The Christmas Message: Don’t Be Afraid.

Christmas is many things to many people.  This is a time for celebration, a joyful time of giving and receiving, with happy music playing in the stores, kids too excited to go to sleep, and meals shared with friends and family.  Of course, for some, the realities of life dampen the joy of Christmas, especially for those separated from loved ones, or those struggling to make sense of changes in their lives, or who find themselves without food, warmth, and shelter.  And, even as we embrace the joy of Christmas, as a parent I can attest to the stress of it all: kids out of school, trying to find childcare, then gifts to be wrapped, houses to be cleaned, laundry to be done, and, when it’s all over, bills to be paid.

Christmas, for many, is quite a production; even in a pandemic we hold ourselves to a high standard.

Yet, as great as the gifts and food and celebrations are, the message at the heart of this holy season is something much more basic, a message that cuts right to the core of who we are and what we do.

And there were shepherds in the fields – normal, everyday, hard-working people, with mouths to feed and family drama, going about their business – and suddenly an angel, a messenger from the Lord appears to them.  And what is the message? Do not be afraid.

Do not be afraid.  And why?  Because this baby who has been born, this promised one, Emmanuel, God-with-us, changes everything.

“Don’t Be Afraid”

That’s the fundamental message that gets lost behind all the traditions and preparations of this season: do not be afraid.

Now, I’m sure most of us haven’t had the experience of being terrified by a bright talking light sent from God, but the truth is that all of us have things that scare us. 

The Shepherds, I’m sure, were anxious like any of us about their families, their bills, and their work. 

There’s much that get us worried, and sometimes we feel like we’re juggling so many things that our lives might come crashing down at any moment.  Sometimes we find that we’ve built such a façade, we’ve built such an image for ourselves, that we find ourselves isolated or even feeling like you don’t even know who you are anymore.  Sometimes we feel like we’re hanging on by a thread, hoping and waiting for things to get better.

And underneath the lights and the tinsel and the gifts is that simple message of infinite hope: do not be afraid

And it’s important, too, that we hear the message properly.  It’s not “have courage”, it’s not “be brave”, it’s not “suck it up and quit whining”.  It’s not a dismissive “think happy thoughts” or “put it out of your mind”.  No, it’s “don’t be afraid” because God is here, he understands, and he wants to be with you.  It’s “don’t be afraid” because, although our problems and struggles and stress are real, by the grace of God, he will give real and lasting peace peace to those who invite him in.

God in our mess.

The beautiful message at the heart of Christmas is not about picture-perfect nativity sets and pristine houses hosting happy parties where everyone smiles and gets along.

In fact, it’s the opposite. 

It’s that God wants to be with us, in, and in spite of, our mess.

He could have chosen a beautiful palace, but he knew what he was doing when he chose a smelly cattle stall.  He could have had a family that appeared to have it all together, but God chose an unwed mother engaged to a carpenter, a family so poor they couldn’t even afford a lamb to offer in the temple.  He could have revealed himself to the powerful and respected leaders, but he chose to reveal himself to uneducated farmhands, forgotten on the outskirts of a tiny town.

This is a God who says in the Christmas story, “I love you so much that I want to share your pain”.  A God who wants you to know that he understands what it is to celebrate, and what it is to mourn, or to feel rejected, and to hope for a better tomorrow.

God near us.

I don’t know what your image of God is like.  Some picture Him as a distant observer, keeping score, weighing good against bad; some, if we’re honest, don’t give him much thought as we run through the rat-race of life, where there’s always something else that needs to be done, something else that needs our attention.

But the message of Christmas is that God doesn’t want to be far off; he wants to be here with us; and, if we invite him in, his presence makes even the stable a place fit for a king.

This Christmas, I invite you to take a break – make time for a break – and, as part of your joyful celebrations, take to heart the message of the angel: “do not be afraid”, “stop worrying”, and accept the gift of his peace, the peace that comes from trusting in God.

God doesn’t need the polished veneers or the happy masks we so often put on.  God, the Church, and the world around us could all do without our strivings to present ourselves as people whose lives and relationships are all well put together.  The great wonder of Christmas is that he meets us where we are, and invites us to follow where he leads.

Shepherds don’t get invited to palaces.  So, the King of Heaven is content with a stable if that’s what it takes to reach them.

Whatever you’re going through – whatever stress you’re carrying, whatever questions you have about your value, the message of Christmas is that God thinks you’re worth it, and, to receive his peace, all you have to do is invite him in.

And, maybe, like that innkeeper, the best you can really offer him right now is the shed out back, but that’s enough: he’ll take it, and make it something beautiful, and as everything else comes into focus, we learn, once again, what really matters.

Don’t be afraid.  Like the shepherds, come with an open heart and mind, and worship the God who loves you so much that he’ll meet you where you are.

To God be the Glory.  Amen.

God’s presence is life.

Mark 5:21-43

Once upon a time there was a freshly-ordained deacon.  She had been a convert to Christianity while she was in university, one who really dug in to understand the richness of the traditions that had been passed down through the ages, as the rich symbolism and language and ritual became tools which helped her understand the good news and the Christian life. 

One Sunday at her new parish, she was assisting the priest in getting ready for the service when a life-long member of the congregation burst in through the sacristy door.  “Is that incense?!” the older woman said.

The young deacon, having first met Jesus when she was enthralled by the rich sights, sounds, and smells of Christian worship looked up.  She was always happy to dive in and point out the many aspects of our worship tradition that draw directly upon the scriptures and shape, form, and re-focus us towards the things of eternity.  “Yes,” she said, “it’s a major feast of the church’s year, and we’ll offer incense to God at the altar, as the smoke purifies ourselves as an offering to God!”.

“I don’t care what day it is”, the parishioner said.  “I have bad asthma, and I just can’t sit up front – in my pew – if there’s going to be smoke!”

The eager young deacon heard pain and frustration in the woman’s voice.  She reached into her pocket, reaching for her stock of anointing oil.

