Suspense and tension is a key element of storytelling, which means it is a tried-and-true element in books and films. Personally, I love a good suspense filled book or movie—my wife, not so much. She will read the end of the book before the beginning, and she will make me tell her the outcome of a film before she will watch it.
And that’s how it goes with folks when it comes to movies and books—some love suspense and tension, others, not so much. But when it comes to real life, personal suspense and tension, most of us all fall into the not so much category.
New York literary agent Noah Lukeman says, “Suspense is an important tool for novelists. As long as a writer can maintain suspense in his or her stories, readers will keep reading even if the plot is thin, and the character development is weak.”
Ian Irvine, author of more than two dozen novels adds, “A good story, at the very least, has a strong hero figure and a strong adversary. Tension and suspense then derive from the struggle between the two. The suspense works if we, as readers, can align ourselves with, and feel empathy for, the hero.” Both of these perspectives—suspense and tension, hero verses adversary— develop in our text of today.
The hero in this story is, of course, Jesus, and the adversaries are some of his countrymen. Jesus is visiting the temple and “the Jews gathered around him” as the NRSV mildly puts it. Other scholars put it, “they ringed about him, preventing his escape and with hostile purpose.” You can feel the tension mounting. Suspense. Ironically, however, it’s these Jewish leaders who claim to be in suspense, and they’re claiming that it’s Jesus who has put them there! “How long will you keep us in suspense?” they say to him. “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” It’s almost as if they are saying, “Tell us plainly…or else.”
Tension. Suspense. Good for a book or a movie, but not so much when it’s real life.
What then does this episode say to us as we read it, particularly on this side of Easter and Pentecost when we have no sense of suspense about what happens to Jesus— neither in this episode, nor in the long run?
I think it says to us that we need to realize that the suspense comes from not what will happen to Jesus, but rather, what will happen to us? What will we do with the suspense and tension that comes into our lives, and we are the one’s confronting Jesus?
When considering our text for today, a question worth asking ourselves is: Like in a good novel or movie do we connect with any character in this group, keeping in mind Jesus’ response to the question about whether he was the Messiah, particularly when he said, “I have told you, and you do not believe.”
Are any of us in that group—those whose belief in Jesus is either shaky or missing? It’s a question worth asking ourselves because it can happen to the best of us.
Maybe down deep, we’re a little confused about Jesus and the claims he makes. Maybe we’re curious but not convinced. Maybe we get suspended between heaven and earth, faith and unbelief. We can waver— sitting on the fence—and we’re not sure on which side we’re going to fall.
Or, maybe there’s some tension in our practice of faith right now. We know we haven’t exactly behaved as though we are followers of Christ. We give only lip service to some of the most basic practices of the faith and in our professional or personal lives, and no one would ever suspect that we profess to be practicing Christians, and if they knew they might say, “You? Ha! No way!” And this bothers us, and we sense our life is in tension right now between what we want to do and what we actually do; tension between our ideals and our reality.
Perhaps there’s tension about whether we should forgive someone who has hurt us; or how we should handle a concern about our marriages; whether we should speak up about a work practice that seems questionable; or whether we can give up some habit we know is wrong or harmful. Or maybe we reason, “What does one little look hurt?” “What does one corner cut really matter?”
This all leads to tension and suspense in our lives where we can actually become both our own hero and our own adversary—which can happen because too often we feel we are on our own, with no one to help us, and no one to watch us.
It’s easy to identify with the Jews who surround Jesus and ask him, “How long…” “Tell us plainly.” How long will you leave us in suspense with the questions we want and need answers to that you have made us believe you can answer. How often have we pleaded with God, “Tell me plainly…”
Tell me plainly why there’s so much injustice!
Tell me plainly why there’s war and hate!
Tell me plainly what I am supposed to do!
Tell me plainly why I’m supposed to suppress love in some, but support it in others.
Tell me plainly will my loved one live or die—will I live or die?
The “tell me plainly prayers” that have been offered are more than the stars. And never do we get the “plainly” response we want and need. Always we are left in suspense, wondering, “How long Lord? How…long…? And in asking the question we take on a noble and heroic manner—after all, we’re trying to make life better. But when the answers don’t come we can become angry and resentful which lead us to behavior and actions that are a detriment to ourselves, and maybe others.
