Summary: God uses us, even in our desire to have and to take, to turn around and give life more abundantly to those who have been hurt, even by the church.
Luther Rice Memorial Baptist Church, Silver Spring, MD August 26, 1984; First Baptist Church of Wheaton, MD, September 17, 1984; Takoma Park Baptist Church, Washington, DC, October 14, 1984
The most delicious of all the thrillers, the most engrossing of all the movie mysteries, is the kind in which the one-time major criminal, now somewhat reformed – or is he? – is asked to turn his coat and to get on the right side of the law and catch another criminal. That's always good for an especially exciting whodunit, because you never really know when the once-upon-a-time major thief will turn back to his old ways, when he will double cross the law and decide that the lure of illicit gold is too much to pass up. It makes for exciting, powerful, engaging drama.
There is old Cary Grant, for instance, being drawn out of retirement to nab the cat burglar who has been committing robberies everywhere, using the old master's exact techniques. The only person who can catch the new cat burglar, so the police figure, is the old cat burglar. And so he is recruited to catch the imposter, as the police grudgingly admit a kind of oblique respect for Cary's expertise. In a word, as the title of the movie suggests, to catch a thief they have to set a thief. The old proverb has it, “Set a thief to catch a thief.” If you want to deal with a scoundrel, then find another scoundrel who understands the wiles and the ways of scoundrels, and you'll be in business. Set a thief to catch a thief.
The ministry of Jesus as reported in John's Gospel had come to a critical juncture. A crisis was brewing, and Jesus seems to have felt it very deeply. In the depths of his soul he knew that he had come to a breaking point, he had arrived at the place where his work and the work of the Temple establishment were parting company. He had just healed the man born blind, as recorded in the ninth chapter of John, and the reaction to that healing was, if you'll pardon the pun, an eye-opener. The reaction on the part of the religious leaders, the Temple establishment, was to put the man out of the synagogue! How astounding, how negative and how punitive! For all the wrong reasons: healed by the Lord of sight and for that reason and no other excluded from the company of God's people. And so Jesus knew that the breach was irreconcilable, that the split between him and the priests was never to be healed.
And thus it is that Jesus chooses the Feast of the Dedication to make that conclusion explicit. The Feast of the Dedication was a Jewish festival which commemorated the foundation of the Temple; it celebrated the central place which the Temple held in Jewish life and worship. And of course if it celebrated the central place of the Temple, this feast also celebrated what went on in the temple, it was designed to highlight the whole system of sacrifices and burnt offerings and formalized ritual; the whole set of observances which surrounded the Temple. And so with biting words, with acid insight, Jesus penetrates to the heart of the meaning of all this ceremony, all this ritual, Jesus cuts right through all the pageantry and pomp, he slices right through all the psalms and the sanctity, and labels that establishment, labels the priests at work there:
All who come before me are thieves and robbers. All who come before me (and you can read that, all who get in my way) are thieves and robbers. And then he characterized them more fully, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.”
Thieves. That's what we're dealing with this morning. Thieves. And it comes as a shock to the system always, doesn't it, to recognize that Jesus could use such harsh language to mark the religious establishment of his day. The good people, the Temple keepers, thieves. Thieves and robbers. And in the metaphor which marks most of this chapter he speaks of God's people as sheep, as little lambs, and of himself as the shepherd, the good shepherd who cares for and who protects his sheep. Remember that in the Temple the main business, day after day and week after week and year after year, the main business was killing sheep. Slaughtering sheep as sacrifices and as offerings to God. But our Lord sees in that whole business something more than offerings; he sees theft, he sees exploitation. Our Lord understands that the Temple is taking and is not giving; our Lord understands that the church of his day is out after people's money and loyalty and time and energies, but gives nothing of value in return.