“That must be so hard,” the young deacon said.  “But we know God still heals, and he’ll do more than we can even ask or imagine.  If it’s alright, I’d love to pray with you and anoint you, that God would heal you of your asthma.”

The parishioner turned beet red.  “No!”, she snorted.  “I don’t want to be healed – I just want you to put that smoke away so I can sit in my pew!”.

Do you want to be well?

We all need healing.  We all will need healing as, by God’s grace, the scars, pain, and trauma of broken people in a broken world are bound up, anointed, and brought back to life as both our bodies and our hearts are made more fully alive, better able to receive and reflect the life and light that God desires to share with each of us.

But, no matter what sort of healing we require, step 1 is always acknowledging that we need it.  Whether the ailment is physical, mental, spiritual, or in our relationships, we first need to realize when something isn’t as it ought to be, we need to realize that we need a power greater than ourselves to fix it, but most importantly, whether we want to heal our broken relationships, whether we want to soften and heal the calloused wounds of the past, or whether we need strength to deal with broken bodies, we have to want to be well, and be willing to make the necessary changes as we become more like God wants us to be, as even the worst afflictions that the world, the flesh, and the devil can dream up can be worked together for good, as we are conformed to the image and likeness of Christ.

Each of us here today are broken in one way or another, and the good news of Jesus is that the Church is meant to be a hospital for the afflicted, where imperfect people learn to trust in God to do what they could never do for themselves, and, where we learn to see ourselves, each other, and the world around us as they really are – creatures of God who are wholly dependent on grace.

God is not the source of our problems.

As our first lesson puts it today, and as scripture reminds us again and again, part of acknowledging our need for healing is remembering that God is not the author of death and decay. 

I think the biggest lie, the biggest deception that keeps people from accepting the healing that God offers is the lie that says “your pain is part of God’s plan”.

Don’t believe it.  “For I know the plans I have for you”, declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future”.[1] 

Anyone who says that the awful things of this life are God’s will has been deceived, and it’s the worst kind of lie because it keeps you from what God actually has in store.

“God did not make death, and he does not delight in the death of the living.”  He does not take any pleasure in the death of a sinner, but in his unsearchable patience calls all people to repentance.[2]

God doesn’t make you sick; God doesn’t desire for people to hurt one another; God doesn’t send calamities out of nowhere to leave you scratching your head.  Just as science – and common sense – tell us that “darkness” doesn’t exist (it’s just the absence of the energy of light), and “cold” doesn’t exist (it’s just the absence of the energy of heat), death and decay are the absence of the life-giving power of God.  And while the realities of life in a sinful world mean that our bodies will die, we proclaim each and every week that even that is not the end.  Our bodies – the flesh and bone sitting there in those pews, the faithful dead planted in the resurrection garden over there, even those lost to the deep or those innocent children buried without names or markers at the hands of too many unrepentant, proud sinners preaching the hopelessly twisted gospel of power and empire – all will have new life breathed into them at the day of resurrection, as the absence of God’s life-giving presence is overcome, and we stand before him, either humbly as our friend and Father or, full of pride, we meet him as our judge. And while our bodies await that day, the faithful rest in God’s presence.

God’s presence is life.  God is not the author of death and disease; death and disease are the product of a world, of humanity that has found itself absent from God’s presence.

The Righteous One comes to the unrighteous.

The good news we read this morning is that God is not content to let us walk away.  Rather, he comes and walks among us, the Creator among the creation, patiently reaching out to those who, often through no fault of their own, are suffering as victims of a world bent on removing itself from the care of the only one who can sustain it.

I don’t know if you noticed, but Jesus, in today’s gospel, breaks the law for the sake of those he came to save. 

It was illegal for anyone to touch a woman who was discharging blood.  For 12 years this woman had to live outside the city, and her own family, her own children could not come near to hug her or hold her hand, or they would be impure until the following day.  Imagine the pain – imagine 12 years knowing not just the physical discomfort, but the mental anguish of knowing that anyone who comes near you risks becoming unclean, forbidden to worship, forbidden to take part in the life of the community.  12 years of feeling she’s worthless.  12 years of being forbidden to go to the synagogue or the temple, 12 years of being unable to go and pray with the priest and offer a sacrifice to God.

But Jesus, the fulfilment of the law, doesn’t come to bless the righteous, but to redeem the sinner.  Jesus, the Holy One, is grabbed by that desperate woman.  And does He become unclean?  No, her faith makes her well. 

And then there’s Jairus’s daughter.  It’s illegal to touch a dead body – that’s the whole point of the Good Samaritan story: it’s not that the priest and Levite were being jerks, it’s that if he wasdead, they wouldn’t be allowed into the temple.  Does Jesus leave the girl for fear of being unclean?  No – if death and decay are the absence of God, His touch brings life – even in the midst of hopeless situations.

Healing pushes us out of our comfortable places.

But, though He comes to meet us, we need to seek Him out.

Notice from the lesson where these people meet the Lord.  This woman has spent a dozen years condemned to the outskirts of town, certainly crying out to God for mercy.  But does God meet her in that place of shame?  No.  In faith, she had to step out, to come boldly into the Lord’s presence, falling on her knees to reach out in hope.  The Lord was near, but she had to leave what had become a comfortable place of coping and pity in order to receive the healing and new life that God could give.

And Jairus, the ruler of the synagogue.  He was a big deal, living in a mansion, with servants to do his bidding; not the sort of guy who came into the marketplace.  Jesus didn’t come into his comfortable house and make an appointment on this man’s busy schedule. Rather, Jairus had to leave his mansion and meet the Lord among the common people – which, I’m sure, was costly and turned some heads.

My friends: God still heals, and deep down, each and everyone of us knows something is broken, we’re not yet as we ought to be.

The Lord, the giver of life, is seeking us out.  But as comfortable – perhaps even as proud – as we sometimes become with our ailments, the first step is always acknowledging that there’s a problem, and wanting to be made well.