But here’s the thing—The answer’s we seek, the assurance we want—they never come because of any heroic actions we take. They all come when we give ourselves to Jesus, let him become our shepherd, listen for his voice, and follow him. Jesus has already responded to our “Tell me plainly” prayers. And he has answered them by saying, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand.” Jesus has done his part. Now we need to do our part.
So then, what is our part? First we need to read our bibles and examine our lives in the light of Scripture—particularly the Gospels. Read the Gospels and then ask yourself, “Does my life—my words and actions—sound and look like those of Jesus?”
Just after the New Year, a local church put on their changeable letter sign “Read Your Bible This Year.” At first I scoffed at the naiveté their message displayed—as if a church sign is going to motivate people to do such a thing. But while it is naïve, there is great power in the message because we can find direction, and example for our lives in the Bible—particularly the Gospels.
Second, when it comes to suspense, we really need to stop, think about Jesus and realize, what suspense?
Remember that, although the Jewish leaders claimed Jesus was keeping them in suspense, Jesus shot back that on the contrary—he had removed all suspense. The fault lay not with any failure on Jesus’ part, but lay, instead, with those who, apparently, did not have ears to hear.
Could this be true of us? Do we feel some sort of tension and suspense in our lives, when the answers have already been provided? Could it be that we have not had hearts and minds open to hear and heed what we’ve already been told?
And lastly, we need to stop playing the role of victim.
Yes we have struggles and worries that leave us in tension and suspense. Yes life is hard, and we have a million “Tell me plainly” laments. The danger is we can get so entrenched in that spot that we get comfortable and we make ourselves a victim and a martyr— “Woe is me, I tried the heroic path, but the giant still slayed me.” Wallowing in, focusing on, dwelling upon, fixating our identity based on our life’s tensions gets us nowhere.
So instead, let us get up and identify ourselves as those who, despite tension and suspense, still keep moving forward, and follow Jesus—because after a while, that tension and suspense won’t feel so uncomfortable to us, and it can be the spark that fires us up, energizes us and empowers us, to do the work God has called us to do—beginning with the work of following Jesus.
I firmly believe that tension and suspense is a good thing. It’s good in movies and books, and it’s good in our lives. Suspense and tension in our lives becomes a living reminder that we are here, and that we are in need of a true hero because we can’t do this alone. And thankfully we don’t have to.
We are on this side of Easter and Pentecost—this side where the resurrection assures us of life eternal and Pentecost assures us of the Holy Spirit’s constant and abiding presence that will be with us to the end of time.
And being on this side of Easter and Pentecost means that when we give ourselves to Jesus, and let him become our shepherd, and we become his sheep…
…When we listen for his voice and follow him…then we can be assured that the suspenseful banter between our inner hero and our inner adversary will always result in the victory of new and eternal life.
Yes, it will take intentional effort, each day making the conscious choice to let Jesus lead our lives, but with each day we do, it becomes more and more and more of a way of life. And following Jesus is a way of life we all can live with. Amen.
Wise and loving God, you graciously impart to your church all the gifts we need to serve you, and you give us your Spirit to empower our use of these gifts. Yet, time and again, we try to do things in our own power, in our own way, and in our own time— and, of course, the inevitable happens. We become frustrated, we feel burdened and weary, we burn out.
Holy God, you sent us your son, our merciful Savior, who is the faithful and good shepherd who laid down his life to protect the sheep entrusted to him. Such is the love that characterizes the kingdom of God, and to which we are called as your followers. For he is the Christ, the Messiah, your anointed One.
So remind us once more of your ever-present invitation to rest in you, to abide in your love, to trust in your ways and to wait for you. Grace us with your Spirit that we might let go, and allow you to direct our paths.
Then conform us to the likeness of your Son, Jesus Christ. We know that he was patient, full of love, and never selfish. We know that he cared for the poor and broken, and he welcomed the least of these into his arms. We know that he was one with you, that he always made time for prayer. We know that he knew the Scriptures and was always proclaiming the good news of the kingdom.
And because we know this O God, we desire to be like Jesus, and pray you form us and mold us, so that the world will see him in us.
God of life, you have told us the truth. Kingdom love and life is the way of suffering. It is the way of self-sacrifice. It involves crosses, and yielding our will to your will. So we pray you help us. Help us believe, help us listen to, and help us follow the voice of the one who loves us with an everlasting love.
We ask that you would listen well to the prayers that we want and need to offer to you, in this time of Holy Silence.
All this we pray in the name of our Lord, who we strive to follow, Jesus the Christ, who taught us to pray saying, “Our…”