Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas Day 2016 - A light in the flesh

The Gospel of John, you’ll notice, doesn’t bother with any kind of birth story for Jesus. It launches right into a kind of philosophical treatise on Jesus as the Word, and the light, come in the flesh. Now the Word has all kinds of connections to God’s word that spoke on the first day of Creation, as well as to the Greek philosophical tradition of the Logos, and to wisdom as the personification of God. But today - this whole winter, actually - I’ve been thinking about the light. The light that shines in the darkness. Because it’s been a particularly dark winter, metaphorically speaking, and it looks to be a particularly dark beginning to 2017. So the image I want to explore with you is that of the light coming into the world, that became flesh.

This coming in the flesh is key to the Christian faith. In particular, it’s important that the Light comes in the flesh. Because light is insubstantial. We can see it, but that’s it. We can’t hear it, or taste it, or touch it. And we humans, in fact all of God’s creation, are beings of touch. It’s our sense of touch that determines our world. We have to touch something to know whether it is hot or cold. When our vision is gone, we touch the thing we’re reaching for, or the face of the person in front of us, to know it’s shape. When we walk, it’s the touch of our feet on the ground that tell us how to step. And in this day of texting and video-calling, we know that an in-person hug with our family far better than a virtual one. (In fact, if you’ve ever had a cold and refrained from shaking hands during the sharing of the peace, you’ll know how unsatisfactory it feels to only smile at someone instead of feeling their hand in yours as you shake.)

And so the light became flesh. And lived among us. And Jesus’ family, and his disciples, experienced this light in the flesh. Those who were healed by him were, literally, touched by light as he laid hands on them. Those who were fed by him at the Last Supper were, literally fed by light as he gave them bread and wine, body and blood. And Doubting Thomas, who needed to put his hand in Jesus’ side, touched light, a light that could not be extinguished.

The pressing problem for us, though, is that we are two thousand years away from that flesh. The farther away we get from that moment in time - from that flesh in that person - the harder it gets to feel the light. It is so hard to believe in something that you can’t touch. (And in fact, I am never surprised that there are so few Christians these days. In fact, I consider it the profound work of God that there are Christians at all - it is only by the grace of God that we are able to believe in someone whom we can’t touch.)

And I know that we have the Sacraments - we have the physical things of Communion, that we can touch and taste, and we have the water of Baptism, that we can feel. These are profound gifts to us - these are what we can touch in the absence of a body. But they are also only a poor substitute for being able to feel Jesus’ hand on our arm, or feeling him hug us, or sit next to us. We need to touch the light of Christ. 

God does not leave us in the midst of this struggle. Instead, God sends us one another. You see, Christ is not the only light of God made flesh. Christ is the light, to be sure. The brightest, the most direct, the purest. But we are a light of God, insofar as we are brothers and sisters of Christ, and also children of God. We are a paler version of the light that is Christ, not quite so bright, but just as real. God, who desires that the darkness shall not overcome the light, has made us to be a thousand little lights, a million little lights, all in the flesh.
Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew that when we feed the hungry and clothe the naked and visit those who are sick or in prison that we are feeding and clothing and visiting him. Jesus makes it clear that his incarnation is more than God coming into one man. It is God coming into flesh - it is God making flesh holy, making flesh a vehicle for God’s light. All flesh.

This means that each of us here is a light shining in the darkness. We are to be the light of Christ for others, in their darkness, and we are to receive the light of Christ in our encounter with others, when we are in darkness.
In these times of darkness, we really need to remember this. One of the reasons that things are so dark right now is because in the world in general we have stopped turning to one another as fellow creatures of light. Instead, we have started looking at one another as if the other is a creature of darkness. We look at strangers with suspicion. We doubt the intentions of those we’ve never met. We worry that immigrants and refugees are going to take what we think belongs to us.

This makes our world darker than it needs to be. If you’re in a dark room, with a lamp on the table in front of you, facing the light, things are not so dark. But if you turn around so that you are facing the opposite direction, if you turn your back to the light, as it were, things get darker. Because your own body blocks the light and casts a very big shadow, and that’s all you can see. The darkness of your own shadow caused by turning away from the light.
This is what is happening in our world right now. We are turning our backs on one another, on the strangers in our light, strangers whose flesh carries within it a light from God, and so all we can see is our own shadow looming large. All we see is a world getting darker and darker.

But God offers us a remedy. God invites us instead to turn towards one another. To turn towards the flesh that contains the light of Christ. When times get dark, we are not called to turn our backs on strangers. We are called to face them, and to let their light shine on us, and our light to shine on them. To be the hand on their arm, to hug them, to be the one sitting next to them.

