Aug 202012

By Rev. Patrick Vaughn


I have a confession and men please don’t think less of me.  I’m hooked on the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance.”  Now I could lie and say that Quinn makes me watch it but I genuinely like it.  At the beginning of the season there are auditions and the majority of people trying out are really good but every once in a while they throw in a few train wrecks.  This season at one of the auditions a pretty big guy walks on stage and I’m thinking, “This is going to be a train wreck.”  And then to my surprise he’s a really good hip hop dancer, he even does a couple back flips, and he blows away my expectations as well as the judges.  Plus as, it turned out he’s fromSacramentoand he volunteers in an after school dance program to keep kids off the streets called Peacemakers.  My first impression just by looking at him would never have led me to these conclusions.  I had to see him dance, I had to hear him share his story in order to really know who he was.


First impressions or appearances don’t always lead us to the right conclusions.  Here’s another example.


Susan Boyle clip.[1]


This clip is a couple years old and if you’ve seen it before you knew what was coming but honestly did any of you expect that voice to come out her.  She’s kind of quirky, and a little unkept looking, a bit homely and then boom.  Barbara Streisand like voice.  Totally unexpected.  You’d never had seen it coming unless you actually took the time to hear her sing.


In seminary for a year I was a chaplain atTrentonPsychiatric Hospital.  I met a man in his 60’s who by all appearances was a delusional broken man who had never amounted to much because of his schizophrenia.  To my surprise during moments of clarity in our conversation I learned he had gone toColumbiaLawSchool.  I would have never guessed it if I hadn’t spent time with him.


We make snap judgements based on appearance all the time.  Sometimes our ability to do so is a good thing.  It helps us to stay out of dangerous situations.  It’s our fight or flight wiring that is deep within us.  But, often our evaluations based on appearance prevent us from really getting to know someone or engage a situation fully because we have already made up our minds and we end up writing people off or refuse to get involved.


In today’s scripture John 7:40-52, we find people at the end of a long week of celebration during the festival of Tabernacles. Jesus had been in theTempleinJerusalemall week teaching and engaging in conversation with the crowd, and now they are evaluating his words and actions.


Although the tone of the week was one of celebration, the tone of Jesus’ interaction with the crowd was contentious.  Seven times in chapter seven threat of arrest or attempts to kill Jesus are mentioned.  Tensions are high.  There is controversy and confusion from the start about who Jesus is.


In verse 24 Jesus warns the crowd saying, “Do not judge by appearance, but judge with right judgment.”  “Do not judge by appearance, but judge with right judgment.”  What does it mean to judge with right judgment?


People had been judging Jesus‘ words and actions based on appearances.  Jesus‘ healing of man was condemned because it was work done on the sabbath.  The miracle was evaluated on appearance only, it was a violation of the law.  But, the law was given for life, the sabbath was given for life.  Below the surface was God incarnate bringing healing to a broken man and to a broken world.  Below the surface was the power of God being revealed before their very eyes yet they missed it because they had judged by appearance only.


The crowd judges Jesus‘ preaching in a similar way.  In verses 40-44 we get to eavesdrop on a little patio talk after the service as the crowd evaluates Jesus‘ sermon.  And their reactions are no less controversial or confused than their reactions to his miracles.  Some are saying, “he’s a prophet”, others say “he’s the messiah” but some question his credentials and pedigree and a faction want to arrest him.  Who is this guy?  Jesus’ identity has caused contentious division amongst the crowd.


Now John the evangelist makes us work in his gospel.  He uses metaphor, symbols, and irony to tell us the story of Jesus.  Just like the crowd we are faced with a similar challenge we can judge by appearance and just do a surface reading or we can heed Jesus’ warning and judge with right judgment.  To judge with right judgement means we have to dig in, do some investigation and careful listening.


When we do then we discover the irony of the faction who questions Jesus’ pedigree.  They say, “Surely the Messiah does not come from Galilee, does he?. . .the scripture said that the Messiah is . . . fromBethlehem. . . ” (v. 42)  True on the surface by all appearance, by his accent and the look of his disciples Jesus is fromNazarethinGalilee.  A little back water town in a backwards region from the perspective of the cultured and superior Judeans in and aroundJerusalem.  Their judgement is ironic because if they had done their homework, gotten to know Jesus, they would have learned that indeed he was born inBethlehem.  But, they haven’t and so they disregard his teaching and miss seeing God’s power on display in their midst because their judgement is based on appearances.


