imaginable. In the midst of his discussion with me concerning the Christian life one day he flew into a rage and shouted he couldn’t believe in God as long as his social shame went unrelieved.

Equally heart-rending is the situation of the person with a loved one who is neurologically afflicted.  He wants to plead with the God he doesn’t quite believe in, cannot plead until he’s convinced there’s a God to plead with, and fears that if he does plead it won’t make any difference in any case.  Finally he’s left with a gaping hole in his own heart, more disappointed and bitter than he’s ever been.

“How long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are who you are said to be; if you are who you have indicated yourself to be; if you are the effectual presence and power and purpose of God, won’t you just tell us plainly?”

[b]—In our gospel story Jesus doesn’t tell the people plainly.  Why not? Not because he likes to see people play guessing games; not because he enjoys tormenting people where the most crucial matters of life and death are concerned. He doesn’t tell the people plainly for one reason: they are looking for proof of who he is and then they will abandon themselves to him — maybe. The truth is, we can’t know who he is until we abandon ourselves to him. Proof pertains to mathematics and to science.  Proof has nothing to do with persons.  The truths of mathematics are proven deductively; the truths of science are proven inductively. But where persons are concerned, no proof is possible.

From time to time two young people come to me, describe their relationship with each other, and then ask me, “Do you think we should get married?”   It’s almost as if they were saying, “We have red spots all over. Do you think we have dermatitis or measles?” Measles and dermatitis are things. Love pertains to persons. There’s no proof possible here.

There’s no way I can prove that my wife loves me. Everything she does the cynic or half-cynic can explain away.         She’s the comfort and consolation of my life?  She behaves this way because she plans to ask something huge of me two days later. She has remained faithful to me for thirty-six years?  She has an unconscious fear of venereal disease.         She listens sensitively and responds understandingly when we talk with each other? She has nothing better to talk about herself.  She’s supported me in all my ventures?  She’s fond of the prestige that goes with being married to a clergyman and a professor. If the cynic smirks “Prove that your wife loves you”, I’ll readily admit that I can’t. Still, does this mean that there is any doubt, so much as a trace, in my mind concerning her love for me? Of course not.

Some people who resisted our Lord asked him for a sign. They wanted him to do something dramatic, something persuasive, something compelling — that he was the one in whom they should believe.  Jesus refused to give any such sign.  He refused for one reason. His detractors wanted proof that he was indeed God’s visitation Incarnate – and all of this without committing themselves to him.  Once Jesus had given them the “proof” they’d asked for, they could look at one another and say, “Well then, that settles it.  He is the promised One of the Father.”  Something would occur in their heads – they now had information they had heretofore lacked – but nothing would occur in their hearts.  The “proof” they would have asked for and received would have altered nothing about their lives. The “proof” would have made no difference in their lives.

Instead of “proving” himself Jesus said, “Certainty concerning me arises only as you commit yourselves to me.   Certainty that I am God’s visitation seizes you only as follow me, trust me, obey me, and even come to love me. Those who do this find an assurance concerning me and their life in me that obliterates doubt. Those who don’t commit themselves to me remain forever unpersuaded.  I want followers who are members of my kingdom and agents of its work; I don’t want spectators who play guessing games about me and expect me to resolve the game. Life isn’t about games. Life is about the kingdom. Do you want to follow me, or do you want to stand there demanding a sign concerning that kingdom you don’t plan to enter in any case?”

[c]—Perhaps someone wants to protest, “But the miracles were signs.  Scripture says so. Since Jesus worked miracles he must have given signs, a few at least.”  They were signs of the kingdom only to those who lived in the kingdom and were therefore kingdom-sighted.  They were signs of nothing to kingdom-blind curiosity seekers.  If today a man with a tin flute made a rope stand on end, people wouldn’t exclaim, “This man has to be the Son of God and the Saviour of the world!” They would ask him, “Where did you learn to do that?  You belong on TV. With the right contacts you could make a lot of money.”  This isn’t the response Jesus wants to elicit.  The response he’s looking for is the response of Matthew, Peter, Andrew and the others who leave everything to follow.  Our Lord isn’t looking for admirers; he wants disciples.   He doesn’t want congratulation; he wants commitment.  He doesn’t want curiosity-seekers; he wants faith that remains faithful.

And those who yield Jesus Christ such commitment and trust and faithful following; all such find that he convinces them more certainly than any so-called proof ever could: he is Emmanuel, God-with-us.  Possessed of such certainty, they move more deeply into him every day at the same that his kingdom becomes ever more vivid, with the result that they seek no one else; with the result that they can’t be deflected from him; with the result that life’s adversities find them clinging even closer to him. The question of “proof” now becomes a laughable irrelevance.  At this point we don’t shout at him, “Don’t keep us in suspense. Tell us plainly.” It never occurs to us to shout “Don’t keep us in suspense” for one reason: he has surged over us in such a way as to dispel all suspense.  We don’t shout “Tell us plainly” for one reason: he has authenticated himself to us in so very many circumstances that we don’t need anything plainer than the assurance we already have.


II: — In the light of all that’s been said to this point I want us to examine more closely some of our Lord’s pronouncements so that their truth might be seared afresh upon us today and any lingering doubt dispelled.

[a] The first is “I am the resurrection and the life.” Usually we hear it at funeral services, and rightly so.  Yet it refers to much more than post-mortem developments.  “I am the resurrection and the life” – it means that right now, in this life, there is always a new beginning.  Every day is a fresh beginning before God.  Every day is a day in which the sin and culpable stupidity of yesterday are blotted out. Every day is the first day of the future just because “I am resurrection and life” means that our past, however discoloured, can’t negate our future. Every day is redolent with hope just because who I am is given by where I’m going rather than by where I’ve been. Every day is redolent with hope just because who I am is given by what God has promised to do for me rather than what I’ve done to myself.

