They could not believe

April 14, 2014

Dear brothers and sisters,

I am taking the good news today from John 12:37-43.

After he had said this, Jesus left and hid from them. Although he had performed so many signs in their presence they did not believe in him, in order that the word which Isaiah the prophet spoke might be fulfilled: “Lord, who has believed our preaching, to whom has the might of the Lord been revealed?” For this reason they could not believe, because again Isaiah said: “He blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might not see with their eyes and understand with their heart and be converted, and I would heal them.” Isaiah said this because he saw his glory and spoke about him. Nevertheless, many, even among the authorities, believed in him, but because of the Pharisees they did not acknowledge it openly in order not be expelled from the synagogue. For they preferred human praise to the glory of God.

The first scripture quote is from Isaiah 53:1. “Who would believe what we have heard? To whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?” I can hear the followers of Jesus, those who had witnessed his healing ministry and heard his message, asking themselves these questions especially as they were persecuted and expelled from the Jewish community. They were a tiny minority of believers beset all on sides by skepticism, rejection, and enmity.

The second quote is from Isaiah 6:9-10. “And he [God] replied [to Isaiah]: Go and say to this people: Listen carefully, but you shall not understand! Look intently, but you shall know nothing! You are to make the heart of this people sluggish, to dull their ears and close their eyes; Else their eyes will see, their ears hear, their heart understand, and they will turn and be healed.” Keep in mind that this was a prophesy of Isaiah to the Israelites. According to Moloney in The Gospel of John, the early Christians believed that Isaiah was able to see the glory of Jesus and linked him to the glory of God. This was a scripture that was also quoted by Matthew, Mark and Luke including Acts as well as by Paul in Romans and 2 Corinthians.

On the face of it this is difficult to understand. Why would God not want His chosen people to hear and see? Barclay explains it this way, “To read them with cold literalness is completely to misunderstand….We must try to think ourselves back into Isaiah’s heart and mind. He had proclaimed the word of God and put everything he had into his message. And men had refused to listen. In the end he was forced to say: ‘For all the good I have done I might as well never have spoken. Instead of making men better my message seems to have made them worse. They might as well never have heard it, for they are simply confirmed in their lethargy and their disobedience and their unbelief. You would think that God had meant them not to believe.’ Isaiah’s words spring from a broken heart. They are the words of a man bewildered by the fact that his message seemed to make men worse instead of better.”

Barclay goes on to explain that Paul saw this as God using the Jews’ unbelief for the purpose of converting the Gentiles. “We must understand this passage to mean, not that God predestined certain people to unbelief, but that even man’s unbelief can be used to further God’s eternal purposes.. These Jews did not believe in Jesus; that was not God’s fault but theirs; but even that has somehow its place in God’s scheme.”

I have had the experience of coming to more clearly understand what I believe when I faced with someone who does not believe. My faith, my belief, my values are often amorphous, unformed in my mind. I just know but in a way that I can’t clearly articulate because I haven’t spent time thoroughly examining what it means to me. Being challenged or being faced with unbelief forces me to go through this mental exercise to answer the question, “What do I believe?” If I fail to examine that question, I am like the Jews whose eyes were blinded and hearts were hardened. If I close my mind to the word of God, to His voice in prayer, to the words of His prophets old and new, I will not be converted. God has put people in my life as His instruments to get me to examine my faith, to understand what I believe. In this way He has healed me. Healed me of prejudice, healed me of judgment, healed me of hatred, healed me of ignorance, healed me of spiritual lethargy.

That’s why I was able to pray for Fred Phelp’s soul when he died a few weeks ago. He helped me examine my beliefs and attitudes. He helped me understand what it means to love someone by accepting them as God made them — even Fred himself. The message of the painting I saw over a year ago at the Lawrence Arts Center has never left my mind. “God loves Fred Phelps.” I stared at that not wanting to believe it until finally I said to myself, “Shit! He does!” In that moment God let me see with my eyes, understand with my heart, and be converted.



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