And then, unlike that dear woman with her asthma, we need to learn not to be comfortable with – or even proud of – the disease, death, and decay around us. We need to be willing to seek the Lord while and where he wills to be found, ready to take that humbling, costly step of faith to fall down before Jesus, knowing that His very presence – the same presence that burst the power of death and that the gates of hell could not contain – is like a candle dispelling darkness and the cold: going out to meet him isto invite life itself to overcome the power of death.

My friends, God still heals.  The Lord comes to meet us, but not in our comfortable places.  The question still is: do we want to be well?

[1] Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15, 2:23-24; Jeremiah 29:11

[2] Ezekiel 18:23; 2 Peter 3:9

Choose to rejoice!

Rejoice in the Lord always!  And again, I say: Rejoice!

We find ourselves here today at the mid-point of Advent, heading into the longest and darkest nights of the year, just as the weather is dropping off – the windchill was -37o when I put the dog out to do her business this morning – and at a time when, for many, the stress of the Christmas season is mounting.  This year in particular, we’re all exhausted, really exhausted from this marathon year of social distancing and cancelled events, adding a new and different sense of waiting to this Advent season, as we prepare for a simpler, quieter, and yes, perhaps even lonelier Christmas than most. 

And in the midst of all that, the Church down through the ages chooses this Sunday to cry “Rejoice!” out through the darkness. 

It’s a reminder we all need to hear sometimes, isn’t it?

There’s a lot of words that can be used to describe the Christian life: we’re blessed, we’re forgiven.  We’re called to go forth in Christ’s name.  We’re equipped by the Holy Spirit to face the temptations of the world, the flesh, and the devil.  We’re generous, we trust in God rather than money or strength.  We’re obedient and, when we’re not, we’re repentant.  And, above all, we strive to be people who, in every aspect of our life, are willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

But, if we’re being faithful to scripture, one of the words that we simply can’t ignore is “joy”.  Joy fills the pages of scripture!  ‘Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands: serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song!’ (Psalm 100).  “The joy of the Lord” – the Lord’s own joy – “is your strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).  “Clap your hands, all you nations; shout to God with cries of joy” (Psalm 42).  Isaiah writes, “shout aloud and sing for joy, for the great one in the midst of you is the Holy One of Israel” (12:6).  Paul writes “the God of hope fills you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13). 

…but it doesn’t end there.  We’re not talking about brief flashes of happiness, a joy that comes and goes with the weather.  No!  This is a joy that goes much deeper than our present circumstances, our little successes or victories or mountain-top experiences.  God’s plan for us is that we would have a life marked by joy, in spite of whatever fleeting situation we find ourselves in.  “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you on my account”, says the Lord; when that happens, ‘rejoice and be glad… they’re treating you as they treated the prophets before you’ (Matthew 5:11-12).  Or James, beginning his letter to the Church, decides to start with this great opening line: “consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds” (James 1:2).  Just imagine the glory of knowing that sort of deep and unwavering joy, that when we face trials, when we face the wounds and hurts and hang-ups of this broken world, when we face struggles and illness and broken relationships and seasons of pain and exhaustion, we’re so sure that our only hope is Christ, we’re so sure the “weeping lasts for the night, but joy comes with the morning”, we’re so sure that our hope is built on nothing less than the sure foundation which is Jesus Christ, we’re so sure that even though I walk through the dark valley and the shadow of death itself, the Lord is with me and will fill my cup to overflowing (Psalm 23), that no matter what unimaginable and unspeakable struggle we face, the Lord will work all things together for good for those who fear him and are called according to his name (Romans 8:28), so that, no matter what we face, we face it with joy.  Just imagine.

But here’s the thing:  It’s not just your imagination. 

Our message for the world – no, even more than that – the Church’s message for you today is to rejoice and be glad.  The “good news” is good news.  The Lord will free the oppressed, he will bind up the broken-hearted, he will comfort those who mourn, he will release those bound as prisoners to whatever chains we find ourselves in, and he will put things right: he will display his glory, he will rebuild the ancient ruins, he will drive out those who oppress and steal and profit from the pain of others, and he will deliver justice, the true justice where all who try to stand on their own strength will be exposed, but those who put on the free garment of salvation, the free robe of righteousness, will be welcomed in to the feast.

Comfort, Comfort Ye

Throughout Advent we hear, from both Isaiah and John the Baptist, the call to joyful repentance.  And we have to remember that it is good news.

I think life trains us to get it backwards.  Even if, deep down, we know better, we’re led to believe that repentance is failure.  Saying “sorry” is a last resort.  Admitting guilt is something we only do after we’re tried all the other excuses.  Our broken instincts would even have us throw away relationships before admitting defeat; think about it – how many times have you thought “well maybe I was wrong, but I’m not going to give him, I’m not going to give her, the satisfaction of hearing me say it”.  We’d rather block someone out than repent. 

…but here’s the surprising part.  We’re not really blocking them out.  When we refuse to repent, we’re blocking ourselves out, we’re cutting ourselves off from the joy that should be ours as those who take comfort knowing that the only reliable foundation, the only sure and certain hope, the only one who can stand when the world is crumbling is the one through whom it was made, Jesus Christ the Lord.

In Advent each year we hear “comfort, comfort ye my people”, the Lord is building a highway, right?  What’s he doing to the valleys? Lifting them up. What’s he doing to the hills?  Knocking them down.  What’s he doing to the rough places?  Making them a plain.

Now, that all sounds nice enough, but think about that metaphor.  This isn’t a kid playing in a sandbox.  No, the message of the prophets – the message of the Church – is clear: the Lord is coming with all the might of his kingdom to reconnect the city that has been cut off. It’s a massive earth-moving project.  The very things we think are immovable – high mountains and deep valleys – are going to be tamed.  Think about that – “comfort, my people”, there’s a highway coming through; that mountain that cuts us off from the rest of the world?  We’re going to blast it down.  That deep, dark valley, that one where you have to be careful about getting too close to the edge because you might fall over the cliff as the ground beneath you gives way?  That one where we’ve tried to build bridges, but the rushing water carries them away?  He’s going to fill it in.