It’s said that perception is reality.  Think about it for a second.  As we enter into the thick of the 2012 Presidential Campaign why do you think that both candidates will barrage us with negative campaign ads?  Because if they can create a negative perception in our minds about the other candidate if they can turn that perception into a surface judgement then any other information about their opponent will be influenced by that negative perception.  Our perceptions and pre-conceived notions become reality.  In some ways they prevent us from seeking or even hearing the facts once they are in front of us.


This is even more the case as the scene shifts from the crowd to the chief priests and Pharisees.  This group of men were the religious establishment.  They were the center of religious power and knowledge.  They were also the most zealous when it comes to seeking Jesus‘ arrest.  In fact they had sent temple police to arrest Jesus but to their surprise they return empty handed.


Surprise may be the wrong word.  Clearly they are ticked off.  They ask why haven’t you arrested him and the police respond, “Never has anyone spoken like this!”  But the Pharisees don’t care and tear into the police saying, “Don’t tell us you have been tricked, too?  Hey, has a single one of the leading figures believed in him or any of the Serious [religious scholars]?  Oh, but this mob, who don’t know a thing about the Bible–to [hell] with them.”[2]  Their mind is made up.  Jesus is no prophet, he is no messiah.  He is a deceiver and trickster.  A cheap sidewalk circus act, a magician who has tricked the gullible crowd and naive police.[3]  They have written Jesus off and they’ve written the accursed crowd off, the very people God had called them to lead, serve and shepherd.[4]


Again, the situation is full of irony.  The men appointed and ordained with the knowledge and experience to lead the people to right judgments are the most ignorant.  They are the most guilty of judging on the surface.  At least the crowd has taken time to listen to Jesus firsthand.  The police actually have the gall to stand up to their bosses.  Yet, all these shepherds ofIsraelstick to their surface judgements.  All except one.


Nicodemus, who is a pharisee interjects this question, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?”  It’s not the boldest defense on Jesus behalf but it is a clever one.  Nicodemus, is the same pharisee who in chapter three of John’s gospel visits Jesus under the cover of darkness and now he speaks out in his defense in daylight.  Like I said it may not be a full out endorsement of Jesus but it is a clever question that Nicodemus puts to his colleagues.  Pharisees were uber-legalists.  They sought to follow the letter of the law and so Nicodemus appeals to the law on Jesus’ behalf.  Deuteronomy, Exodus and Leviticus all state people are to be given a fair hearing.[5]  But, even these law scholars don’t care.  Their surface judgment and pre-conceived notions of Jesus as a blasphemer, heretic and rabble rouser override their allegiance to living out the letter of the law.


They spit back at Nicodemus an insult, “Hey are you from Galilee, too?  Go study your bible and you’ll learn that [prophets don’t] come out of Galilee.”  In essence, “Are you as backward as the guy you’re trying to defend right now?”[6]  They tear down Nicodemus rather than addressing his point, which is a valid one because they have passed judgment already based only upon appearances.[7]


They haven’t heard Jesus out or done the work to judge Jesus with right judgment.[8]    Their ears are plugged and they refuse to hear the whole story, that Jesus is God’s only begotten son sent to the world “so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Those are the words Jesus told Nicodemus when he came to him in darkness.


“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Nicodemus chose not to judge on appearances, he went to Jesus, listened, investigated, asked questions and I’m sure pondered those words for many days after their meeting.  And once he gave Jesus a fair hearing, after he had listened, truly listened to what Jesus had to say, the transformation began.  So that weeks later, he finds himself suddenly as the lone advocate for Jesus amongst his hostile peers.  No matter what your evaluation of Nicodemus’ response is, it cannot be denied that Jesus’ words had begun to change him.  Unlike his closed off, self-righteous peers, he is open to conviction.  Open to the transformative power of the Word of God.


Notice it is Jesus’ words more than his miracles that transform.  The police come back empty handed because they had never heard someone speak like Jesus before.  The crowd is astonished and amazed by Jesus’ teaching.  It is after hearing Jesus’ words that some in the crowd say he is a prophet or the Messiah (v. 40-41).  If we are to judge Jesus with right judgment like Nicodemus’ we must hear his words.