If the people around us snort, “She doesn’t seem any different to me”, no matter; we have been appointed to a future more glorious than we can imagine, even as we can imagine a future in which our self-contradiction and self-destructiveness are finally no more.

If we are possessed of a smidgen of sensitivity we know that our own garbage stinks.  To be sure, everyone is aware that everyone else’s garbage stinks. Still, we must become aware that our own garbage is fetid.  Yet because Jesus Christ is resurrection and life there’s always more to us than our garbage. What more is there?  There’s the new being that our Lord is himself and promises to make ours; there’s a truth concerning us that is hidden to unbelief but known to faith; there’s a recognition that much about us needs to change, a certainty that our Lord can effect such change, and an awareness that such change is already underway.

When our Lord says “I am resurrection and life” he is awakening us to the difference he makes: our past he pardons, our present he accompanies, and our future he guarantees.

Few incidents move me more than the risen One’s encounter with Peter at least a week after Easter.  Earlier a fifteen-year old servant girl had remarked, “Your accent; it’s Galilean; the same accent as the fellow who’s going to be crucified”; and a frightened Peter, swearing like a sailor, had denied that he had ever had anything to do with the Master.  Spokesperson for all the disciples?  Now Peter didn’t appear fit to be spokesperson for the prison population. But because Jesus is resurrection and life, all considerations of who is fit and who not are beside the point. Now the risen One asks simply, “Peter, do you love me?”   Note that Jesus doesn’t ask, “Peter do you feel properly wretched? You should, you know, since you behaved worse than anyone would’ve expected you to.”  Note that Jesus doesn’t ask, “Peter, don’t you think you should be put on probation for a year or two until we all see whether or not you’re going to hold up?”

“Peter, do you love me? Then feed my sheep.” In the company of Jesus Christ our past, however, deplorable or disgraceful, is cancelled. In the company of Jesus Christ the present issue is only “Do you love me, even a little bit?” In the company of Jesus Christ our future unfolds in terms of his commission: “Keep on feeding my sheep.”

Does anyone doubt all this?  Is anyone in suspense concerning it?   Suspense disappears as morning by morning we step ahead knowing that our Lord is resurrection and life, and therefore our past and present and future are comprehended in him and his newness.

[b] The second pronouncement of our Lord that I want us to look at is “I am the vine; you are the branches.         As the branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me….Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit….” Plainly the fruitfulness of our life depends on our keeping company with our Lord, his abiding in us and our abiding in him.  At the same time, such mutual indwelling guarantees our fruitfulness. This point is crucial, for all of us are prone to fasten on the unfruitfulness we think we see, the unfruitfulness (apparently) for which others blame us, and, worst of all the seeming unfruitfulness for which we blame ourselves.

At all times and in all circumstances we have to know that as long as we so much as aspire to keep company with our Lord, our life isn’t going to dribble away in final uselessness and insignificance regardless of how much or how little we think we see it amounting to. In other words, we are not the measure of ourselves.

You must have noticed that the arrogant, self-important person always assumes that he is the measure of himself, and is always convinced that he has triumphed.  Having made himself the measure of his significance, he pronounces himself superior.

At the same time, the self-rejecting person assumes every bit as much that he’s the measure of himself too; he’s convinced that he has failed. Having made himself the measure of his significance, he pronounces himself inferior.

Our society tends to deploy one measuring rod above all others: salary. The expression “a good job” means only one thing: a highly paid job.  Oh yes, we do make exceptions here and there: large sums of money gained criminally don’t count as “a good job”.  Still, wealth remains the first measure of human significance.

Then we make subdivisions within this first significance: the athlete and the judge may make the same money, but the judge’s work is more important. The factory auto worker and the school teacher may make the same money, but the teacher’s work is more important.

In the church we make a further subdivision: if we are engaged in a “spiritual” occupation – minister, missionary – then our work is more significant than that of Christians who are engaged in banking or baking.

But Jesus undercuts all of this:  “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit”.  That’s it. He doesn’t say we are going to see much fruit; he doesn’t say we’re going to be recognized for much fruit.  He simply guarantees that as long as we trust, obey and pray our lives are going to possess kingdom significance; which is to say, our lives are going to bear fruit of eternal substance and worth regardless of that value we think we or others can put upon them.

I’m convinced this point is crucial.  We pour ourselves into one of our children and she turns out as we’ve always hoped, whereupon we congratulate ourselves.  We pour ourselves equally into another who turns out differently and ask ourselves, “Where did we go wrong?”  Neither approach is correct.  All we can do is pour ourselves upon those given to us, aspire to abide in Christ as surely as he abides in us, and trust him to render our existence fruitful with that fruitfulness that he alone supplies, he alone sees, and he alone has promised to preserve.


Frustrated people shouted at Jesus, “Don’t keep us in suspense.  If you are the One we await, the One in whom God’s kingdom becomes operative, tell us plainly.”  But our Lord won’t, and won’t just because he refuses to satisfy the inquisitiveness of detached spectators.  Instead he says, “If you want to know who I am as much as you say you want to know, come with me; follow; and in following your suspense will evaporate and the answer you seek will be plainer than you ever imagined. And as it is with the truth that he is, so it is with the truths he pronounces.


                                                                                                    Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                   

July 2005