Turning the World
Text: Matthew 11:1-11
Yesterday the Peruchetti’s and I went down to Northside Church in East Liverpool to celebrate with the families who received our adopt-a-child gifts. It was a pretty basic affair: some cookies and drinks, a craft project for the kids to do, a cookie decorating station, pictures with Santa and some familiar, caring faces for those who needed someone to talk or pray with. For two hours on a very rainy Saturday morning, in a fellowship hall with the notes from some distant class still on the whiteboard, the world was a place of generosity, of caring, of support, of healing and of love. The love of God, the grace of Jesus Christ and the embrace of the Holy Spirit were real, powerful, present.
In the spirit of Christmas we remember the poor. No child shall wake up on Christmas morning and not have anything under the tree. No family, or individual, shall go without a Christmas dinner. There’s a reason the Salvation Army puts its kettles out in December and not in May. There’s a reason the Mahoning Valley Rescue Mission sends mailers out asking us to buy a homeless man Christmas Dinner and not a July 4th cookout. As we focus on a baby placed not in a cradle but a manger, a family giving birth not in a sterile maternity suite but among the animals, we remember those who have less. We remember our base calling as Christians:
To bring sight to the blind, to help the lame walk; to cleanse and care for the sick and help the deaf hear; to bring life to those who are dead and bring good news to those who struggle economically.
When an imprisoned John the Baptist sends his disciples to inquire whether or not Jesus is the chosen one sent from God, Jesus invites them to look and listen. See that man? He was blind but now can see. See that woman? She was lame, but now she can walk. See that group over there? They were lepers, exiled from the community, and now look, they’re with their families, with their friends. See that young girl with her father? She was dead, but now watch her play. See that older gentleman? He used to be deaf, but now can hear just fine – he just hasn’t told his wife that.
The child in the manger grows up to be the savior of the world. Yes, he dies on the cross for our sins. Yes, his sacrifice reconciles humanity with God. Yes, he resurrection shows the power of God over the hurt, evil and pain of this world. But while Jesus walked the dusty roads of Galilee his focus was more direct, more real, more personal. God coming near meant people were fed. God coming near meant the sick were healed, the dead brought to life and the poor brought dignity and justice.
As we read through Matthew this coming year we’re going to find Jesus time and time again addressing the real hurt, real pain, real struggles of the people on the lowest rungs of the socio-economic ladder. From the Sermon on the Mount in chapter five to the judgement passages of chapter 25, Matthew’s Jesus remains focused on the poor and hurting, the sick and outcast. And its not just Matthew. God’s justice for the poor underlies much of the ancient Israelite law, forms the core of the prophet’s teachings and weaves its way through the Psalms.
Take Psalm 102 as just one example. How do we know God is great? the Psalmist asks? Because:
The Lord will regard the prayer of the destitute and will not despise their prayer.
He looked down from his holy height
from heaven the Lord looked at the earth
to hear the groans of the prisoners,
to set free those who were doomed to die.
And then there’s that passage from Luke. Mary, pregnant with Jesus, anticipates what his coming means for the world. She sings:
God has shown strength with his arm
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly
He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty
On Wednesday night, at the Celtic Christmas service, we sang a paraphrase of Mary’s words to an ancient Irish tune called Star of the County Down. Its called Canticle of the Turning – we’re going to sing it in a little bit. One participant asked me how the song got its name. Because, I said, when we follow in Jesus’ footsteps by giving food to the hungry, care for the sick, slow down to walk with the lame, embrace those who are outcast and give dignity and justice to the poor we literally will turn the world upside down.
For a few weeks around Christmas, as we buy gifts for strangers, stock food pantry shelves, try to be nice to our family members and respond generously to charities, we turn the world around. What would happen if we mustered the same passion, the same caring in March, or July, or October? What would happen if we cared as much about ensuring access to health care, or employment, or fairness in the criminal justice system as we do about children having toys under their tree? What would happen if we put the same energy into walking alongside a neighbor who is hurting as we did in filling a shoebox for a stranger. Imagine how the world might be turned upside down.