This is major, major work. 

And we’re to take comfort in that massive – and entirely free – project.  We’re to rejoice that he’s going to tear down that mountain, he’s going to tear down what we thought were the strongest highpoints of the world around us, and as he tears it down, he’s going to use that rubble to fill in the chasm that we could never cross. 

…but that’s only comforting if we’re willing to climb down from whatever high places we’ve perched ourselves on.  That same message of comfort for those in the rough places, waiting for the valley to be filled in, is, at the same time, a dire warning for those stubbornly standing on the mountain, isn’t it?

It’s the same thing with the message of freedom for captives and release for those who are bounds in chains of guilt or shame.  It’s the most incredible tidings of comfort and joy to those crying out for release; but that same message is an incredible warning to those of us who are holding those chains around the hands, feet, and necks of others as we refuse to forgive the wrongs they have done and stop dragging those chains along with us.

Where’s the Joy?

Rejoice in the Lord always.

This is good news.  No, this is the good news!  It doesn’t get any better!

And we’re to be people of joy – joy, no matter what sin we’ve finally asked to be forgiven, no matter what struggle we’ve finally handed over to Jesus, no matter what deep hurt and pain done to us that we’ve finally said we’re willing to forgive.

Joy is a mark of Christian life.

…but what if you’re not feeling it?  What if you’re not seeing the joy in your life?

This is something we easily get wrong.  We confuse joy and happiness.

If we go back to the scriptures, there’s something we need to notice.  In all those verses, there’s something in common.  Not one of them says “I’m joyful because I’m happy about my present situation”. 

No.  Joy is an attitude.  Rejoicing is an action.  It’s not something that happens to us. 

Scripture doesn’t say, “I’m rejoicing right now because I’m experiencing something that gives me joy”.  This isn’t Marie Kondo picking up items around your house and deciding if they give you joy or not.

No. My favourite shirt or a picture of my grandparents isn’t going to give me joy that sees me through pain and affliction.  No, we choose joy.  We choose joy when we decide to see things through  God’s big picture rather than our little obstructed view.  We choose joy when we put our hope in that one and only sure and certain cornerstone, that sure foundation on which we can stand on level ground, Jesus our Lord.

…how else can we say “consider it joy when you’re persecuted”?  How else can we say “blessed are those who mourn”?  How else can we say “rejoice when you suffer”? 

It’s not joy because you’re persecuted.  It’s not blessedness because you mourn.  It’s not rejoicing because you’re suffering. 

It’s choosing to live in the sure and certain hope that, no matter what this life throws at you, you belong to God; you share in the risen life of Christ; your sins – though they are many – have been washed away, and no matter what comes our way: trials, temptation, pain, sickness, life, death, height, depth, nor any other thing in all creation can ever separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).

…But it is a choice.

We don’t need to find joy to start rejoicing.  But when we start rejoicing, we’ll find joy.

Remember the man whose son was dying when he came to Jesus?  He cried out “Lord, I believe… help my unbelief”.  Remember ‘doubting Thomas’?  If he was just waiting for proof, we don’t know, he might still be waiting.  But he asked for proof, and those who ask receive.

My friends, joy is a mark of a Christian life.  But if we’re waiting to find some joy, I’m afraid we’re going to be waiting a long time.  No… instead, we need to make a choice. 

“Lord, I choose to be joyful… heal my bitterness.”
“Lord, I choose to be joyful… heal my anger.”
“Lord, I choose to be joyful… take away my pain.”

Take comfort, for the Lord is coming.  Take comfort, for the Lord will set things right, and will work all things together for good.  Take comfort – and, in all things, again I say: rejoice!

Is anyone sick? Call the presbyters, pray, and anoint in the Name of the Lord.

One of the core messages of the gospel is healing: God’s law to love him fully and to love our neighbours as ourselves is itself a plan to heal our relationships, to heal the wounds of sin that separate us from God.  The Prophets speak of the Kingdom of God as a place of healing, with nations streaming in to see the glory of God, finding healing for what ails them.[1]  Throughout the Gospels, our Lord displays the mighty power of God and teaches us to understand God’s will through dozens of healing miracles, and those examples of healing continue through the apostles and through the Church, even to our own day, as God continues to heal, as he continues to make a way where there seems to be no way; doing what we thought was impossible; reminding us that, just when we think we have it all figured out, we couldn’t be further from the truth.

Healing of the whole human person – body and spirit together – is central to our faith.  Indeed, our faith in the resurrection – our hope of eternal life – is not that we would be freed from our creaky, cranky old bodies, but that they would be made new, and be able to reflect the Image of God, no longer subject to pain or hunger or exhaustion, but being perfectly satisfied by union with the source of life itself.

And, though we’re not great at expressing it, faith in the healing power of God is – and must be – one of the marks or signs of the Church.  Where the Spirit of the Lord is, wherever two or three are truly gathered in the Name of the Lord, we should expect to find healing: if we’re the Church, if we’re the Body of Christ, if Christ is here as we know he is, then part of the evidence of that are lives that experience freedom from the despair of pain and suffering, bodies and souls that reflect the glory of God here and now.[2]

…but, then again, in a time when it seems the only ones talking about healing by faith are the multi-millionaire preachers asking for money on TV, and at a time when – by God’s grace – we’re able to understand and treat physical and mental illness better than ever before, what is the place of healing in the Church?

Why do we pray?

About 5 years ago, I was leading a discussion on this very topic with a group of students who were preparing for ordained ministry; we were discussing how each discovery of science and medicine further reinforces just how awesome and powerful God is, if only we can stop trying to make God in our own image and accept Him as He’s revealed Himself in the scriptures through the Church as wiser and more gracious than we could ever imagine.

