Advent 3: God’s healing is at hand
Isaiah 35:1-10; Psalm 146:5-10; Matthew 11:2-11, Luke 1:46-55
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Another week has gone by
that highlights the horrible extent of human suffering in our world—
an earthquake in Indonesia,
the imminent fall of Aleppo,
and the horrific humanitarian crisis that keeps worsening,
a suicide bombing by Boko Haram in Nigeria,
two police officers shot and killed in Americus, GA,
chilling testimony of race-based hatred at the Dylan Roof trial,
and other acts of violence, public and private.
And in our own personal lives,
those of us here today, of this congregation, continue to face,
the raw pain of grief,
debilitating illness, physical or mental,
loss of employment,
broken and strained relationships in our family.
We need healing.
We each, personally, need it.
We as a church, need it.
We as a nation, need it.
We need the intervention of a healing God,
who will take what has been shattered,
and begin to put it back together.
That’s the kind of God today’s scriptures reveal:
a God of healing.
who makes the wilderness blossom,
the desert spring forth in water,
the blind see,
the deaf hear,
the mute sing,
the lame leap,
the hungry full,
the prisoner free,
the oppressed get justice,
the lepers cleansed,
the dead given life,
the poor cheered,
the lowly lifted up,
the proud deposed.
That’s just a sampling of what we heard this morning,
in our scripture readings from Isaiah, Psalms, Matthew, and Luke.
When God shows up, healing happens.
Now that quick list, a summary of God’s healing acts,
is enough to give us a picture of how large and broad
is God’s healing agenda.
It’s all we really need to make the point
that God’s healing work has a scope far beyond what we think;
that healing is more than making a sick person well again,
although . . . that’s clearly included.
But just to reinforce the point,
let’s take a closer look at a particular conversation with Jesus,
that we read about in Matthew this morning.
John the Baptist was wondering about Jesus.
Frankly, he was doubting.
Yes, John was the prophet who foretold Jesus’ coming.
Yes, John baptized Jesus.
Yes, they were cousins.
But, John, like every other Palestinian Jew of his day,
was expecting certain behaviors from a Messiah.
And he wasn’t seeing them in Jesus.
It made John second-guess himself.
Jesus did not seem to be setting up for a popular uprising against Rome.
He wasn’t developing strategy for a rebellion.
He was just acting like an itinerant rabbi,
a gentle country preacher, maybe, but not a Messiah.
Had John made a fool of himself out in the wilderness,
predicting the Messiah was about to appear,
then sticking his neck out for Jesus,
declaring, “This is the one!
It’s Jesus who will save us!
It’s Jesus who will bring back David’s throne.”
So John sits in prison and wonders, and doubts, about cousin Jesus.
John sent messengers, his disciples, to ask Jesus point-blank.
“Are you or aren’t you?
Tell me if you’re the Messiah.”
That was not a theological question, like we imagine it.
It was a political one, with an agenda.
John’s own life . . . hung on how Jesus answered that question.
If Jesus did his Messiah thing,
and delivered his people,
John would be out of his Roman prison.
“When are you going to start your real work?” John asked.
“When will you deliver us all?”
Jesus’ reply was strangely simple—
The blind receive their sight.
The lame walk.
The lepers are cleansed.
The deaf hear.
The dead are raised.
The poor have good news brought to them.
Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.
Interesting . . .
that Jesus would even mention “taking offense”
as a possible outcome of doing all these good works,
of healing the blind, lame, and leprous.
How could anyone take offense at a kindly healer,
going about showing compassion?
Well, as it turnd out, a lot of people could.
People who had a stake in the status quo.
Simply because Jesus’ healing ministry was actually more
than a ministry of kindness and compassion to individuals.
If that’s all it was, he would not have been crucified.
Jesus went about doing deeds that brought healing and justice,
as if one was tied to the other.
He did not heal individuals in isolation.
He did not heal their physical condition, as if nothing else mattered.
Yes, yes! He healed lepers of their skin disease,
and then he helped them return
to the community that had ostracized them.
Yes, he cast demons out of people,
and then aided them in finding a circle of acceptance again.
Yes, he healed the physically lame,
and then forgave their sins.
Even moral and spiritual illness that Jesus encountered and healed,
he put into a larger context.
A woman was caught in adultery and sent to Jesus for judgement.
The common and socially accepted judgement
was stoning to death.
Jesus named and acknowledged her moral brokenness, her sin.
But when he put it in the larger social context,
her accusers slinked away, dropping their stones.
Her life was spared, and restored to her community,
and she was urged to walk a new path of righteousness.
Yes, Jesus was quite willing, even eager,
to address the presenting problem, the obvious illness—
crippling disease, blindness, personal sin—
but he didn’t stop there.
And as a result, sometimes . . . often . . .
people took offense.
Aiming at the root causes of brokenness and injustice,
often comes with a price.
Because there are powerful competing interests,
invested in keeping those root causes exactly as they are.
Jesus was equally moved to compassion,
whether what needed healing
was a man blind from birth,
a woman overtaken with a fever,
a person possessed by an evil spirit,
children being disregarded by grownups,
tax collectors overcharging their people,
temple money changers profiting
off poor people coming to worship,
scribes and Pharisees tending to religious trivia
while neglecting the widow and orphan,
or Roman soldiers exploiting the system.
In all these situations that Jesus came upon,
it was the same God-breathed impulse that moved him into action.
It was this impulse we saw repeatedly in today’s scripture readings,
Old and New Testament.
