Matthew 25:31-45 “Why is it that God Chose for Jesus to be Born into a Poor Family?”
Grace and peace to all of my readers here on Unexplained Mysteries. This week I’ll be starting a new blog series which I previewed last week (with a blog on doubt), called “Hello God? We’ve Got Questions” that will be running for my next few posts. This past year, our United Methodist Communications started a very successful ad campaign that featured conversations with children. They were asked to share their thoughts about God and about the mission statement of our denomination…to open hearts, minds and doors.
The advertisements featured elementary-aged youngsters answering questions such as, "What does it mean to have an open heart?" The children's inspiring answers reveal what seems to be a special connection with God. I watched some of these videos myself…they’re powerful and inspiring. If you haven’t seen them yet, you can see them on rethinkchurch.org. I definitely recommend looking at them. But the people from United Methodist Communications made sure it was a two-way conversation.
These elementary school aged children….were also asked to share their deepest questions about God.
The result…the depth and the heartfelt sincerity of their questioning…was just astonishing.
It reminds me of St. Anselm’s motto of “Fides Quaerens Intellectum” or “faith seeking understanding.” What that means is we begin in faith and trust, but we think in questions…we search for a deeper understanding. See, the Christian faith isn’t and never should be about having all the answers…it’s about asking the right questions. No matter where you’re at in life, we should all be cultivating this faith that seeks understanding.
So in that spirit, over the next 5 weeks…inspired by some really hard questions…we’re going to let these children lead us on a journey of asking questions in the name of our faith. And as we travel together, let’s take some time to reflect on who we are, where we’ve been, and where God is calling us to go…both as people of faith.
You know, the traditional lectionary reading for Epiphany every winter is from Matthew 2 and it shows a sharp contrast between the King Herod the Great and Jesus. Jesus was born in a stable but Herod lived in a palace. Jesus was a helpless infant but Herod possessed great power. Jesus would prove to be a man of great love and compassion, but Herod was cruel and violent.
So it’s no wonder that while the 3 Wise Men, strangers from another Kingdom want to go lay offerings at the feet of the Heavenly King….the worldly King was desperately trying to hold on to his power and eliminate any rivals. The shadow of these threats from worldly powers seem to hang over Jesus’ entire earthly ministry…so why did God choose for Jesus to be born into a poor family?
And the question is just as relevant for us today. We know that income inequality and poverty in this country have reached frightening levels.
As part of an introduction to this particular sermon, the United Methodist Communications linked a series of episodes from the radio show On the Media called “Busted: America’s Poverty Myths.” Now I managed to get through it, but let me tell you…it wasn’t easy. It took me into a challenging world of presuppositions that we make about the poor…that many of us, myself included, sometimes take to be the truth.
For example, it confronts the issue of assigning blame for people’s poverty: they’re poor because they lack will-power…they’re poor because they have no work ethic….they’re poor because they have failed to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. It also asks the question whether there really is equal opportunity for everyone in America. The show does an amazing job of breaking down a lot of our stereotypes about people living in poverty.
And it shows some of the real reasons why so many people can’t seem to climb out of poverty no matter how hard they try.
So I’m sharing this with you today not only because I think it’s worth listening to, but also because it helps to point right at some of the issues that keep us from being able to act like Christ and to help our neighbors in need.
The language and labels we use to talk about people…whether its class, gender, race, education or income levels…they not only limit our compassion, but also our willingness to confront and respond to these questions as communities of faith.
But to be able to respond to these things as the sheep God calls us to be, we have to back up a little bit.
Our young person wanted to know why Jesus was born to a poor family, and see, when we look back at the Scriptures and throughout history we begin to realize…this is how God has always dealt with His people.
From the beginning, God was reluctant to give the Jewish people a king. We go back to First Samuel and the idea was that God would essentially rule over the people directly with the Prophet Samuel as His mouthpiece. But he was getting old and so they wanted to have a king just like all the other nations.
But God had a reason for not giving Israel a king up to that point.
It was because He didn’t want them to put all their trust in worldly rulers instead of God Himself. Samuel prays to God about what to do, and God tells him those words you never want to hear in a relationship…it’s not you, it’s me.
God said when they’re asking you for a king, they’re not rejecting you, they’re rejecting me. This is what my people have done all along…they bow down to worldly powers and they chase after other gods.
Having a king and trusting in worldly powers will only make them worse, but if that’s what they want, we’ll give it to them and I’ll teach them from it.