And then, one of the students, who had become really quiet and looked pretty distraught, finally piped up.  “Fr. Alex”, he said.  “I believe it, I really do.  But there’s one part that I just don’t get, and I’ve never told anybody, because if the bishop found out, I guess I’d never be ordained”.

…uh-oh, I thought, what are we in for now?

“If God is merciful and good, if God really wants to work all things together for good for those who love him, if Jesus wants to draw the world to himself to share in his risen life, then why do we need to pray?  If God’s so good, why do I need to convince him to do something?”

(That, my friends, is why clergy need to go to seminary, to ask those deep questions before they find themselves in a pulpit, or worse, at your bedside!)

But it’s a fair question, perhaps one that you’ve asked yourself one way or another. 
If God is so good, why do I have to convince him to help me?

Right off the bat, though, I’d suggest that question shows that we haven’t appreciated just how great God’s love for us really is.

If we’ve made God in our own image, if we follow our society’s vague idea of an old king set apart on a distant throne, we end up with an image of prayer in which we are the poor peasants who must cry out and beg for the king’s mercy.  But, read your Bible cover to cover; not once will you see God described that way.  That’s simply not what we believe.

No, in the one prayer that Jesus Himself taught us, how do we, poor, struggling, often-disobedient mortals address the almighty Creator of heaven and earth?  How do we?

Our Father.  But, even that translation has become too formal over the years.  Throughout the New Testament, Jesus and St. Paul refer to the Father as abba – “dad”.

It’s a purely human invention to imagine prayer as begging a distant King to hear the cries of a poor peasant – and no wonder prayer becomes such an unpleasant experience if it’s approached that way. 

No, Jesus teaches us not to plead with a distant king, but to speak, to share with his dad, who has adopted us as his own.  Prayer isn’t a dry, lofty ritual; the God who makes himself present in bread and wine invites us to pull up a chair at the great thanksgiving feast and commune – meaning to “talk over” or “discuss” – with him.

Prayer is the furthest thing from convincing God, as if we had any power or ability to plead our cause before the Almighty.  No, it’s so much more – prayer is our opportunity to pull up a chair at the kitchen table, where a loving dad offers you your lunch – your food for the journey – and asks you, patiently, ‘my son, my daughter, how is your day?’

Tell me what’s on your mind.  Get it off your chest. 

And as we name our concerns, as we cast off our burdens, as we thank our loving dad for being there having the food ready, even when we were late, or wandered off and didn’t come home at all, do you know what happens?  We commune – that talking things over – goes both ways.

If we’re waiting for a grand messenger from a lofty palace to come with the king’s message, we’ll miss it – because, when we pray to our dad who has adopted us as brothers and sisters in Christ, he speaks directly to us, in that still small voice.

And, just as prayer isn’t us attempting to convince Him, God’s response to us isn’t just a set of “approved” or “denied” stamps.  No, the amazing part of prayer – throughout scripture – is that, as we pray, as we simply speak to God, He reveals his will. 

As we simply name our concerns to our loving father, his quiet response allows us to see things as he does; problems are put into perspective; the frustrating failings of another person become our own opportunities for mercy; the life-shattering news that shatters every plan we had for our lives, the hopes and dreams that fall apart, become opportunities to learn to trust; and, as we learn to trust, as we learn to live one day at a time, as we learn to recognize every breath in this weary world as a blessed gift, as we learn to live for his glory as faithful, loving children, not begging, not wishing for things to go back to how they were, not clinging to yesterday, not trying to earn a favour, but simply trusting in the goodness of God, we find that our prayers are answered in the way that are best for us, as through that conversation, through that communing – that chatting, that talking over, that communion – with God, we learn to understand his will.

What about Healing?

If prayer isn’t about convincing God of anything, then why should we consider taking the church up on it’s offer of healing prayer?

In short, whenever any of us brothers and sisters in Christ are sick, we should request the healing prayer of the church simply because our father tells us that we should, in his word.

In the Epistle of James, we’re told, straight-out:

Be patient, then, brothers, and sisters, until the Lord’s coming.  See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. … Is anyone among you sick?  Let them call the presbyters of the church [that is, priests and elders] to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.  The prayer offered in faith will make the sick person whole; the Lord will raise them up.  If they have sinned, they will be forgiven.[3]

James 5:8; 14-16

We don’t anoint with oil or ask for healing prayer as a last resort; we don’t do it as an extra boost of spiritual power; we certainly don’t do it as an alternative to medical treatment, since all healing and knowledge and science are gifts from God for our benefit.

No, we simply do this because God says we should; and obeying his word is one of the ways we demonstrate, and live into, our trust in Him.

Think about it – how often do we pray about, chat with our loving dad about our health, our physical and mental and deep spiritual concerns, perhaps hoping for a miracle or some grand display of power.  Yet, he has already said, right there, in black and white, for us all to read, when Christians are sick – yeah you take your medicine, yes we remain patient, yes the Body of Christ, the Church comes around the sick person and helps you do the things that you’re not well enough to do yourself, but what does God say we are to do?  Call the priest and ask for prayer and anointing with oil in the name of the Lord.  As far as interpreting the will of God goes, it literally couldn’t be more straight forward, spelled out in three simple steps: call the priest, ask for prayer, and anointing in the name of the Lord.

We must be careful, as we pray for healing, not to reject God’s plan because it seems too easy or too simplistic.  Remember Naaman, the great general who sought healing from God, and was told to bathe in the Jordan 7 times, but wasn’t going to go because it was too easy; he’d rather have a prophet come and say some words or wave his hands.  Remember those whom Jesus healed, for whom the healing came in a simple: ‘get up’ or ‘go show yourselves to the priests’, and the healing came as they obeyed.

If we’re going to pray for our own healing, we must also be ready to obey the simple response that God has given: ok, now call the priest, ask for prayer, and be anointed.

What happens when we’re anointed?

Once we’ve been anointed, what happens?  Does that then convince God to heal us? 

No, and if we think that, we’ve missed the point about what it means to have a loving dad who wants to discuss, chat, commune with us about our journey.