Our ever-loving God created a world
full of peace, beauty, wholeness, diversity, and harmony.
And when we, God’s own creatures,
damage God’s good work,
when we obscure the beauty God made,
when we inflict pain and suffering on children of God,
God is moved.
Sometimes . . . God is moved to compassion,
and heals the suffering individual.
Sometimes . . . God is moved to anger and judgement,
and acts against the oppressive system.
But always, God’s heart is moved toward
those who are broken, sick, oppressed, or suffering injustice.
God’s heart is moved, always,
toward healing and justice . . .
toward healing justice . . . and just healing.
toward putting things right.
For those of us who know and admit our suffering and brokenness,
God’s move toward just healing is good news indeed.
Because we experience, in full,
the compassion of God directed toward us,
and we can rest in it.
But for those of us who have a need to protect ourselves,
to protect what we think belongs to us,
to guard our privileged status,
who stand to benefit from systems
that oppress the poor,
or keep out the foreigner,
or separate us those different from ourselves . . .
then God’s move toward just healing
may cause us to take offense.
I don’t blame the Pharisees and scribes
for taking offense at the works of Jesus.
I don’t blame John the Baptist,
for wondering about, and questioning, the ways of Jesus.
I don’t blame the disciples,
for trying desperately to steer Jesus in a different direction.
Honestly, there’s a very good chance
I would have been right there with them all.
Questioning, wondering, steering . . .
and maybe taking offense.
See, when people encounter God’s healing and justice,
they never have the privilege of staying in the same place.
They are changed.
And the change can be painful and hard to accept.
I think it’s fair to say that “just healing”—
that is, healing integrated with acts of justice-making—
is at the very core of Jesus’ mission and ministry.
His message, from beginning to end,
was “the Kingdom of God is near.”
And as the Advent texts from Isaiah proclaim,
God’s Reign is a reign of justice with healing—
where God’s creation is in harmony,
where the wolf lies down with the kid,
where nations live in peace,
where individuals enjoy abundant life,
where prisoners are set free,
where the desert blooms,
where the lame leap like deer,
where the tongue of the speechless sing out loud.
Proclaiming healing with justice
was the work of God as Jesus of Nazareth understood it.
Now . . . if the church is called to carry on the work of Jesus,
then healing with justice is also at the top of our agenda.
This world of ours, and the people in it, need healing.
We need justice.
We need restoration.
And God wants us to collaborate toward that end.
Do you suppose,
if we undertake that mission as seriously, and as boldly,
as Jesus did,
that we will be received any better than he was?
Do we think that we should be immune
from being misunderstood,
and taken offense at?
Every time someone is healed, with justice,
it’s a blow to the powers of this world.
In a very real sense,
a holistic healing ministry is subversive.
Feeding the hungry is an act of provocation,
when we also try to address the causes of hunger.
Serving the poor is revolutionary,
when we also confront the sinful powers of this world,
responsible for poverty and hunger and disease.
Neither disease nor oppression was God’s idea.
The brokenness of this world is the result of human sin,
the result of God’s own creatures rejecting their creator.
I’m talking about the big picture, here.
I’m not saying I get sick because I sin.
Or that you will get well,
if you confess your sins and live right.
No, I’m saying that in the big picture,
God is on the side of health and wholeness,
of abundance and joy,
of justice and freedom.
When we collaborate with God
to work on God’s just healing agenda,
we are confronting the powers.
And we’re likely to feel that sometimes.
Every disease healed,
every empty stomach filled,
every person in bondage freed,
is a blow to the oppressive powers of this world.
Our mission, brothers and sisters at Park View,
is to collaborate with God to make whole what is broken—
to save the lost,
free the captive,
heal the sick,
feed the hungry,
give joy to the poor,
see things return to their original, created state.
And from the looks of the world around us,
we . . . and God . . . have a lot of work to do.
We should get to it.
So I invite us into a space of reflection,
of commitment . . . leading to action.
This is not going to be a typical sermon response,
inviting individuals to come up for healing prayer—
although that’s certainly good and important,
and we will do that again, as we have in the past.
But today’s response seeks to put healing in a larger context.
Pull out the narrow slip of paper in your bulletin.
At the top it says,
“Among my hopes and prayers for healing and justice,
is the following . . .”
Then there is space to identify something weighing on your mind,
that you recognize as a place
where God’s healing and justice is needed.
During a brief period of meditation,
think about what that is for you today, and write it down.
Then . . . to ensure this need doesn’t get completely privatized,
and spiritualized, and protected from its larger context,
you are specifically invited to commit to one or more actions,
that brings this need into the context of a healing community.
Put a simple check mark beside the actions you choose,
beside as many actions as you are seriously committing to take.
Bringing it to God and to the church,
by carrying it forward, and placing it in the basket at the front
Pledging to share it with your own circle of support
Asking the church staff to remember it
in one of our daily morning prayers at the office
Asking a pastor or elder to contact you to arrange for
a special service of prayer and/or anointing.
Or, some other action that you want to identify.
Then write your name, and prepare to follow through.
If you don’t have your own pen or pencil,
borrow one from a neighbor.
For a couple minutes, you are invited to reflect and write,
then we will sing together HWB 372, O healing river.
As soon as we start singing,
you may start bringing your slips of paper forward,
and dropping them into one of the baskets here.
We pastors and elders will read them later,
as respond as needed.
“O, healing river, send down your waters upon this land.”
—Phil Kniss, December 11, 2016
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