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.
a sermon based onMatthew 11:7-15
I’m not so sure what the temperature was like where Jesus was in our story from today’s reading. But the subject of conversation is his cousin John, the Baptizer who has spent most of his adult life out in the hot desert wilderness like this. We pick up the story after John’s disciples have left Jesus to return to tell their teacher - who is in jail - all that they saw and heard.
It’s found in Matthew 11:7-15.
“What did you go out into the wilderness to see?” It sounds like a trick question that Jesus is asking. But it’s legit. The wilderness was not the kind of place you Uber a donkey to for a day in the great outdoors.
Nor was it a vacation destination that drew a lot of tourist. Yes, it’s true that if you were to go out there you’d need to pack some bags, and maybe take a couple of days off from work. But don’t even think about booking a room at the Holiday Inn.
Like most wilderness places today, it was hot, hard to navigate, and not very friendly. In some places, it was downright dangerous. Still, people flock to there to find John, to hear what he had to say but what they found and heard was something of greater importance.
“God loves things by becoming them.”
That was John. He belonged in the wild with the rebels and renegades because his message was revolutionary. “Repent!” he screamed. “Change you heart, correct your thinking. Bear good fruit or risk being chopped down and thrown into the fire.”
John was no ordinary prophet. He was the one who prepare the way for a radically new political realm, with a new king who would rule not with violence and death, but with peace and healing. Some of the very things the people were searching for when they went to see John.
In comparing John to Elijah – the one to announce the coming of the Messiah – Jesus made a powerful statement about himself. One that threatened the kings and the economy of the world. Those who had ears knew what was happening. That’s why they risked their life to go to him.
I reckon we all eventually wind up in a wilderness at some point in our lives because at some point the world will fail to provide what our hearts truly desire joy, peace, hope, love, mercy, justice and grace to name a few.
I came here with the intentions of getting some clear answers to question that have been weighing on my heart about the church and my ministry. But honestly I’m looking for the same thing as those people who went to see John. Like I said last week, we’re all hungry for the food God has to give us. And it was out there, in the desert wild, I found exactly what I was looking for.
On every trail we took, we were surrounded by majestic mountains, painted with the most vibrant colors. Like heaven itself, it’s impossible to adequately describe what I saw, but the grandeur of God’s glory was undeniably present.
On our hike through the Narrows, a trail that is literally a river, Jim and I sloshed through the water, flanked by massive walls of reds and oranges and grays that seemed to squeeze closer together the further up river we walked. When we weren’t tripping over shifting rocks, we were wadding through the wild currents. And whenever it got difficult or laborious I’d say, “Fear not. We are in the Kingdom of God.”
And at times I swear I heard the canyon walls echo the psalm, “I lift my eyes to the hills – where does my help come from? From the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth. He will not let your foot slip” (Ps. 121:1-2). At least that’s what was in my head as Jim’s shoe began to slowly fall apart.
The first of many stops to repair Jim’s damaged shoe was on a tiny river bank that was barely big enough for the two of us. It was there I first saw this massive butterfly with bright yellow wings fluttering in the wind. It kept swooping down to get my attention. To my surprise, this beautiful creature followed us up the river and all the way back just to make sure the message was received.
It took a moment for me to realize but this butterfly was reminding me where I was and who I was with. I was in the Kingdom of God, in the presence of the Christ, whose Spirit made sure our feet did not slip. Our knees took a beating but our feet remained firmly planted in God’s care. I had come to the wilderness to find divine inspiration, but it was the Divine who first found me.
We took that hike with a young man named Nick who left his wife at the lodge to hike alone. I learned Nick was raised Catholic but likes to study all the ancient religious and spiritual practices. Nick had a ton of energy that helped push us two older men up the mountain. But he also had a ton of questions about God... good ones too. I wish I’d thought to answer Nick’s questions with a question like Jesus likes to do. What did you come out here to see? What are you looking for in life? What do you hope to find?
Instead, I told him about the butterfly and what Richard Rohr once said, “God loves things by becoming them.” No sooner did those words leave my mouth, when guess who showed up flapping its large yellow wings announcing, “The Kingdom of God is here.”
I told Nick if you want to see God, all you have to do is open our heart. This is true to all of us. We hold the key to the answers we seek. Like Rohr describes, “If you want to find God, then honor God within you, and you will always see God beyond you. For it is only God in you who knows where and how to look for God.”
No matter where you are, whatever questions you have, or issues you’re dealing with, turn your eyes inward and say hello to God.
You need to look no further than your own self because that’s where God has chosen to dwell. God has made all things, and in all things is the Divine. And that includes you and me. I am not suggesting we are God. We are made in God’s image, not the other way around.
In all his ways, Jesus taught us to keep our hearts open...not so God can come in and change us but so that we can go into ourselves and be changed by God who loves us enough to become one of us.
By following the way of Jesus, the Christ, we discover not only how powerful and healing God’s love can be but that we also possess that power. And with that power comes the great responsibility to open and heal the hearts of the world to move humanity from a place of violence to a kingdom of peace. When we keep our hearts closed – our minds and hands are quick to follow.
Just as the butterfly reminded me of where I was, and what I had been seeking, so to does Jesus remind us of what we must do to share God’s love in the world. Paul tells us that we must imitate Christ. Or as I have been saying all year when you see and do what Jesus does, then you learn and teach the will of God for others to follow. Let those who have ears listen.
It doesn’t matter if you’re walking in the wilderness, or stuck in an office, or sitting in a classroom, a wheelchair or prison cell, you have all the hope and peace, freedom and grace you desire because the love of God in you. Knowing this, you can be for others all that the world is unable to be...the very love of God, no matter where you are or what wilderness they are in.
The people flocked to the wild to see John. They risked their lives to receive the good news. But they saw the unexpected... a glimpse of heaven here on earth. That’s the power of God’s kingdom and the transforming love we receive from its king, Christ Jesus. Amen.
Rohr, Richard. The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe. (New York: Convergent Press, 2019).