Rather, anointing is the outward and visible, physical sign of our willingness to obey. 

Like baptism and repentance, we can say we’re following Jesus, but the first thing he tells us to do is to be baptized and repent of our sins – so if you haven’t done those things, you can say you’re following Jesus, but your actions don’t match up with your words.

It’s the same thing with healing.  If we say we’re trusting God for healing, then our actions have to show that.  If we’re praying for healing of body or soul, we must also do as God directs. 

So this morning, we’ll have that opportunity to simply do what God says.  After the Prayers, as Isabel leads us in song, any who are praying for their own healing – it could be physical, it could be spiritual, it could be the healing of an anxious or burdened mind – come to the end of your pew, and I will come around and do as our Lord directs. 

We do so not to earn any favour with God, but simply to be obedient, to put our faith into action, to show God – but also to show ourselves – that we are ready and willing to listen. 

Are any of you sick?

Call the priests and elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord.  The Lord will raise them up.   To God be the Glory.

[1] Isaiah 58:8, Ezekiel 47:12

[2] An application of 2 Corinthians 3:15-4:1

[3] James 5: 8; 14-16

Eyes wide open — to see what matters

Open our eyes, Lord… we want to see Jesus.

Scripture has a lot to say about blindness: one of the promises revealed by the prophets of old was that the Messiah would come to give sight to the blind; in fact, the whole purpose of God revealing himself through his covenant with Abraham was so that his chosen people would be a light to enlighten the nations; a great light for those who were walking, living in the dark.

Jesus Heals a Blind Man

Even if we’ve heard these readings a thousand times, though, it’s absolutely critical that we allow ourselves to hear them again with fresh ears… to read them again with fresh eyes, eyes that are opened to see Jesus at work.  After all, no apostle or missionary risked life and limb for the sake of a history text of what Jesus did… No, the good news of the Gospel is alive, and the one it proclaims – that Lamb who was slain who now reigns in glory – is not just a figure of history to teach us good moral lessons.  He’s at work, even now, as that good news goes forth into all lands, even as Christians around the world are gathered in their homes; he’s at work today, as eyes are opened and light begins to shine in the darkness.

Who Caused this Blindness?

We know how this healing goes.[1]  The man who has been blind from birth is sitting along the road, minding his own business.  Then, the disciples start to talk amongst themselves, pretty embarrassingly, wondering “why is that guy blind?”.  It’s kind of like when you take a young kid out to the grocery store… you know, the first time the child really notices someone without an arm, or with a scar on their face.  You, the parent, try to answer them as quickly and quietly as possible, hoping, praying that they’ll just be quiet and that the person in line in front of you somehow didn’t hear.

…But that’s the scene: the disciples, walking down the road, talking amongst themselves about why this guy is blind.  And, we might say, they offer some common, but childish suggestions:  ‘Jesus, he was born blind because his parents were sinners, right?’  ‘Oh, Jesus, I think he was born blind because his father broke the commandments!’  ‘Well, I think it’s his own fault; I think he sinned while he was a baby’.

And Jesus patiently settles them down, and then sheds light on the situation: ‘guys’, I imagine him saying, ‘that’s not how it goes’.  No one’s sin caused this; it’s not like he somehow got what he deserved.  Blindness, sickness, plagues, even pandemics are just part of the reality of a broken, fallen world; a world in which people have the freedom to choose love and sacrifice over pride; free to choose to worship the God who made it all, or free to live under the illusion that we are somehow in control.

No, Jesus says, this man being born blind, like so much of the illness and brokenness in the world, isn’t caused by anyone.  But, in every broken situation, there is an opportunity for God to work even the worst situations together for good for those who love him, as he works out his eternal purpose of calling us to share in his eternal life.[2]

And then, without even asking the man minding his own business on the side of the road, Jesus spit on the ground, wiggled his finger around in it, made some mud, and wiped it on this guy’s face… so much for hand sanitizer and social distancing! 

Then he tells the man to go wash his face; and suddenly his eyes were open.

It’s remarkable; sometimes God wants us to ask for healing, like the paralyzed man lying for years at the pool, where Jesus stopped and asked the man if he even wanted to get well, before telling him to simply pick up his mat and go.  But, this time, the gift of God came without any request or act of faith on the part of the man, other than washing this stranger’s spit off his face, which I’m sure he would have done anyway.

God just did it, while the man simply washed his face, as he was expected to do.

And, I think that’s the point.

The brokenness, the blindness, the illness, the pain, the injustice are part and parcel of life in a fallen world.  Any relief from physical suffering is, by nature, only temporary until that day when God restores all things and makes them new, sharing his life and light with those who have chosen to call him Lord.

Jesus never promised to protect and keep us from physical pain or suffering.  The blind man went on to have other pain and struggles.  Even the people that Jesus raised from the dead went on to die again when their bodies wore out. 

Spiritual Blindness

You see, as good as sight is, the point was never about physical blindness.

Jesus said to him, “do you believe in the Son of Man?”  Confused, the man who is just seeing the world for the first time in his life says, “who is he?  Tell me so that I can believe”.

Jesus looks him in his now-opened eyes and says, “you have seen him”.

Just like that, the purpose of this healing comes into view.  Why did Jesus open this man’s eyes?  Was it to make his life better, to ease his suffering as a beggar on the road?

No, as much as we might wish that was Jesus’ mission.

He opened the man’s eyes so that Jesus could reveal himself.  And then, coming face-to-face with the one who blessed him, who changed his life without even asking, the man says the most important words of his earthly life: “Lord, I believe”.

Suffering, pain, plagues, pandemics, and even death itself are our lot in this fallen world.  God is at work not to give us a life full of sunshine, rainbows, and lollipops; no, God, in Jesus, meets us in the messiness of this world, literally in the mud of the dirty roads, in the fear and uncertainty and masks and gloves and hands raw from sanitizer not to whisk us away, but to show us that when we say “Lord, I believe”, then, whatever we face, we have no reason to fear, for even in the valley of the shadow of death, a valley we’ll all walk, his rod and staff are there to comfort and guide,[3] and what a comfort it is once our eyes are open to see that the same Lord who meets us where we are is the one who has conquered death and the grave and even now has prepared a place for us.  (If it wasn’t Lent, I’d shout Alleluia!).

Eyes to see the Light

But that’s not all. “For once you were darkness, but now you are light.  Live as children of the light”.[4]

If you’ve ever known someone born blind, there’s something remarkable: they don’t think of themselves as being “in the dark”.  What we call “blindness” is simply all they’ve ever known, as their minds and bodies adjust in absolutely incredible ways to interact with the world around them.

Jesus is the light of the world; the whole purpose of God’s revelation is to shine light into the darkness; we’re called to be a well-lit city on a hill guiding travelers in, a lamp lifted high in a dark room to shine into every corner.

But here’s the thing about light.  Light doesn’t change what was there in the darkness.  Light just makes it visible.  Light lets us see things as they really are.

As a kid I can remember waking up, scared in my bed as a terrifying shadow with horns and claws appeared on my wall.  In the dark, it was absolutely horrifying.  But, once the light let me see things as they really are, that life-threatening monster was a pile of laundry with a Power Ranger action figure lying on top.

Jesus said, “for judgment I have come into the world, so that the blind will see and those that see will become blind”. 

In our circumstances, even in a pandemic, God gives us opportunities to let the light illuminate the darkness; to let Him open our eyes so that we can get beyond the shadows that we think we understand, and instead see things as God sees them – see things as they really are.

And, if we’re willing, it’s eye opening.

This week, with reacting to the news, the uncertainty of how things will play out, the work of figuring out what it really means to be the church when the doors are closed, God opened my eyes.

Delivering newsletters and public health notices hanging from the doorknobs of those without email, I saw for the first time just how disconnected our world has become through technology.  Having to adjust to the school, the arena, the pool, and the library all being closed, my eyes have been opened once again to just how addicted I can be to “things to do”.  And then again, with no runs to bring the kids home at lunch, to the arena for skating, to the pool for swimming, my eyes were opened to realize that it isn’t the activity that I miss… I’m not missing my swim; I’m missing running into friends and neighbours, chatting to the guy named Danny at the rec centre counter for even 2 minutes.  In the midst of a pandemic, the fault of our fallen world, God has opened my eyes to see what really matters; and, like the blind man, face to face with the one through whom all things were made, at a time like this when — without our permission — everything changes, Jesus stands across from us, looking us in the eyes. 

And, as the light pierces through the darkness, letting us see things as they really are, not as we in our blindness think they might be, the time comes for us to say those most important words that we can ever utter:  “My Lord, I believe”.

He doesn’t need our permission to open our eyes… he’s doing it even now.

And, for those with eyes opened, this is an opportunity:
this is the time for us, too, to realize ‘I once was lost, but now I’m found; was blind, but now I see.’

To God be the Glory now and forevermore.  Amen.

[1] John 9:1-41

[2] Romans 8:28

[3] Psalm 23

[4] Ephesians 5:8-14

Accepting God’s Healing

2 Kings 5:1-14
Galatians 6:7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

“Go, wash in the Jordan seven times, and you will be healed”.

“Go out into all the world, cure the sick and say “the Kingdom of God has come near”.

“O Lord my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me.”

“Go in peace, your faith has made you well”.

Healing is a major theme in the scriptures and in our lessons today.  From the earliest writings of the Old Testament, we see that God is the source of health and wellness.  The prophets, as we heard today in the story of Naaman who was healed of his leprosy, were ministers of God’s healing power under the Old Covenant.

In sending Jesus Christ, the power of God became all the more evident as a full three-quarters of the Gospel record is various accounts of Our Lord’s healing power over body and soul: he heals by touch, he heals by speaking a word of power – “get up and walk”, and he even heals the hemorrhaging woman who merely touches the hem of his cloak as he passes by. 

Healing is a major theme in the scriptures, and, a topic with a great diversity of opinion in the Church today.

On the one extreme, we’ve all seen those enormously wealthy TV pastors who want us to believe that God instantly and miraculously heals the body of every person that they touch.  (Though, I must say, I’m not sure how our Lord’s words in today’s Gospel fit with all of that – you know, his strict instruction to go and heal the sick, but carry no purse or bag or fancy shoes or private jet, and not making a big fuss or meeting people in the town square to make a name for yourself).

On the other extreme, for the more reserved among us, we may find ourselves thinking of God as a last resort, a last ditch effort only after everything else has failed.  We try to help ourselves, we enlist the help of doctors and travel to find the best care available, at some point we’ll ask the Church to pray, and only after we’ve exhausted all available options, perhaps you’ll hear people say “well, it’s in God’s hands now” (as though it wasn’t in his hands all along!).

Healing is a difficult subject, not least because it is a personal subject.  All of us, at some point, have known someone sick and in need of a miracle, perhaps for whom that miracle never came. 

And in light of that, it’s important for us to think about healing.

The first claim that we make as Christians is that God is the source of all healing, not just the miracles that break the mold.

Healing, of course, comes in three forms.  Natural healing – our body’s wonderful ability to fix itself when we get a cut, or to use white blood cells to fight off a cold – is itself a gift from God.  Everything “natural” is because, as we proclaim, it is God who created heaven and earth, all things visible and invisible.

Medical healing, the healing that comes through the sciences, is also a gift from God. The wisdom and the ability to study the laws of nature and produce effective cures and treatments is itself part of God’s plan in making us share in his creative image; while the world in which we live is fallen, corrupted by sin, and subject to death and decay, it was God’s will from the beginning that we would study and subdue the earth, that we could reap the benefits of medicine, hopefully leaving the earth better than we found it for each generation that comes after.