So what does it mean to give Jesus a fair hearing, to judge with right judgment who Jesus is today, in our midst, for our church, for our individual lives?    After all it is of utmost importance that we judge Jesus with right judgment because Jesus is just as divisive and controversial today as he was then.  Depending on who you ask Jesus is a myth, a nice guy, the savior, irrelevant, a divine therapist, a prude and moral teacher.  He is a yogi, a sage, the Lord, a joke, one religious teacher among many and a cuss word.  Judging Jesus with right judgment is not only vital for our own sake but for others as well.  As a church if we are to be bearers of Christ and signs of God’s kingdom then we must rightly know who Jesus is.  If we are his witnesses we must know the One on whose behalf we testify.


So how do we do that?  I want to suggest two things that are essential to right judgment.  If we really want to understand and know who Jesus is we must hear Him and then obey him.[9]  Jesus ends his famous sermon on the mount with this parable:


Read Matthew 7:24-27


Right judgment is wise judgment.  Wisdom is not just knowledge but is knowledge that results in action.  It is knowledge that bears fruit.  Psalm one says that the blessed are those whose, “delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law they meditate day and night.  They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither” (Psalm 1:1-3).  Wisdom is hearing and meditating on God’s word that then is translated into action; a life that bears fruit.


Nicodemus serves as an exemplar for all people whether you think Jesus is a prophet, Messiah, Son of God, savior, deceiver, myth or fairy tale.  Go, ask, listen and then act.  Nicodemus went to Jesus and heard what he had to say.  He didn’t depend on the second hand accounts or rumors but went and heard Jesus own words.  Whether you think you know Jesus, want to know Jesus, or are skeptical of Jesus, in order to make a right judgement about him we all have to do the same thing.


If we really want to know Jesus, love Jesus and have lives that bear witness to God’s Kingdom then we must begin by hearing Jesus out.  We must listen to his word and not just passively listen but engage in the spiritual practice of study.  We must become adventurers and explorers of God’s Word.


Richard Foster says, “What we study determines the kind of habits that are formed.”[10]  What do you study and devote your time to understanding?  Is it the ins and outs of fantasy football?  Is it movie trivia, cooking, lawn care?  Or is it a vice pornography, vulgar comedy, hate filled political pundits?  What do you study.  Have you devoted time to study God’s word that leads to life?


Studying God’s word requires: repetition, concentration, humility and reflection.[11]  If you want to learn guitar you can’t study it for a day and be done.  You have to practice daily.  If you want to judge Jesus rightly you must listen to him and God’s word daily.  Hearing Jesus out isn’t a one time deal, you must visit him continually, repetitively.


And when you visit you must be ready to concentrate.  Now I know, because I have a two year old, and work full time and now have a twitter account (@PTVaughn if your wondering) that we live busy distracted lives.  You can’t listen to Jesus and watch TV at the same time.  Maybe you can get your math homework done that way but this is a relationship a conversation.  You must give Jesus your full attention.  So do whatever that takes for you.  Maybe it’s getting up 20 minutes earlier before the kids get up.  Or, turning off the TV 30 minutes earlier, or actually turning your phone off for 20 minutes.  This is a constant challenge.  I know.  There are plenty of times when I would rather kick off my shoes and watch TV, read a magazine, hang with friends, or engineer a trade that will propel me to a fantasy football victory.  But, honestly, honestly what is more important?  Knowing Jesus or being up to date on my facebook status?  What’s more important that my lawn look nice or deepening my understanding of God’s word that I might love my neighbor and in so doing be a sign of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is heaven?


This is where humility comes in. I have to be willing to put my agenda on hold, to surrender it, so that my agenda might become His agenda.  Instead of plowing the field the way I think is best I must take Jesus yoke upon me and learn his cadence, walk in his ways, and leaning into his strength.[12]  When I open up God’s word I must come with a holy expectancy.  Expecting God to speak, to convict me, to encourage me, to transform me.  Humility means laying aside my expectations and pre-conceived ideas of what Jesus should be saying or what others have told me Jesus says and listening as if for the first time with fresh ears even if it is a passage I have heard a thousand times before.


