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Advent IV Year C (December 20, 2015)                         St James', Peace River

 

Over the last few years it's become a habit of ours to offer prayers for healing on this last Sunday before Christmas. Somewhere in each of our hearts, I think we understand why that is so. A season of celebration brings its own heartaches. If you've lost someone close to you, it's never quite the same, and each return of the holiday brings a fresh twinge of grief. If you're dealing with your own illness, the season of joy and light can seem like a mockery – or there may be an especially sharp edge to it if you're wondering whether this Christmas will be your last.

And while the more general pains and troubles that are part of all our lives may not measure up to that – they are still there. Every Christmas means you are another year older, and wondering more acutely what you have achieved and what lies ahead. The stresses of the holiday do indeed add up for all of us – balancing work, family, social commitments, travelling, special events, on top of all the preparations we want to make to keep the holiday right. In the midst of those stresses, the food and drink and socializing wear a double disguise, celebration on the outside, but temptation on the inside. And anyone experiencing loneliness or poverty knows how those experiences are magnified. The sweetness and light isn't all sweetness and light – for anyone – even though there is so much good to remember, share, and focus on.

To spend some time seeking God's healing isn't a confession of failure in the lead-up to Christmas, nor is it in any way running counter to the spirit of the feast. This is a great festival of healing we are preparing for. Some of our carols will recognize that: “Light and life to all he brings / Risen with healing in his wings”... “When sin departs before his grace / then life and health come in its place”... “And Mary bore sweet Jesus Christ / to do poor sinners good”... and so on.

One of the most basic ways of appreciating Christmas is to see it as God undoing the brokenness of the world, and the brokenness of our relationship with him, which is the source of so much of our pain, hurt, and disease. When we come together on Christmas Eve with Christians the world over, we will be thanking God for that gift and praying that our world may receive it. But here today, maybe we can see it in a more personal way, as something each of us needs too.

I think there's something in the Scriptures and the stories we heard today that can help us do that. It comes when we take to heart Mary's experience of expecting a baby, her visit to her much older cousin Elizabeth, and her song of praise at the conclusion of that visit (which we actually recited as the canticle earlier on). Mary seems to recognize her pregnancy as the beginning of God's answer to the brokenness of the world. Elizabeth, with the wisdom born from many years' experience of that brokenness, adds her recognition as she greets Mary with words that have echoed down the centuries, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Even Elizabeth's baby, coming close to term, who would grow up to be John the Baptist, shares in the greeting, doing a backflip in utero out of joy, eager expectation, and welcome towards God's promised one. There's a beautiful sense of completeness as three generations together accept and exult in God's long-awaited intervention to make the world whole – an act that would touch the past, the present, and the future.

But one thing they all seem to know, is that God's healing is more than we think it is going to be, and sometimes more than we even want. When we think of healing in human terms, I think we often have in mind the idea of putting the pieces back together, or going back to the way things were. We want to go back to normal; we want life to be like it was before we got sick or hurt, before our loss. Maybe we know that's not really possible, and so we think we'll cut God some slack and say it will be OK if life is just as much like before as it can be. And yet that doesn't seem to be a path God is interested in taking with us.

Mary's pregnancy is a different kind of illustration of what that looks like. I can imagine her and Elizabeth having some conversations about what life is going to be like now. I remember how people used to say to us, after our children were born, “It changes your life, doesn't it?” (To which I could only ever answer, “I don't really know, I can't remember!”) There's a completely new dimension of wholeness on its way, which the mothers-to-be may already be sensing for themselves. Their anxieties and concerns will not be resolved by any kind of assurance that life will go back to normal. It won't. It will be scarier and more fulfilling and more vulnerable and more full of love – that is what wholeness means.

And Mary, with great wisdom and grace, understands how that applies to the whole world, not just to her. When she sings out about God making the world right, she doesn't indulge in any nostalgia about winding the clock back to the good old days. You can't glue the broken world back together any more than you can unring a bell. But what God can do is even better than that, and in Mary's song he has already done it. “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.”

In becoming part of this world and its brokenness, God has made it more whole than it ever was before. And the implications of that stretch far back to the past, when God first promised mercy to our forebears; they resound in the present, when Mary herself takes delight in what the Mighty One has done for her; but they also echo far into the future, as we sing her song again and see the world around us, still in need of healing, but being transformed by the active presence of a Holy God.

Still, the promise of God only holds meaning when it takes root in people's lives as it did in Mary's, and as I pray it will in yours and mine. At this exact time, when we are acutely sensitive to our need for healing and wholeness, we can also be especially open to what that means for us. God wants us to be well, and promises us the healing of his presence. And what that looks like, is like nothing we have ever experienced before. It is not simply taking a weight off our shoulders; it is not simply curing what ails us; it is not simply giving us back the joy and energy we used to have. It is more like giving us something new to reshape our lives around, as Mary's life reshaped around her baby, and found a wholeness she never knew existed.

Keep your eyes open for that “something new” which God is offering as your healing. Sometimes it still is a baby – your own child, or grand- or great-grandchild, who opens your eyes to the newness of the world. Sometimes it is someone else's need, as it was for Elizabeth when her cousin came to see her – in being there for someone else we discover layers of meaning in our lives that we hadn't recognized – I believe that is happening for many people in and beyond our church, as our community is being transformed and made “more whole” in working to welcome refugees this winter. But people discover God's new life in all kinds of unique ways, even to the very end of our mortal lives, as so many learn that dying itself is a mission and an adventure from God, for the sake of others.

What God is transforming your life around, how God is reshaping the pieces of your brokenness and inviting you into unimagined wholeness – that is something still to discover. We sometimes feel like we're praying for an answer, but as I remarked to someone this week, it's actually that when we pray we are more able to recognize what an answer looks like. It may already be there, unrecognized, as Mary's child was unrecognized by all except a few, before and even after his birth. But God is with you, of that there can be no doubt. God's promise to you is being fulfilled. He is filling your hunger, lifting up your lowliness, making your brokenness into something glorious, and inviting you into a wholeness you've never imagined, because it is shared with Him, as he comes to share all of life with you.