In this way, God makes our flesh to be a light in the darkness. And the more people we face, the more light we receive and the more light we share, the more light there is in the darkness. Millions and millions of points of light in the world, light in the flesh, that the darkness can never overcome.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus prays to God that, “the glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me.” Just as the light of God became flesh in Jesus, the light of Jesus Christ becomes flesh in us. The miracle of Christmas is that the light of God became flesh in a tiny baby born two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. And it is also that the light of God became flesh, period. In becoming flesh in that particular baby, God made it possible for light to become flesh in any and every particular baby. In each one of us. And so, although the world does indeed look dark, God sends us as light in the flesh to one another, lights reflecting the light of Christ, light to shine the darkness. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Christmas Eve 2016 - Elephants in the Manger

Have you ever been knocked over by an angry elephant? I haven’t, but I imagine it’s a horrible experience. Like getting hit by a bus or something. That trunk, swinging wildly, hitting you in the back and just laying you flat on the ground. Even just to be near to an elephant charging past must be scary. The ground shaking as it goes pounding by, knowing that if the elephant decides to charge you, you’re done for.

I bring this up because of the elephant in the manger scene.

Oh, you didn’t know there was an elephant there? Well, maybe you didn’t notice it because your attention was focused on the beautiful holy family. But it’s there. There’s an elephant at most people’s Christmas gatherings, hiding somewhere in the nativity set up along with the tree. It’s surprisingly easy to overlook, with all of the other things going on at Christmas - the music, and the presents, and the food, and the laughing and conversation. But if you sit quietly for long enough, you’ll feel it as it moves around. Big thumping footsteps that shakes you up when it gets too close. You might hear things crashing down as it waves its trunk. You might even feel yourself knocked about if you’re unlucky.

The elephant in the nativity scene, the elephant in the room actually, is whatever is going on in our lives that we so desperately try to avoid thinking or talking about at Christmas. It’s that “thing” that so often lurks in the background of our gatherings that threatens to upset the pretty, sparkly, happy Christmas we work so hard to have. The elephant is the awkward, uncomfortable, sometimes downright ugly part of our lives that we try to hide underneath the mountains of presents and food and shiny decorations.

It’s the aunt who drinks too much at supper and then starts hurling insults at family members. It’s the married couple that had a big shouting match cut short by the doorbell ringing. It’s the bank account seriously overdrawn to pay for the food on the table and the presents under the tree. It’s the person who’s missing from the Christmas celebrations. It’s the swastika painted on the Sikh house of worship here in Calgary on Thursday morning that reminds us we do not love our neighbours the way we say we do. It’s the intergenerational damage wrought on our indigenous people by Christian residential schools that we did nothing to stop. It’s the hundreds of thousands of people who’ve died in the Syrian crisis, and in other wars around the world, and who are dying still this very night. The elephant is all of the human realities, individual and societal, caused by us and randomly occurring, that are a source of pain on this night that we would rather be nothing but joy. It’s the reality here, amongst us, that this may very well be our last Christmas Eve service together. The elephant is all the things that threaten to disrupt the peace and joy and light of Christmas; the things that cause us pain in this holy night that we would rather not talk about or acknowledge.

But there have always been elephants in the world. There have always been ugly moments and broken relationships and global systems that lift a few up and keep the rest down. There were even elephants at the birth of Jesus - that Joseph and Mary returned to their hometown and no family would welcome them and make room for them. Already there was the elephant that Jesus was conceived out of wedlock, and possibly was not even Joseph’s. There was the elephant that this chosen nation of God was being ruled by idol-worshipping Rome. There was the elephant that the people of Israel were, like people everywhere, not taking care of the poor in their midst. There are always elephants, breaking things, stepping on us, hurting us.

But elephants are the reason for Christmas. They are the reason God became incarnate in Jesus, and came to us as a human. Our reading from the letter to Titus says, “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.” Last Sunday I said that the word ‘salvation’ is deeply connected to the word ‘healing,’ in its Greek roots. So really, what we have is the letter saying, “For the grace of God has appeared,” meaning Jesus Christ, “bringing healing to all.” This is why God came to us in Jesus. To heal us, and to show us how to heal one another. The reason for the first Christmas, and the reason we celebrate it every year, is that God has come to heal us when the elephants we’re trying to ignore hurt us.
Christ heals us. That’s what we sang in Hark, the Herald Angels Sing. “Light and life to all he brings, Ris’n with healing in his wings.” From the moment humankind left that perfect garden, with our hearts broken because we had somehow managed to mess everything up, God has been seeking a way to heal us. To make us whole in the midst of our pain. And God does it through love. God does it by coming down to be with us and to be with our elephants and to love us through it all. That’s why God became incarnate - why God became human. So that God might love us in the midst of all our ugliness. So that God in Jesus might actually stand in the presence of his own elephants and risk being crushed by them and, most importantly for us, make us whole.  