Finally, hearing Jesus doesn’t end with listening.  We must reflect and ponder God’s word.  Like a cow chewing on cud, we need to chew on God’s word.  I wonder how many hours Nicodemus chewed on the words of Jesus from their meeting in the dark.  And as he chewed on them within the context of his life and learning as a Pharisee slowly but surely light started to shine exposing those attitudes and practices that needed transforming.  And then suddenly maybe by surprise he finds himself in broad daylight instead of the dark speaking up on Jesus behalf.  Reflection is the collision of Jesus’ words with our lives and our culture.  It is asking:  What does Jesus affirm, question, deny in my American worldview?  Reflection is the bridge to action, and loving obedience.


After Jesus death Nicodemus who had once come in the dark came in the light to anoint the body of Jesus with a super abundance, 100 pounds of spices and aloes.[13]  It was a sign of love, a confession of faith, reflection turned into action.  In that anointing Nicodemus confesses that Jesus is God’s anointed, the Savior and the Lord.


Right judgment of Jesus leads to building our lives on Jesus which means belief that results in action and fruit.  Hearing leads to obedience as an act of love.  Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these” (John 14:12).  Believing in Jesus means we do what he does.  We love, forgive, restore, reconcile, make peace, heal, fight for justice, advocate for the poor, befriend the lonely.  To do the works of Jesus everyday and in every sphere of our life we have to study.  We have to reflect on God’s Word and do the work that it takes to translate and embody it in the context of our life.  Asking who Jesus is leads us to who we are to be.  Embodying Jesus in our lives mean we ask challenging questions like: “How does one live and proclaim the gospel in the midst of a culture where ‘anything goes,’ and where tolerance is the cardinal virtue and the right of the individual to choose his or her own lifestyle must be respected above all?  What does it mean to follow Christ in art, education, politics, marriage and sexuality, economics, and business?”[14]  When we hear, study and obey we drink deeply from Jesus and when we drink deeply from Jesus, he promises that out of us will flow streams of living water.  Water that Jim reminded us is to flow out of our lives and our church into our neighborhoods and city that all might be nourished by the one who is making all things new.  Water that flows out of us so that the earth might be flooded with God’s truth and love, grace and justice, mercy and joy.


Are you willing to judge Jesus with right judgment?  Will you hear him out?   Are you ready to obey and follow where he leads in your family life, in your business decisions, in your political talk during this presidential run, in what you do in the dark, in what you do with your money?  Jesus is ready, ready to give you drink, ready to teach, to train, to lighten your load and to transform you through his Word that you might be a sign, instrument and foretaste of the Kingdom of God on earth now as it is in heaven.  Amen.


[1] To see the clip go to youtube and search “Susan Boyle first audition”

[2] Dale Brunner’s paraphrase from The Gospel of John: A Commentary

[3] Dale Brunner notes that “This crowd” literally means people of the land.  The religious establishment discredits them because they’re just a bunch of blue collar hicks who are not qualified to figure out who Jesus really is.

[4] Hence, God’s severe warning against the shepherds (the priests and prophets ofIsrael) in Ezekiel 34:1-24

[5] Deuteronomy 1:16-17, 17:4, 19:18-19; Exodus 23:1; Leviticus 19:15-16

[6] Dale Brunner’s paraphrase of the scripture and insult.  He also points out this is called “arguing to the person” rather than to the point, and its a frequently used evasive tactic.

[7] The irony actually goes even deeper.  The ones who accuse the crowd of not knowing their bibles are now the ones who don’t know theirs because the Prophet Jonah as 2 Kings tells us is from the town ofGath-hepher, which is inGalilee.  The knowledgeable and wise are now the ignorant ones who do not know Jesus’ true origins because they have not searched or listened to Jesus’ own words and deny that any prophet comes fromGalilee when scripture clearly says Jonah did.

[8]  Three times Jesus clearly tells the crowd he has been sent from God.  Jesus is clear about who he is and there is an urgency to his communication.  He cried out, “let anyone who is thirsty come to me.”  And, yet because people judge by appearance they do not hear, they do not come.  “My teaching is not mine but his who sent me” (v.16); “You know me, and you know where I am from.  I have not come on my own.  But the one who sent me is true” (v. 28); “I will be with you a little while longer, and then I am going to him who sent me. (v.33).

[9] See Matthew 7:24-27 and Luke 11:28

[10] Celebration of Disciplines, 64.

[11] These categories of study are derived from Richard Foster’s chapter on the discipline of study in Celebration of Disciplines, which I highly recommend for further understanding the discipline of study.

[12] Matthew 11:25-30

[13] John 19:39-40

[14] Questions taken from Living at the Crossroads by Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew