By Craig St. John
As westerners, we have little-to-no value for dependence on anything or anyone. We’re rugged individualists. We pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. We’re self-made. Dependence is weakness. Asking for help or guidance is frowned upon. Those depending upon government assistance are seen as lazy, or even immoral. We love to read rags to riches success stories of those who scraped by to make it through college and then launched a successful business without taking a dime from anyone. To be sure, there’s much to admire in these stories. The biographies of figures such as Oprah Winfrey, Howard Schultz, Meg Whitman, and George Soros are absolutely fascinating and inspiring. Very few of us care to read about trust fund tech entrepreneurs who never had to make a risky pitch to a venture capitalist, because mommy or daddy secured the meetings and financing for them. But that doesn’t mean going at it alone is the way to live life. It’s not as if “self-made” billionaires didn’t receive countless help in one form or another along their road to success.
I’m the worst at asking for help. My wife, Jess, points this out to me often and can share with you how frustrating this is. Just last week, we were getting new flooring all throughout our house, so every piece of furniture had to be moved out to the garage. While I could—and should—have asked for help from a couple friends, I moved 95% of our upstairs furniture—including two sets of bunkbeds—on my own, and then back upstairs after the job was completed (this is not to gloat, by the way; if you’ve met me, you know I’m not a buff dude). I take some sort of pride in struggling through things unnecessarily, and that’s hardly a good thing. I need growth in this area.
Dependence—at least healthy dependence—is a good thing. We were not created to be alone. In Genesis 2:18, we read that God gave Adam a עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדֹּֽו (ezer kenegdo; “help meet” or “helper”)—not someone subordinate to the man, but someone upon whom the man can depend, much like we, as believers, depend on the Holy Spirit as our helper (John 14:26), and apart from whom we would constantly fail. We were created to be in community and depend on one another. And we were also created to depend upon God.
If you’ve been tracking with us over the past seven weeks, you know that our sermon series has been based on our friend Paul Miller’s book, Love Walked Among Us. In each of his twenty-four chapters, Miller highlights a passage from the Gospels, focusing on Jesus’ love for humanity through either his compassion, speaking of truth, dependence upon God, faith, or dying to self. We’re covering just fifteen of those chapters, and are in our first of three weeks on the topic of dependence. This week, we pick up on a nice segue from what we just covered in John 7:53–8:11 (sermon, podcast, blog). There, we went over the story of Jesus and the woman “caught in adultery,” which finds itself in the midst of Jesus’ time at the Festival (or Feast) of Booths (or Tabernacles), in John 7–8.
Now, we’re in John 7:1–9, which Miller covers in his book in Chapter 11. Here, we see that Jesus was in Galilee, as the Jews in Judea were seeking to kill him (v. 1). This sets the stage for these two chapters, which are largely about the ongoing conflict between Jesus and the Jewish rulers who felt threatened by him and the following he was developing. As we covered in our blog post last week, Jesus’ half brothers (and probably sisters too) were headed to Jerusalem (the capital of Judea) to celebrate the Festival of Booths (v. 2). Let’s give a little bit of the historical backdrop here before we move forward.
Looking to the Old Testament, we see in both Exodus 23:16–17 and Leviticus 23 that the Israelites were to participate in what became known as three pilgrim festivals—that is, they were to make pilgrimages to Jerusalem to observe the feasts of Passover or פֶּסַח (Pesach), Pentecost or Weeks or שָׁבוּעוֹת (Shavuot), and Tabernacles or Booths or סֻכּוֹת (Sukkot)—the third of which we are exploring this week. This was a time when the Hebrew people would recall the forty years their ancestors spent wandering in the wilderness, being led by Moses in the midst of their liberation from bondage in Egypt to their awaited promised land. They were to “live in booths for seven days” (Lev. 23:42, NRSV), just as their ancestors did over those forty years. They were to be reminded of how God had delivered them, that he alone is sovereign, that he is gracious, and that they were utterly dependent upon him. In this, they were living humbly, acknowledging that they were nothing apart from YHWH. This is where Jesus’ siblings, as faithful Jews, were headed in our present text.
However, we see that their motivation was not all that pure. They said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea so that your disciples also may see the works you are doing…” (John 7:3, NRSV). They wanted Jesus, as if he were some magician, to be on display, showing off, so they could point and say that’s their brother. They wanted him to “show (himself) to the world” (v. 4, NRSV). Furthermore, as the Jews were long awaiting a messiah who would deliver them from Roman occupation, they saw this as a political rally. Millions of Jews would be in Jerusalem and would see the power of this figure who could lead them to victory. Much to their dismay, however, Jesus came humbly, to serve, suffer, and die—and he was far from victorious until he conquered the grave. While he devoted his life to service, most of those whom he served would ultimately turn on him. He was, by no means, a successful politician or revolutionary. He never sought to live up to human standards, including those of his own siblings. He only sought the will of his Father in heaven. He did not seek greatness in the way we would normally imagine (Matt. 20:26–27); rather, he surrendered his own will to the will of the Father (Matt. 26:39). He was dependent upon his Father.
Out of this dependence, Jesus told his siblings that he would not be “going up to this feast” (John 7:8, ESV). John employs one of his favorite Greek verbs here, ἀναβαίνω (anabainō), “to go up.” He uses double, or probably triple, entendre here, to refer not only to Jesus “going up to this feast,” but also going up on the cross, being raised from the dead, ascending into heaven, and being glorified. Jesus further said that his “time has not yet fully come” (v. 8, NRSV). By this, he meant it was not yet his time to be betrayed, arrested, convicted, tortured, and murdered. The heavenly Father determined his καιρός (kairos, time); he did not. Praying at Gethsemane, this was something he dreaded. His flesh desired that “this cup pass from (him)” (Matt. 26:39, NRSV). But, he continued to pray to his Father, “not what I want but what you want.” Being 100% human, he faced the same fears and temptations we face. He feared what was ahead. And he was also probably tempted by the allure of fame. He frequently needed to seek solitude to pray to the Father, seeking his guidance and will, and he also needed to be empowered by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 4:1). But, being 100% God, he was also able to be perfectly obedient.
In walking through this passage, Miller exhorts us to say “yes” to the will of God, rather than to our own will. Saying “yes” to our own will, in fact, pollutes our love. He gives us a graphic illustration of this pollution. He says its like inviting a skunk into the basement, where there’s zero ventilation or way for either it or us to escape. In the same way it releases its stench into that environment, we stink up the world around us when we seek our own will, rather than that of God.
Continuing with being in a basement, he tells us about a time when his daughter, who has a special need, spilled a box of crayons in their basement. His immediate impulse was to help her, which was not entirely out of pure motivation. He just knew that he could clean up the mess more quickly than she could. But instead, he paused and came to his senses enough to ask her if she wanted his help. She did not. Her special need required the practices of bending down, using her fingers, and picking them up on her own. He chose to forsake his own will and instead to seek what not only that will of his daughter might be, but, more importantly, what might also be the will of the Father, who is a better Father to his daughter than he could ever be. Miller writes that we should stop and pray over something as seemingly mundane as whether to pick up a child’s crayons.
As a father, I can relate. In the midst of what is often a chaotic life in our home with four kids, ages two to six, I often find it easier to clean up my kids’ messes and then get back to something like blog writing, than it is to slow down, seek discernment, and do what is best for my kids. Sure, they may take substantially more time in performing the task at hand, but they will learn so much more through guided participation than they will through their dad or mom cleaning up every mess. Their heavenly Father knows infinitely better than I do what is best for them. And I should constantly be seeking his will when it comes to parenting rather than my own.
We seek God’s will not only through our own in-the-moment prayers, which are of extreme significance, but also through the daily ritual of devoted time to God’s word and appointed, not just spontaneous, times of prayer. For many of us, that is in the morning before our day begins. However, going even further, the way in which we focus on the will of God is not only done in isolation and as part of a daily routine—we also need to do it corporately, and at certain times through the year that disrupt our regular schedules.
As a local church, in our RCs or small groups, and as families, we need to find ourselves in regular rhythms that keep us tethered to our triune God. As Israel did, and Jews still do, with their appointed feasts, we, as Christians (who have been modeling the same for two thousand years), need to get out of our routines and seek God’s will together, which includes doing so at times structured by the Church calendar. For centuries, the Church—the global body of Christ—has become disciplined during set times of the year to corporately refocus its attention. Through seasons such as Lent, leading up to Easter, and Advent, leading up to Christmas, we allow our daily schedules to be disrupted as we both individually and collectively practice set times of prayer, meditation, reflection, and worship. And on March 6th, Christians all over the globe will observe Ash Wednesday, which launches the Lenten season (stay tuned for podcasts, blog posts, and events surrounding that special time of focusing on Christ and his work and our dependence on him).
Humankind was not created to be alone (Gen. 2:18). We were created to depend on God, but not only for our own personal relationship with him. We were created to be a community. But the health of our community is not dependent on the will of one another; instead, it’s on the will of God. Having the mind of Christ among us (Phil. 2:5), we will properly look out for the interests of others (Phil. 2:4). Jesus’ siblings unknowingly did not have their own best interest in mind. But mercifully, their brother always had his mind on his Father’s will first, for the sake of all creation.
Church, let us seek to model that same devotion to the will of our heavenly Father. Let’s seek first his kingdom, for the benefit of all those in our midst. Having the mind of Christ, loving like Christ, and being devoted to the will of the Father can have a tremendous transformative effect—not only within our own being, but within our city and beyond. We can truly love those in need in our midst if we seek to love them the way God does. Churches and ministries are ultimately only sustainable if they have proper motivation. While our flesh alone will always fail, remaining grounded in the will of God only promises to do the unimaginable, for the sake of everyone in our midst.
1 Gail R. O’Day, “The Gospel of John: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in vol. IX, Luke—John, The New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2015).
2 Paul E. Miller, Love Walked Among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2014).