"How Can the Greatest Be the Least?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 16, 2001
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
For nearly 2,000 years the Church has focused our preparation on the entrance into the world of Jesus, the Christ. Each year we enjoy remembering the themes that feature the challenging times of Mary and Joseph, the crowded inn, the singing of angels, the shepherds, and the wise men from the East.
Last Sunday evening our children portrayed the pageant once again to a packed sanctuary. Shirley Bickel and her staff did such a wonderful job with 120 children of all ages. We have had the Christmas story etched into our minds ever since we were their age.
Consequently, through the centuries, the Church has focused the faith of believers primarily on the person of Jesus, i.e., his life, teachings, death, and resurrection. Was the messenger the gift of God? If the answer to this is "yes," how should we characterize the message Jesus brought?
I want to spend some time this morning expanding our understanding of God's gift. We are going to look beyond the artist to what the artist painted. When we go to the movie theater, for example, we do not focus our attention on the projector, but on the movie. Or, when we study the life of one of the world's great composers, we appreciate more fully the musician's vision and inspiration when we listen to what was created.
What Jesus provided us through the Gospel writers is the presence of a magnificent reality, the existence of which had never before been revealed. Not only did Jesus point to this consciousness with his words, but he chose to live it while on earth. Might this awareness in us be God's larger gift?
According to our lesson today, there was a time when both the ministries of John and Jesus ran parallel with each other. Following John's arrest, he sent disciples to his cousin seeking clarification to the rumors he was hearing. John's disciples asked Jesus, "Are you the one John said was going to come, or should we expect someone else?"
As John's disciples were leaving, Jesus used the occasion presented by their questions to talk about this desert preacher that had attracted such a wide following. Jesus asked his listeners no less than three times, "When you went out to John in the desert, what did you expect to see?" Jesus then defined John for them. He said, "I assure you that John the Baptist is greater than anyone who has ever lived." Jesus continued, "But the one who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John." It is here that Jesus' words provide us with a tremendous insight into what he brought.
During his ministry, Jesus' primary focus was not on himself but on what he brought. He brought a new consciousness, a new awareness about life, about God, and about our relationships that was never before given human form. Words can remain verbal linkages to thoughts and values that often remain abstract. However, when we are with someone who gives loving energy expression and form, that person's presence is influential and unforgettable.
So while we are decorating our trees, hanging our wreaths, getting our cards ready to mail, wrapping our gifts, listening to music, preparing for our seasonal Open Houses, have we grasped why we put ourselves through this every year? The miracle is that Jesus brought something that we can use every day to improve the way we live, the way we communicate, and the way we enhance the lives of everyone around us. However, this may not be what lingers once our celebration is behind us.
Christmas can leave us exhausted. And our mood is frequently frenzied. As we listen to the sounds created by our children's new toys, we are on our knees every night praying that the batteries will run out of energy before we do. We do want peace on earth but we would also like a little of it first in our homes. And grandparents, as much as they love their extended family, know the feeling of profound relief when their grandchildren depart for their own homes.
All this happens because of how the traditions of our faith communities have been expanded through the centuries trying to make something concrete that will always remain unseen -- the invisible power that has the ability to transform our minds and hearts. Mostly what we know is that God did something very special. We have labeled that event and have taught ourselves to observe it every year with lots of celebrating. For many people that is enough. Is it enough for us?
As we look at our lesson today, two issues immediately capture our attention. The first is Jesus' comment that John is greater than anyone who ever lived. The second is that someone who is least in the Kingdom of God is greater than John. These comments have implications for how we prepare ourselves to understand God's gift and how that gift can be applied to our lives.
Why did Jesus consider John greater than anyone who ever lived? When one puts John in the same category of importance as Abraham and Moses, Jesus' comment is quite a claim. John was like a wild man who was recognized on the landscape of human history for about a year and a half. That was it! What did he do that placed him in such a prominent place in Jesus' thinking?
Consider what it would be like to live in the United States where religious practices were observed only by a few who considered themselves elitist. What would it be like if only one of us out of every 200 people could read and write? Think what it would be like if our faith came from legalistic practices and stories that were hundreds of years old. Suppose there were no stories about God's recent activity among people. And suppose it had been like that for 400 years. We cannot imagine such an environment. This was the setting where John began to preach.
John was the first person to announce the coming of the Kingdom of God. He was talking about this before Jesus uttered his first words on behalf of God. John knew about the reign of God in human life. The second thing he did was to provide the setting where Jesus awakened. After his baptism, Jesus exited the carpenter's shop in order to preach his message throughout Galilee. John opened the door for Jesus' ministry to begin.
If John was greater than anyone who ever lived, why is a person who is least in the Kingdom God greater than John? While John had the insight of the coming reign of God, his spirit remained angry, resentful, and judgmental. John's understanding of God was colored by his own rage. Someone filled with rage cannot fathom the nature of God whom Jesus was about to reveal.
