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Bible readings:

Advent IV Year B (December 21, 2014)                                                      St James', Peace River


Well, here we are: longest night, shortest day. It seems like a fitting way to bring Advent to a close, seeing how this season is one of those stretches of time that seems to take both forever and also no time at all. Think of all that has happened since the last days of November: world events, flu bugs, end of term, Christmas preparations, parties and programs, and all that on top of the ordinary business of living, which can be both sad and happy and just downright difficult. But I think many of us might also look back and say, “Are you sure that was three weeks? Wasn't that just yesterday?”

It was three weeks though. Three Sundays ago we started Advent in the middle of lives that were just as busy, mixed up and challenging. We started with a cry to God to come and be with us. A cry to God to come because we need God here, in our lives and in our world. A cry because we want God, even though we're not always sure or ready to say so; but the deepest truth in our hearts is that we want what only God can bring us. And so we want God to come and be with us, even as we learn what it takes to make room for that to happen, and how much more God's coming will reshape who we are and how we live.

Three weeks on, we bring Advent to a close by hearing the other side of the story. If we need and maybe even want God to come and be with us; how much more is it true that God wants and yearns to come and be with us. That is the heart and soul of the Bible from start to finish, from the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem. God wants to be with us.

We can see that in the Old Testament, in the stories of God seeking out someone who would hear God's voice and welcome it, and be ready to journey with God: people like Noah, Abraham, Moses, and today, King David. God befriends each of them, and becomes part of their lives in ways that are both beautiful and transformative. But God's desire to be with us – with human beings like you and me – isn't limited to heroic individuals. David's story today reminds us of that in a particular way, when God speaks of living “in a tent and a tabernacle”, bringing to mind the journey through the desert which God took with all his people, and the ark which symbolized and gave access to God's presence for everyone. God wants not one friend, but a whole people who can be a community in which God dwells and who can belong to him – so the repeated refrain of the Old Testament, which comes up again in the book of Revelation: “you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”

In the end, though, tents and tabernacles and arks and temples and kingdoms and laws aren't enough; symbols and glorious auras aren't enough. They aren't enough for people to really realize how much God wants to be with us; and they aren't enough for God, who wants to be with us so much that he will stop at nothing. And so, in the sixth month of a certain year, Gabriel comes to Mary and says “Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.” I love how Luke comments that Mary wonders what sort of greeting this was supposed to be! And well she might. Out of the blue, to a girl of no particular distinction, in no-account Nazareth, comes a message from God. And not an easy message to swallow either – she questions it right away: “How can this be, seeing I am a virgin?” From the risk of pregnancy to begin with, all the way through to watching her son die unjustly and horribly, Mary would be the first to understand that when we choose to want God to be with us, it's not as simple as it might sound. And yet she chooses; she wants this. “Let it be with me as you have said.”

When we remember that moment every year, in the December lead-up to Christmas, we remember that it is not as simple as it sounds; not for us, and not for God either. God still wants to come and be with us, to come into our lives and into our world. The fact that Emmanuel, God with us, was born long ago is something we can hold on to: we can see, as we look at the birth and death and new life of Jesus, how true it is that God loves us this much – we can count on that. But that doesn't make it a simple matter to open up our lives to God right now. Sometimes I wonder if that's because we think of the process as one of inviting: will I choose to invite God into my life?

The problem with that is, you know how it works when you invite people to your home. You make it such a big deal that you save it for special occasions. You tidy; you cook something festive. You worry about being a gracious host. And when the company leaves, no matter how much you enjoyed them, you breathe a big sigh of relief and sink down in the comfy chair for a rest. Think about it. That's obviously not our model for welcoming God in.

God does not want to be with us for special occasions. God does not want to wait till the turkey is properly brined and the bathrooms are spick and span. God does not even want to wait for an invite. God yearns to be with people – with us – so much, that he is standing at your door knocking right now. Looking for room, just as Mary and Joseph and their baby had to do so long ago. Just in the way God's angel came to Mary months before that, asking for a way into this world.

If things are broken or messy or busy or upside down or just downright wrong on the inside of your life, your first instinct might be not to answer the door. Not because you don't want to invite God in, but because you want your life to look a bit better first, ready to honour the one who loves you that much. That's an admirable sentiment, but it's kind of missing the point. God wants to be with us in our mess. That's how the whole thing started. God does not want to be an honoured guest – God wants to move in. Into your life, your home, your neighbourhood, your world. If a stinky manger in occupied territory in 1st century Palestine was a fine place for God's word to be made flesh – then there is nothing about who you are that is going to scare God off. On the contrary, the scariest things about you (and me) are the very reason God wants to come and be with us, to hold us while we heal and repent and change, to be held by us until we become as full of love and beauty and wholeness as we were created to be.

So, if you're not ready for Christmas, if you're not as excited as you think you should be, or for that matter if you're not sure how you feel – that's perfect. That puts you one step closer to the real meaning of Christmas, which is about God's urgent desire to be part of your life. I'm sure the mothers here will confirm what I only know from observation, that when a baby wants to be born, there's no such thing as being ready or not ready. That's not what it's about. And God comes to us like that for a reason. There's a reason this baby and this manger draw us the way they do. In welcoming someone who comes into our lives like that, our lives reshape themselves around the presence of God – God's love draws out of us the love and the strength and the vulnerability we never knew we had. Ready or not, God is with us.

I hope you will come to know and feel that in a tangible way today. In a way, this is exactly what the healing prayers we offer are for. The prayer and the anointing with oil and the laying on of hands are there to say that God is coming to you right where you are, to be with you in physical pain or in a mixed up heart or in the midst of personal conflicts and tensions, or whatever it is that you experience as broken and not right. God is not far removed from any of that; Jesus was born into just such a difficult place and is ready to be with you where you are too.

And for all of us, there is one other sign, the same one we encounter week after week as we come here. In bread and wine, Christ shares our physical reality and becomes part of us, as we become part of him. He goes home with us, his heart beats with ours, his love pulses in our veins. Because he wants so much to be with you, wherever you go, whatever you face. The one gift we could never expect to receive – God has given us his own self, to be with us always.