So most of you probably know what happens. Saul was just like so many who hold power, both in ancient times and in the present day. He starts off good, but ends up so corrupt that God asks Samuel to appoint a replacement.
Samuel already had his mind set on someone…but God tells him “Do not look at his appearance or at his physical stature, because I have refused him. For the LORD does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” God didn’t choose a king because of his looks, because of his wealth, or because of his power and influence.
God only cared about one thing….the heart. The scrawny and disheveled shepherd gets called in from the fields…and God chooses David to become the true king. God said that this lowly, nobody shepherd was “a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.'”
Of all the people God could choose….of all the people God could identify Himself with…He identifies with the humble and lowly shepherd…the exact opposite of Saul…and every other King in those ancient days. In fact, some of the rulers of nearby countries probably thought it was a joke when they heard that a shepherd had become the King of Israel. But that’s how God works, see? David was a type of Christ.
In Isaiah chapter 66 God says He favors those who have a humble heart and contrite spirit. God has always identified Himself with the poor and the lowly.
In other words, then, what we have here in our Gospel lesson for the day…is quite literally a visual representation of that fact. But what that tells us…shouldn’t be a cause for fear…it should be a cause for rejoicing.
Our text today reminds us in the starkest terms possible one of the key messages that Jesus brought to the world: Those whom this world considers insignificant are very significant to God.
But let’s be real. That message is challenging for many of us. It cuts against the grain of everything our culture lifts up as being a successful life. It challenges the American Dream. It puts the brakes on our love with capitalism and what really equates to survival of the fittest. And to us as Christians…it asks another disturbing question….where do we find Jesus?
A lot of us, we wear crosses or crucifixes as a symbol of our faith and of Christ’s presence.
Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists and others…we tell you that Jesus is present in the sacrament of Holy Communion….even though we may differ somewhat as to how. Some will say Jesus is found in these leather bound books that we read from every Sunday. And of course, most of us will say that He is present with us as we worship and that He’s always in our hearts. But is that all?
Yes, Jesus is found in the Eucharist…I believe it’s my duty as a minister of the Christian gospel to magnify the sacraments. Yes, Jesus is found in our Holy Bibles…that’s where we go when we seek understanding.
Yes, He’s present in our worship…when two or more gather in His name. He’s in our hearts and the power of His witness is in the symbols that we wear. But is that all?
The child asked “why was Jesus born to a poor family?” It’s because God doesn’t see the world in the same terms as we do. Jesus came to reverse the order of the world.
He came to teach us that those whom the world considers insignificant are very significant to God. When the Israelites demanded a King he chose a scraggly, uneducated shepherd to be his king.
And then the unthinkable happens. God humbles Himself….God condescends…God stoops and comes down…to our level. In Christ, God became flesh….but He enters the world…not in a palace…but in a manger. Once again, Jesus reverses the order of the world.
So where is He?
Saint Matthew tells us “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.” Jesus is living out on the streets. Jesus is in the soup kitchen lines.
Jesus is waiting at the Salvation Army to get a coat and some fresh clothes. Jesus is in the hospital. Jesus is in prison. Jesus is with the drug addicts. Jesus is in the refugee camp. As another Pastor once put it, wherever people are in need, wherever people suffer, wherever people do without their basic needs…Jesus is there. And He isn’t there just to comfort them, He’s suffering right there alongside them. That’s where we find Jesus.
The wise men went out searching for Jesus and they found Him in the lowest, most unlikely of places. And this is true because Jesus embodied the very core of His message…that in God’s Kingdom…everyone is significant. Every. Single. Person. In God’s Kingdom, all are welcome at the table. In God’s Kingdom, Jesus is just as likely to be born to a poor, pregnant, unmarried teenage girl as he is to a wealthy business owner. In God’s Kingdom, there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, woman or man….instead….all are one in Jesus. The lesson of the Epiphany is that God in Christ has turned the world upside down.
He judges…separating the sheep and the goats…not with the eyes of a King drunk with power…but with the eyes of a shepherd, clothed in rags and living among the least and the forgotten.
And so, when Jesus judges, it’s not just going to be about our behavior…it’s going to be about our very….our orientation. Let me explain what I mean by that.
As I was preparing for this blog, I took the time to study some of the artwork depicting the Last Judgment. I looked at Michelangelo’s famous work from the renaissance and several paintings from the middle ages. A lot of those paintings were loosely based on this passage. But you know what?
