Joy is a short but powerful word. One that is often equated with happiness. But here’s the thing, in the English Standard Version of the Bible, words like “joy,” “rejoice,” or “joyful” appear about 430 times, compared with “happy” or “happiness,” which appear only ten times.
Happiness lives in the head. It’s fleeting, in that it comes and goes depending on your experience or mood. Joy is different. It’s permanent. It lingers deep within our hearts whether we feel it or not. I think that’s because it’s not our joy, but God’s joy in us.
So, we light this candle to remind us that no matter how difficult life might seem, we can find joy knowing that Jesus is our Emmanuel, which means, God with us.
Last week, we met John the Baptist by the sandy banks of the Jordan River and learned about his baptism of repentance. That is to say, to change our thinking so we change our seeing and doing to be inline with God’s way and not our own.
Today, the lectionary takes us back to that familiar face but in an unexpected place. As we think about what we are to look for, let us open our hearts to hear what the Gospel of Matthew has to offer.
(Read: Matthew 11:2-11 here)
For the last six years or so, I have been corresponding with someone who’s serving a 15-year sentence in a federal prison. Every 4-6 weeks I’ll get a letter telling me about his prison ministry classes, and how he’s trying to keep his head straight. My replies are often quick notes telling him what’s going on in my life, and to let him know I am praying for him. Occasionally I’ll send a sermon or two to give him something to read.
Over the years, he’s never asked for anything outside getting some of our mutual friends to write him. As far as I know, I am the only one outside his family who stays in touch with him. In the first century, prison wasn’t that much different than it is today. It was a way station where one awaited trial where they’d be exonerated, exiled, or executed.
The big difference between then and now was: taxpayers didn’t foot the bill. Prisoners relied on family and friends to bring food, water and blankets and stuff. This is what the followers in John’s Redemptive Movement were doing when they brought their teacher the latest news about the Messiah. We don’t know what they told him, but whatever it was it rattled John enough to send them out to see if Jesus was the real deal like he’d proclaimed.
Now, imagine if you were the one being sent on this mission. How would you know what to look for? Someone walking on water, or turning water into wine? Or someone who looked like a warlord or Marvel action hero?
Most people who encounter Jesus were regularly confused about who he really was, because Jesus was like no other. And rarely was he what they thought to expect. Given their question, I think John’s disciples were no different. This makes me wonder how well we’d do at identifying the Messiah today.
In our post 9/11 world, what would we do if we saw 13 homeless middle eastern men roaming around our neighborhood? I’m sure our first instinct would be to call the cops. And not risk everything to follow them. So, how will we know? What do we look for? Today’s text gives us some very clear indications.
Matthew reminds us that we can always tell the authenticity of a person, not by what they say, or wear, or what titles they have…but by the fruit they produce. Or you can do what John’s disciples did. They just straight up asked Jesus directly, “Are you the one we’re looking for?”
And Jesus, God bless his patience, answers their question by echoing Isaiah, the prophet who had paved the way for how Israel would find healing and restoration. You will know the Messiah when the blind regain sight, when people look at things in whole new ways.
You will know when the lame walk, and those who play to their victimhood are no longer cripple by it. When the lepers and marginalized are restored and honored. When those who are stone deaf to accepting God’s love begin to hear and find grace. When people who we consider morally and spiritually dead become alive to their Christ-conscious self. And my favorite, you will know the Messiah when the poor have good news proclaim to them. [Rohr]
Whenever and wherever you see these fruits, you will know the one sent by God.
It’s no surprise that many of us have trouble finding Christ, muchless seeing him in our midst, because like Richard Rohr points out, “more often than not, we’re looking for the wrong messiah.” Just as John’s disciples were probably looking for a military leader to overthrow the Roman Empire and restore Israel’s place in the world, we want someone who will single us out and put us on the top because “we all want to be on the top.”
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But here’s the thing, like Irene Maliaman notes, “Jesus is not this kind of savior. He did not come with military might or wealth. His way of saving the world is through soft power – sacrificial and loving service.” We tend to “reject the Jesus of the gospels and look for another version of the Messiah that fits our lifestyle and ideology.”
We want to be right, we want to be the one’s God blesses. We don’t want to share the space, we want it all for ourselves. Each of us has an expectation about the kind of Savior we want. But rarely is he the one we always expect. And this as good news!
Turning to those listening, Jesus asks them about John the Baptist. “What did you go out to the desert to find? A reed shaken by the wind?”
Now, Jesus isn’t talking about a plant but a person whose opinions bend and sway according to the latest tweet or trend. “What did you come to see? Someone dressed in soft robes. Someone who lives in a palace.” Jesus says you won’t find the Messiah there.
If you want to see the one sent by God, Rohr argues, “Don't look up. Look down. Don't look at the center and the top. Look at the edge and the bottom.”
Scripture makes it very clear that the Messiah heals and restores from the bottom up. He isn’t showing up for the rich. They can take care of themselves. Instead he comes to the poor, the outcast, the rejected. If you want to find Christ, this is a great place to start.
Folks like Saint Francis, Mother Teressa, Martin Luther King understood this; meeting Christ in the poor, and the dying, and in the ones suffering from injustice, violence, and oppression.
Matthew makes it abundantly clear that you will find the incarnate Christ down among the one’s we overlook, ignore, and avoid.
Even Jesus confirms “Among those born of women, there are none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
But this is what you need need to remember. Just as you will find Christ among those crying out for help, so too will you find him in the one doing the helping. For wherever you see his fruits, you will know the one sent by God. And that includes you and me.
We are the one’s God sends out into the world today to open eyes, lift up the lame, heal the lepers, raise the dead, preach good news. For it’s the Christ within us who is moved to meet the Christ in others.
As we make our pilgrimage through Anamesa towards God’s love and grace, the Holy Spirit will lead us down the path less traveled, where others are to scared to go. Whenever we move into the unknown, we tend to keep our eyes open; alert and awake to all that surrounds us.
In the space between each step we take on this pilgrimage, we know what to look for. Christ blessing the immigrants at the border; forgiving murders and thieves in prison; holding the hands of junkies and addicts in detox; loving the LGBTQ+ community on the dance floor.
If this isn’t good news proclaimed to those who have been pushed down or marginalized, then I don’t know what is.
Whenever and wherever you see love and mercy and grace being given, you see and meet Christ. When your heart is moved to follow his way, then you know that God has called you too, to be little messiahs, bringing hope, peace, and joy among the nations.
So, as we continue our sacred pilgrimage, let us go forward, with our eyes open and our hearts singing, “Joy to the world, the Lord has come. Let earth receive her king.”
Bartlett, David L., Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol. 1. (Westminster John Knox: 2010)
Maliaman, Irene. Expectations. December 5, 2011 (Accessed on December 10, 2022).
Rohr, Richard. The Qualities To Look For. December 14, 2012 (Accessed on December 10, 2022).
An ex-copywriter turned punk rock pastor and peacemaker who dedicates his life to making the world a better place for all humanity.
"that they all might be one" ~John 17:21
“Prius vita quam doctrina.”
~ St. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274)
* “Life is more important than doctrine.”