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.
Rev. Emily Munger
delights in connecting sacred texts with everyday life.