And then God is the source of that third kind of healing, miraculous healing, those healings that, by definition, defy the laws of the natural world, and for which science and medicine have no answer: the fast-growing tumor that turns on itself and shrinks; the stroke victim who awakes from a coma with no detectable damage.  These miracles, this form of healing, is the rarest of the ways that God heals, and, we believe and scripture tells us that, when these miracles happen, it’s rarely – if ever – for the direct benefit of the person who was healed; rather, as Jesus says in multiple places, these things have been done that the world might see and believe; miracles are done for the glory of God.

The Source of Healing

As we think about healing, it’s absolutely essential that we remember that God is the source of all healing powers, and even your body’s ability to heal a cut or fight off the sniffles is God’s gift as we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

And there’s a big lesson in that for all of us.  If God is the source of all healing, that means that we are not.

In the Old Testament lesson today, we had Naaman, the commander of the army, who was in need of healing for a serious skin condition.

To anyone on the outside, Naaman was someone with everything he could ever need.  He lived in a great house, with great pasture lands and huge flocks, he had servants to do his bidding, and a great army at his command.  By all accounts, he was a powerful man, someone who could get what he wanted.

But, in spite of all this earthly power and wealth, in spite of all the people and lands that he controlled, his own health was the thing that remained outside of his control. 

He went to see the prophet, and what did he bring?

Did he go, humbly seeing the assistance of the Lord’s servant?  No, he went with 1100 pounds of silver and 150 pounds of gold coins, together with 10 new suits of clothes to buy his healing.

He set out, believing that these great worldly gifts would buy the Lord’s favor.  And what happens?

Well, the prophet doesn’t even come out to greet this great celebrity of a man.  He doesn’t accept his gifts.  He simply sends a young servant who says, go wash in the river seven times and you’ll be healed.

The point, in all of that, is that we are not the source of our own healing.  We don’t buy it.  We can’t earn it.

No matter how great we are, no matter how respected we are, no matter how powerful or wealthy, none of that earthly power can add even one day to our lives apart from the grace of God.

And, while I’d suggest that we aren’t as proud as Naaman, we’re guilty of the same sort of over-reaching self-reliance when we forget God in our own sickness. 

When we put our trust in medicine and doctors, but leave God as our last resort, we’re really doing the same thing as Naaman, who trusted in silver and gold.  We’re saying, well, I live in a great country with access to medical care and a pharmacy down the road, I’ll trust in that to make me better.

When really, we’re called to acknowledge that God is the source of all healing.  That God made the body, God made the immune system, God made the laws of science and nature, and it’s God who numbers our days and who is lord of the living and the dead.  We can trust our doctors because God is the source of all healing.

When we don’t get what we seek

And then, sometimes, we pray for healing, and it doesn’t come.

Perhaps we pray fervently, we gather the church around in prayer, trusting only in God, but the illness doesn’t go away.

This is difficult, it’s heartbreaking; it causes some people to question what they believe.

And, in times like these, it’s important for us to remember the deep truth that we are not just souls wrapped up in a fleshly tent.  Our body, our mind, our spirit are not separate entities, but God created each of us as a body, with a mind, animated by our spirit, all perfectly united to make up a person.

And healing, true healing, is a matter not just of the body, but for the whole person.

Modern medicine has come to this realization, a realization that the Church has preached since time immemorial: that it’s not enough just to treat the body.

If we patch up someone’s body, but don’t heal the illness of their mind and the sickness of the soul, sure we might extend their life, but we haven’t improved the quality of their life.

By the same token, doctors now realize that some illnesses aren’t caused by bacteria or viruses, but are physical illnesses caused by depression, anxiety, or stress.

When the Church asks God for healing, we have to realize that there is always more to this life than meets the eye.  We see the physical.  But, St. Paul tells us, we see and know only in part, only a dim reflection of reality. 

God sees us as we really are – body, mind, spirit, united – and, God sees us as we shall be, eternally.

For all of us, the guarantee is that this body, at some point, will breathe its last; and then, by faith we believe, at the last day those who are in Christ will receive renewed bodies, bodies in which the scars of this corrupted world are removed, in which want, and hunger, and pain are no more. 

And, while we can’t yet see on the other side of the thin veil between life and death, we firmly trust that God, who sees the end game and knows the heart, does what is truly best for us.

And, as scripture tells us, sometimes that means that the regular course of the rules of nature, cells growing and dying, bodies wearing out, are opportunities for the mind and spirit to grow into the image of God.  Or, as the Bible says, “suffering produces endurance, endurance produces character, and character produces hope that will not put us to shame.”

Trust: not a last resort

Jesus didn’t say “follow me and your life will be easy”.  Jesus didn’t say “call on me when you’ve exhausted the other options, and I’ll swoop in to save you”.

Jesus didn’t say “follow me and the rules of nature will on longer apply.”

He says “take up your cross and follow me”.  He says, “unless you give up your life, you will lose it”.

And, He says “I am the light of the world”.  Believing in him doesn’t pluck you out of the world with its sickness and death, but he does say “you’ll never walk in darkness”.  The Lord says “Fear not, for I am with you.  I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my hand”.  He will never leave you nor forsake you, he is with you always, even to the end of the age, healing not just the body, but healing the brokenhearted and binding up their wounds.

Our Lord is the source of all healing, healing that we cannot buy or earn, but which is a gift to God’s glory and our benefit.  He is the one who numbered the hairs of your head, who knows your heart and sees you not just as you really are, but as you shall be, and he says “I’m preparing a place for you.”

And, if he’s preparing a place for us, then, as he works through the changes and chances of this life, as he takes the realities of this natural life and the consequences of our actions and the actions of others and works all things together for good for those who serve him, then that means he’s also working through our illness, preparing us for that place.

Our job is to trust in God first, for he is the source of all good gifts.  Our job is to trust that Jesus is Lord, and that he will direct our path, and that he is preparing us to live with him in glory.  And our job is to trust that with him all things are possible, not just the healing of this mortal body, but the things that matter eternally – even the forgiveness of sins and our eternal life.

To God be the glory.  Amen.