I don’t think any of them really captured the true essence of Jesus’ words here. See, when I think of the sheep and the goats…the reality is a shepherd in those days would separate the sheep from the goats every night…and if you came out there and saw the animals….you wouldn’t be able to tell which was which. You wouldn’t know the sheep from the goats. They each walked their own path, but in the dark they looked alike.
Now, I think that’s the point, see? The sheep and the goats…they’re essentially already separated…they're already walking their own paths….and Jesus is…essentially the after-school crossing guard. That’s why they were initially surprised about their judgment because they were already living one way or the other. The sheep and the goats….it’s all about orientation. We can either live for self and die to others or we can live for others and die to self. What Jesus is looking for is how we answer that one question of alignment.
One of the great spiritual leaders of the 20th century, Mahatma Gandhi once said “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.” Amen and amen. A lot of Western new age spiritual practice today is very much a bi-product of our materialistic culture…and it’s focused on you the consumer. I’m going to pick and choose what I believe. I’m going to find God (only) out in nature, in the sunsets.
It’s all about us, and what we get from our spirituality. If we don’t like it we try something new or we go somewhere else.
But speaking as a Christian and as a scholar of comparative religion who works in the field of interfaith dialogue….Gandhi was right…and what I can tell you is this: you can distinguish authentic spiritual practice from pop culture, consumer driven spirituality by one thing….authentic spirituality and religious experience turns you inward to turn you outward. In other words, we come to church to nourish and refresh our souls…so we can then get out there and do the work.
Our inward practice should equip us for the outward work of God’s Kingdom. Authentic spirituality is a both/and, not either/or.
And this thinking leads me to one of our great Saints in the Christian tradition, Francis. I think everybody knows his name…and that he loved animals…but not everybody knows his story. He was actually a spoiled rich kid. He loved music, poetry, drinking and women. In other words….he was a medieval frat boy. But then one day when he was riding out of town to go to a party, he saw a leper by the side of the road.
Now lepers were feared and despised in his day too….but something compelled him to get off his horse and he goes over to the leper. He gives him all his money and then…to the astonishment of all the onlookers…he hugged the man and kissed him on the cheek. He would later say the moment of embracing that diseased man….was the first time he’d ever known peace. Francis got back on his horse and when he turned to look back at the leper…he was gone. Francis knew he had ministered to Jesus Himself…and from that day forward He was a changed man. He died to self to live for others. As you have done it for the least of these, you have done it for me.
I really like the Christian writer Ann Lamott…she’s hysterically funny and at times she’s profound. In one of her books, she talks about her Presbyterian Church outside San Francisco. This is the place where she became a Christian. She says that “Ken” started coming to her church right after his partner died of AIDS. Ken had the disease as well and Anne Lamott describes him as an emaciated scarecrow of a man, with a lopsided face that lit up when he smiled. Ken told the congregation that when his long-time partner died, Jesus entered into the place in his heart that was broken, and Jesus had never left. Over the year that Ken attended the church, he had won almost everyone over. But there was a woman in the choir, Rinola – a lady who had always been taught that Ken’s way of life and that Ken himself was an abomination. To her, Ken was someone to be avoided. Well, one day, during the hymns, the congregation got to its feet all except for Ken, who had become so sickly and frail he could no longer stand on his own. All of them started singing, His Eye Is On The Sparrow” and when they began to sing, “Why do I feel discouraged, why do the shadows fall,” Rinola began to cry. She left the choir and walked over to Ken. Rinola lifted him out of the pew and held him like a little ragdoll. The two of them sang together, cried together, … WERE children of God together. Anne Lamott said she wasn’t sure if that was a full-fledged miracle or not, but as we look at our text this morning to answer that child’s question….I think we know the answer. She died to self to live for others. As you did it for the least of these, you have done it for me.
As I bring this entry to a close, the fact that Jesus was born to a poor family teaches us one final lesson. Not only are we to view all of the people of the world as God’s beloved children….we also need to remember that we are beloved children of God. This passage isn’t scary. It’s good news. God cares about each man, woman and child, no matter who they are or where they come from. My sisters and brothers…take these things with you always….on days of joy and in times of trouble….you are significant to God. You matter to this world. Your failures and your shortcomings are forgiven by God. You are loved by God. Each one of you…you are important. You are important to this world, and your presence in this world matters. Your witness and your testimony matter. Your life matters. Like those wise men who travelled so far to bring gifts to the Savior of the world…so let us go on to change the world for the sake of the One who gave us the gift of His life for the world. In the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.