Once while John was preaching he noticed a number of Pharisees and Sadducees who were coming to be baptized. He said, "You snakes -- who told you that you could escape from the punishment God is about to send! Do not think that you can escape punishment by saying that Abraham is your ancestor. The ax is ready to cut down the trees at their roots." (Matt. 3:7f)
Jesus brought a very different image of God. He revealed not a God wielding an ax but a Spirit who was willing to embrace even the least among us. God was revealed to be a tireless seeker of those who have lost their spiritual identity. To those of us who may consider ourselves among the least in the Kingdom of God, Jesus would be the first to tell us that we are greater than John. This has more to do with the spirit that resonates from us than from a particular pecking order of importance.
Our congregation is like a beehive that is always humming with activity. I have not heard one word of complaint from anyone. We ask each other to buy poinsettias to honor and remember someone. And just look at our chancel this morning. We ask each other to buy enough articles to fill a Santa sack that will go to a child whose parents are in the county's detention center. We ask each other to buy a good quality sweatshirt for indigent children in Bowie's elementary schools. We ask each other to buy a teddy bear that will be hugged forever by an elderly person living in a nursing home. That would be enough for most churches. But for us there are always other horizons.
We have asked each other to support Warm Nights as we bring homeless people into our church facilities. We have asked each other to contribute food and service for our shelter meals. Then to further ice the cake we ask each other to tithe toward the largest spending plan St. Matthew's has ever had. The amount is large. We have simply run out of space and we had to build.
It is incredible what we ask of each other. But we do it together and the job gets done. Why? Why do we do this not only during the Advent season but throughout the year? Why do we ask ourselves to be in mission as much as we are? The answer is that Advent and Christmas are more than celebrating a baby's arrival into the world. A contagious consciousness came along with that baby born in Bethlehem and because of that, we choose to be who we are.
Not everyone understands the Kingdom of God. John the Baptist did not, but Jesus said that John was fine just as he was. Because Jesus used the words "least in the Kingdom of God" we know that many of us have not yet arrived into the full consciousness that is our natural heritage. But we sure are working on it. Our challenge is to get more people interested in working on this awareness within themselves. Our world has given us many opportunities to do this.
Many national leaders of our country talk of increased bombing, of killing, of seeking out the terrorists and exorcising them from the body of humanity much as antibiotics do to dangerous bacterial infections. Such activity has been going on since the day when Cain killed Abel in the fourth chapter of Genesis.
Some of us are moved by the plight of the Afghan people, who are confused about their destiny as Winter comes. We are touched with compassion as we see their children. During times of war and destruction when our hearts still remain open with compassion, we can stand in the midst of swirling misunderstanding and point with our lives to the day when the lion will lie down by the lamb. When we can live that way today, the Kingdom's presence is given form.
When we can stand at ground zero or at the base of the Pentagon and feel intense sorrow rather than rage, we will have won our own inner struggle. When we can go through a divorce and still wish the best for our former spouse, God's Kingdom is given form. When death takes a loved one from our lives and we embrace God even more intimately, our spirit has moved to a more creative place. We are never in short supply of what can deepen our awareness of what Jesus brought.
As we continue our preparation for Christmas Day, let us all remain open to the movement of God's spirit within us. That Spirit of God is unpredictable, but when we trust that God is working through us, the world will become a safer and more compassionate place to live. This is the result of God's gift to us.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving God, we desire to renew ourselves during these Advent days. As we prepare ourselves to receive the gift of your son, may we come to understand that your desire is to give without ceasing. We thank you for your plans for us. We thank you that your Kingdom is not of this world. May we understand that Jesus came to teach us how to find our true inheritance. Help us learn how the power of spirit transforms reversals into possibilities, hurts into compassion, and failures into growth. We thank you that Jesus became the window through which we could see how you designed all of us to live. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
we continue to prepare ourselves for Christmas Day, we do so in the
midst of so many internal, personal struggles. Some of us have lost
loved ones recently. A number of us are dealing with ill health. Our
news reflects the conflict that has touched many of our lives as well as
so many others around the world. As our nation remains engaged in
destroying the spirit that promotes terrorism, so many families are
separated from loved ones serving in our military. And this is
happening while economic recession has brought anxiety and uncertainty
to the work place.
Was it not into such a world that Jesus came? His world was filled with overlords, poverty wages, ignorance, and religious leaders who were skilled more in ancient traditions than in matters of spirit. At first Jesus stood alone. Then there were twelve. And now there are millions of us in the world who stand ready to help shepherd others to become more thoughtful and compassionate men and women.
Help us, O God, to remain focused on our calling and not on what can so easily distract us. We confess that we would prefer to be like physicians who live in a world where good health is all that people know. But our world needs us to radiate those qualities of spirit that give form to how people can love and serve one another. Open our hearts to the outpouring of your spirit, so that your presence is seen through what we do. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to way when we pray . . .