Jesus put his own fear of pain aside, and his own feelings of embarrassment and shame at having elephants, so that he might take on the pain of others. You see, when we love someone, it means that we make their wholeness a priority over our own. We give up trying to preserve our own serenity, we give up our own search for joy. Instead, we allow ourselves to be open to the pain and suffering of the other. And in taking on that pain and suffering, we ease it for them. And they can heal. 

This is what God did at Christmas. God became human, in order to know that struggle between protecting one’s self from one’s own elephant and voluntarily standing with another as their elephant charges. The human struggle has always been between saving ourselves - healing ourselves - and saving and healing others. And in Jesus, God demonstrated over and over and over again that God chooses to save and heal us. God chooses to love us more than God loves God’s own self. And so we are being healed. We are being made whole.

The healing seen in Christmas doesn’t mean things go back to the way they were, though, back to being perfect. Healing doesn’t restore things to the way they were before the elephant came through. Healing is not a return to the past, and healing is not easy. Healing is often difficult and painful. Healing might involve months of recovery - as we know from those who recover from major surgery. It might involve re-breaking something previously broken so that it can set properly. Healing might mean that the chemo that meant to rid us of cancer also damages the heart muscles that pump blood through the body. It might mean letting go of something we truly love so that it doesn’t crush the ones around us. It might mean letting go of our own ways of living in the world that hurt others.

But we are willing to endure all these things because healing also means love. And new life. Healing means wholeness. An emotional and spiritual health, even when physical or mental health is absent. Healing is reconnecting us to the selves God means for us to be and connecting us to one another. Healing is seeing ourselves and each other as the reason Christ became incarnate. Healing is God wanting desperately to be with us, elephants and all. It is the joy and beauty and peacefulness and light and life that we are so desperately seeking at Christmas.
But it comes with the elephants. Just to be clear, the healing that Christ brings doesn’t mean that our elephants disappear. They will always be with us - that is just part of the reality of living in this world. But in healing us, and teaching us how to heal one another, Christ also shows us how to live with our elephants. The important thing, of course, is to face them. To face the ugly things in our lives. Not to hide from them, or to try to hide them under forced smiles and meaningless conversation. No. Ignoring elephants is the best way to get hurt. And besides, it’s impossible to hide an elephant - no matter what we do, it’s going to come out anyway. So we turn, and we face it. We talk about the elephants in our live, about the pain others have caused us and about the pain we have caused others.

But we do so confident that, even though we might be hurt, God will heal us. God is always working to heal us. What we seek at Christmas is available to us every day. Christ is in the world - Christmas is today and tomorrow and all the days to come. Christ is God with us - one of us now. Loving us.

There’s an elephant in the manger scene. It is the pain and the hurt and all the things we think are irreconcilable with the joy and happiness and peace of this season. But without it, we wouldn’t have Christmas at all. The elephant is the reason we have Christmas, the reason God came down to take on our human existence. The reason that Christ came to save us, to heal us, so that we are more whole than we ever were before. And so my prayer for you this Christmas is that God gives you the strength to face whatever elephants are in your life, and that God gives you the faith to trust that God is with you, and healing you, today and in the year to come. “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing healing to all.” Christ is here. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Advent 4 - Dec 18, 2016 - What We Want

Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25 

What do you think Joseph had planned for his life, prior to the angel coming to him in his dream? I can’t imagine that his life-plan involved, in the first place, discovering that his fiancee was pregnant by not-him. Who plans for that? I imagine that his original plan, right after he was engaged to Mary, was to prepare his family home for her, and after they were married to start their own family together. That sounds like what any reasonable fiance would want, right? But very quickly, that plan went out the window. Because Mary was pregnant. And so he had to readjust his plan. And so his new plan, before the angel appeared to him, was to quietly dissolve his engagement with Mary so that he could leave her with a clear conscience and find a new wife and begin again. He was a righteous man and didn’t want to embarrass her publicly, (and there was an idea in Judaism around that time that publicly disgracing someone would bar you from God’s kingdom, so that’s why his righteousness comes into play here), and so he was going to discreetly put her aside. Not really the way he wanted his life to turn out, but not as bad as it could be. Not as bad as marrying a woman and having to pretend that their firstborn child was his when it wasn’t. In the face of unexpected events, he came up with a new plan that would, if not perfect, would still work for him.

