Last week I shared that John the Baptist didn’t feel worthy of the call on his life. I also suggested that could be the spiritual epidemic that unites us…all of us have to battle the forces in our lives that tell us we are not the very good people God created us to be. In Matthew 11: 2-11 today, we hear Jesus set the record straight. Not only is John the Baptist a mighty prophet and friend of Jesus, but ANY of us who choose to believe are too! That is the origin of our joy.
“When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, those with a skin disease are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What, then, did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What, then, did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ “Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
The last shall be first and the first shall be last in the kingdom of heaven. It’s one of the most provocative theological statements Jesus ever makes- and he says it a lot. When Jesus suggests his value system is entirely different from the competitive world around us, I believe him. Because the ancient story of Christ’s birth is radically different than any of us might expect. Sure, this side of history we’ve made his birth kind of sweet with songs like Away in a Manger, no crib for a bed. That’s just a poetic way of saying Jesus was homeless, his mother a young unwed refugee. It doesn’t get more humble than this. Case in point: would Jesus’ birth today get any traction in the news headlines or social media feeds? I don’t know anyone who considers a migrant refugee giving birth to be news at all, let alone good news.
Even John the Baptist, the prophet paving the way for Jesus’ ministry questions: is he the real deal, though? We want to believe, right? But it’s so hard to believe in Jesus’ power sometimes because it doesn’t look anything like we’ve been taught about power. Power demands, power consumes, power belittles others. Meanwhile Jesus heals, he renews sight & hearing, he offers good news to the poor. What kind of power is this, we wonder?
This week during my Monday contemplative practice gathering with other pastors, we focused on this text from Matthew. Pastor Dee in this group is blind and has multiple impairments within her post-80 year-old body. I was struck by the response she gave to Jesus’ message. See, I could never hear this story like she does, especially as it relates to healing. As is the case for her, many folks know there’s no miracle awaiting them. Just the impairment they live with day in and day out). So the obvious question emerges: where’s Jesus’ power at work in my life? Maybe you’ve asked this question yourself.
Pastor Dee shared something this week I hadn’t known about her: she teaches tai chi; one component of this is dancing. Now, many in her group are not able to physically dance. Even so, they practice something I find truly inspiring: they allow their hearts to dance. In so doing, Dee finds the healing she seeks within her heart rather than her eyes. For her, Jesus’ transformative healing does not have to happen in the physical realm for her spirit to be set free.
Wow, I could have NEVER heard that in Jesus’ story, let alone preached it. I need Dee to help me build a bigger vision of God’s kingdom here on earth. I need you too. Jesus needed John the Baptist, even when he felt unworthy. We need each other, especially when we can’t quite find the strength to believe in ourselves. Can we do something for one another? Can we practice setting aside all the reasons we think we’re not worthy to carry Jesus sandals? Can we learn to listen to one another’s perspectives in order to see that Jesus’ power IS already at work in each of us?
“Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist, yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” This is the power reversal Jesus’ own entrance into this world offers us- a chance to see ourselves as worthy of being a part of God’s kingdom. Are you worthy of following Christ? Of course you are- you were born for it! The point is not who is worthy (all are worthy), the point is- are you ready to follow the vision? To catch the joy?
When Jesus heals people, giving sight to the blind, the lame another chance to walk again…he’s making disciples by connecting them with their internal wellspring of joy. The thing about joy (that differs from happiness) is this: once you’ve decided to live in joy, no one can take it away from you. You understand it’s been within you the whole time, just waiting for you to catch hold. Most importantly, joy is a transformation of the spirit, like learning to dance with your heart.
I’ve found that contemplative practices are a powerful way to connect with my own internal wellspring of joy. I’d like to invite you all to join me in a NEW practice for our congregation. Beginning Monday January 2nd, 2023 at 12:10pm, I would love for you to join in reading the scripture for the coming week’s sermon together in a contemplative way. 40 minutes each week, we will hear, wait, listen, and respond to Jesus’ call in our lives. A call to live into joy. I will guide us, but you have the insights you already need for this practice. Please do not be scared by the word contemplative. All of us can listen and learn.
Maybe contemplative study of scripture isn’t what will feed your soul. Monday mornings are not a prescription for finding joy in your life, it’s simply one invitation. Perhaps you feel connected with joy through acts of service or quiet prayers while soaking in the sunshine; maybe joy comes for you through time spent in nature. Or is it a coffee date with a spiritual friend? Whatever inspires you to catch the joy within, trust that Jesus IS calling you to participate in the prayer we offer each week: may God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. How will we know our prayers are answered? Lives are transformed, hearts are filled with joy.
