What if the neighbor is Jesus?

given on January 31, 2010

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Last week I drove past the Church of Nazarene’s outdoor sign and it caught my attention:  “What does love have to do with it?”  Naturally the lyrics to the song started running through my head, but seeing that sign also coincided with the thoughts in my mind about the sermon for this 5th Sunday.  How could this help me prepare for a service to which we had invited other congregations?

The thought just sat there in the base of my brain.  I had more to do before I could really begin working on this Sunday’s service.  Then another piece of thought-provoking material surfaced—this time off the internet.  I am linked to the UpWords of Max Lucado.  This writing is titled “Looking for the Messiah: Part 2” and begins:

Some missed him.

Some miss him still.

We expect God to speak through peace,

but sometimes he speaks through pain.

We think God talks through the church,

but he also talks through the lost.

We look for the answer among the Protestants,

but he’s been known to speak through the Catholics.

We listen for him among the Catholics,

but find him among the Quakers.

We think we hear him in the sunrise,

but he is also heard in the darkness.

We listen for him in triumph,

but he speaks even more distinctly through tragedy.  . . .

Lucado goes on to tell the story of a man whose life was one of misery and decides to ask his minister why he was so unhappy.  The minister tells him he has committed the sin of ignorance—one of his neighbors was

the Messiah in disguise and he had not noticed him.

This thought triggered the words from Matthew 25 when Jesus was explaining about the final judgment and the crowd asked:

Lord, when did we see you hungry or feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?

Jesus then continues to explain saying:

The king will reply, I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.

Matthew’s words probably are enough to continue with Lucado’s words, but the words of I Corinthians 13 forces me to focus on what love has to do with the story of the man whose sin was ignorance.

Look back at what I Corinthians 13: 4-7 say, especially in The Message translation:

4-7 I’m bankrupt without love.

Love never gives up.

Love cares more for others than for self.

Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.

Love doesn’t strut,

Doesn’t have a swelled head,

Doesn’t force itself on others,

Isn’t always “me first,”

Doesn’t fly off the handle,

Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,

Doesn’t revel when others grovel,

Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,

Puts up with anything,

Trusts God always,

Always looks for the best,

Never looks back,

But keeps going to the end.

8 Love never dies.

Love has everything in the world to do with how miserable the man was feeling.  He did not use his eyes as though they were God’s eyes until his minister set him up.  The minister told him that the Messiah was a neighbor and he simply had not seen him.

Now if God is love and he sees all through that filter of love, then the verses in I Corinthians 13 explain how that filter works:  Love puts self last, not first.  Love does not force itself on anyone, it does not get angry, it reaches out to help others, and it trusts that all will work out.  We could list other ways, but returning to Lucado’s story, we need to ask, “What if the neighbor is Jesus?”

The man started going through all the people he knew, but he added a disqualifier for each one:

  • the butcher—no, too lazy;
  • his own cousin living down the street—no, too much pride;
  • the paperboy—no, too indulgent,

and so he continued trying to identify the Messiah.

I am afraid we do the very same thing.  We each make judgments that keep us from loving one another openly, without judgment.  We fail to use the filter of love when we meet new people, work with old acquaintances, or even have at a family reunion.  We know the stories in the Bible.  We know what Jesus did as he tried to teach us how to live with the New Covenant, to love one another.

The story of the man’s searching continues just like our lives continue searching for our faith.  The miserable man did not give up trying to find the Messiah.  He looked and looked; he watched his neighbors.  He searched until he discovered something he had not noticed before:

  • the grocer carried sacks for the older ladies;
  • the officer at the corner smiles for the kids;
  • the young, new neighbors next door were kind to their cat;

and he began to think that maybe one of them was the Messiah.

The minister challenged the miserable man to find Jesus.  The task was not easy and it took an effort, but the result was amazing.  The miserable man changed.  Lucado tells us that the man’s eyes began to sparkle and he listened when other spoke; if someone asked, he helped.  In my mind this miserable man looked and looked for his neighbor Jesus just like John Wesley worked to help all that he could in any way that he could.  And what happened?  Wesley’s heart was strangely warmed.  Lucado’s story ends with the man trying to explain what had changed and why he was so happy.  He answered,  “All I know is that things changed when I started looking for God.”  His heart had become strangely warmed.

God’s love replaced this man’s misery, but it came because he sought God.  He worked to find out which neighbor is Jesus.  Lucado asks, “How are things looking in your neighborhood?  Can we say we know which neighbor is Jesus?  Can we truly say our hearts are strangely warmed because we do love one another?

Love has everything to do with our lives as Christians.  We must work to keep love as the filter with which we look at and live in this world.  When we see Jesus in our neighbors and hopefully even in our enemies, we will have hearts that are strangely warmed.  We will be seeing this world through God’s eyes that will move us into action—Christian action.

Another line from Lucado’s UpWords adds one more thought provoking idea:  “The old man saw Jesus because he didn’t know what he looked like.  The people in Jesus’ day missed (seeing) him because they thought they did (know what he looked like).”

God sees what we do as who we are, not what we look like.  Are we seeing our neighbors only as they look or are we looking at them as Jesus taught us?  Are we seeing our neighbors as though they are Jesus?  Love has everything to do with it, because love is our filter or our operating system.  When a neighbor is in need or when a neighbor does something wrong, what is our response?  Do we judge them and shun them or do we love them and move into action?  Love has everything to do with our faith.  Love is how we maintain hope when we are challenged.  Yet we all depend on love because it never fails.  Love in action strangely warms our hearts and we become the neighbor who is Jesus.

Dear Loving Father,

We reach out to you as we seek ways of loving our neighbors.  We ask your guidance as we read the newspaper or hear of someone’s misfortune and we feel the tug at our heart.  We seek direction as we work to develop our faith, maintain our hope, and use God’s love in our own lives and for others, too.  Help us to see Jesus in our neighbors.  Help us to love one another.  Then open our eyes, add sparkle to them; shed our misery and put on smiles; and warm our hearts so that we may know the joy of God’s love.

–Shalom and Amen.

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