I believe with all my heart that each of us is created good. Very good. I also believe many forces in this world try to trick us into being people we aren’t. Some tricky forces even make their way into our hearts…making us people who are fearful and violent rather than faithful and at peace. Jesus, being both human and divine, is the one who helps us back to being the very good people we are. That’s the story we prepare our hearts to hear this Advent.
Matthew 3: 1-12
3 In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” 3 This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’ ”
4 Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5 Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region around the Jordan were going out to him, 6 and they were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming for his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Therefore, bear fruit worthy of repentance, 9 and do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 “I baptize you with water for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is more powerful than I, and I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
I love this story. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Yet as often as I’ve read it, I hadn’t noticed until this week that John the Baptist gets something wrong. He says, “I am not worthy to carry Jesus’ sandals.” That’s not true. He says it in the context of being a messenger of repentance. I wonder if he’s thinking about all the things he’s let into his heart that are not good. He does use some pretty harsh imagery for trees that don’t bear fruit and chaff burned off from the wheat. He’s wrestling with his own demons here- that’s the only way he would know the power of repentance.
Over the years I’ve defined repentance in several ways. At its core it means: turn around- go in the opposite direction. Using John’s imagery, it means being able to recognize when we’re NOT producing good fruit. Because when we can recognize it’s happening, we can start producing good fruit again! Being the people we are created to be.
A lot of people who read this text focus on the Pharisees, or the very cheery advent term “you brood of vipers.” These are folks who think their lineage (born into wealth & influence) makes them better than others. This is a problem, but I don’t think wealth & influence is the core issue. I think what John the Baptist eludes to himself is the problem. People who don’t believe they’re worthy of dignity try to take it from others. That’s the core motivation for greed and violence.
This is my theory about why we can’t achieve world peace. I believe that deep down, people in power who choose greed and self-indulgence, even to the point of enacting policies of violence against others, don’t actually know their own worth- they’re trying to fill a spiritual void with earthly things. Bullies have been bullied, we know this, or at least they think power is something outside of themselves to be gained by taking it away from another.
Bullies are not alone- most people I know have a really hard time accepting their worth. Jesus created us good, very good, we don’t need to prove ourselves to anyone else. It’s the destructive forces in this world, like greed and fear and hatred that try to convince us otherwise. I’d go as far as to say this is what makes humans spiritual equals. All of us struggle at times to claim ourselves worthy of producing good fruit.
When we hear God’s voice, calling us the very good humans we are, that’s when repentance happens. THAT’S when we say, “God, I’ve gotten it wrong. I don’t need to steal someone else’s dignity to find my own. YOU produce good fruit in me, I will cultivate what you have sown. Let that be enough.” But cultivation is hard work. Those evil forces don’t rest. Bearing good fruit is labor, and labor hurts.
When Jesus said YES to his path on earth, he knew he’d have to sacrifice his power to give us ours. And by enduring the evil forces of this world on our behalf, he redeemed humanity’s chance at getting it right. He gave us back the ability to see clearly- to understand in our very spirits that our worth is NOT of this world. Our worth is revealed in the good fruit of hope, peace, joy, and love.
This is what it means to bear fruit worthy of repentance. To admit when we are wrong, when we’ve hurt another. To turn over a new leaf when we are not producing good fruit. If we ALL knew the power of repentance, (leaders & everyday citizens alike) I believe we’d experience true peace. But not everyone is ready to hear the voice crying out in the wilderness, not all are able to be their truest selves just yet.
We can get focused on world peace, something abstract and likely not within our reach to change. But we DO have agency over our hearts & our everyday decisions. Let’s use this Advent season to be people who reflect on the fruit of our lives. What forces are at work trying to make us OTHER than the good people God created? These forces aren’t mysterious- they’re often mundane. When I lose my patience with my kids, it’s because I haven’t prioritized rest, prayer, play, and nutritious food. Those are the ingredients I need to bear the fruit of peace in my home. So why don’t I? That’s the question a repentant spirit will ask.
What ingredients do you need to grow good fruit of hope, peace, joy, & love? What forces must you say NO to in order to prioritize the health of your very good mind, body, and soul? “God, help us cultivate what you have sown, let that be enough as our Advent prayer today, amen.”
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.