How do you make plans for the future? Do you go with what feels right? Or do you try to be more deliberate? Most of us make plans by thinking about what we want, and then calculating what’s possible, and then we consider what’s best for everyone else involved, and then we try to find some balance between all of these different things. Whether you’re planning for Christmas, or planning for the next five years of your life, whether you’re planning your funeral or whether you’re planning what the church should do in the coming years, we all go through this process of trying to balance between what we want, what’s possible, and what’s best for the larger group.

Our Old Testament reading from Isaiah is an example of this, actually. Now I’ll tell you right away that this portion of Isaiah is impossible to understand if you don’t know the political and military environment that it was written in. Basically, Ahaz, who was the king of Judah, the southern part of Israel that includes Jerusalem, was worried about the land being overtaken by his enemies, which at that time included the north part of Israel, and Syria. And so his plan was to protect the land of Judah by entering into an alliance with the Assyrians. Politically and militarily, it made sense, because Assyria was a strong military force. Ahaz was so convinced that his plan would work in fact, that, in the Bible verses just before our reading comes in, he decides against asking God if this was the plan he should be following. Like all political leaders, like all individuals, actually, Ahaz made his plan based on what he wanted, on what was possible, and on what the country needed. 

But our readings for today, and our experiences in life, tell us that we often have to abandon our plans, and let go of what we want. More specifically, the Bible tells us that God often calls us to sacrifice our plans, and sacrifice what we want, in order to participate in God’s plan for our future. Look at Joseph. He had a plan to marry Mary, and raise a family with her, but then God made her pregnant through the Holy Spirit. And so he re-adjusted. And his new plan, still based primarily on what he wanted, was to break his engagement with Mary and leave her and get on with his new life. But then, God gave him what was undoubtedly life-shattering news: that God’s plan for him was to stay with Mary, to be the father to a son who was not his own, to take on the responsibilities of raising this child who was not of his blood. What kind of plan was this? For the rest of his life, Joseph would be worried that people might find out that he was not Jesus’ father, because there’s no doubt that Mary’s family would have known that he wasn’t, and maybe even some neighbours would be able to put two and two together and figure it out, and he would suffer public shame for the rest of his life that his wife’s child was conceived through someone else and that he was a failure. Who in their right mind would want that? Who would choose to follow God’s plan when being considered a failure was part of the outcome?
But Joseph did. Joseph chose God’s plan. Because along with all of this risk of public shame and knowledge that his firstborn was not actually his was God’s promise that this plan would save all of God’s people. God’s plan was for the good of the entire world, even if it made Joseph’s own life more difficult. And so Joseph, who was righteous, let go of his own plans, and let go of what he wanted, and chose to follow God’s plan as his own. He was faced with a difficult choice, and he chose God.

We too are faced with this choice, constantly. Yes, I’m talking about this congregation’s future, but I’m also talking about life in general. We are constantly faced with having to make plans for our life, and with the choice that comes with it: Develop a plan that gets us what we want, and pursue that, or let go of what we want in order to participate in God’s plan for the world. And I’m not going to tell you that this is an easy or straightforward choice. Our own plans are usually much simpler and easier to follow than God’s plans are. Look at Joseph - God’s plan for him came to him in a dream - very hard to decide to follow a dream. And look at Ahaz and Isaiah - God’s plan for them required them to let go of their plan to trust in military forces and instead to trust in a baby that hadn’t even been born. Again - very hard to just go forward blindly without any proof that things will turn out right. But the hard truth of being one of God’s children is that God does call us - God doesn’t force us, but God does call us - to sacrifice what we want in order to do participate in God’s plan.
But here’s why we do it. Here’s why Joseph let go of his plan to raise his own family and raise God’s family instead. Here’s why we stop making plans based on “what we want.” Because God’s plan is a plan for the healing of the entire world.

I say “healing” because that’s what it means every time the New Testament says “saviour.” The Greek word for Saviour is soter, which means saviour, deliverer, protecter, healer, one who makes things whole. Salvation is about healing the entire person so that they are integrated. When we talk about Jesus saving the world from their sins, we are talking about Jesus healing the world - binding together the things and the people and the communities that are broken. Where sin has fractured and broken us, Jesus heals us from those sins. Jesus makes us whole again.

This is God’s plan for the world. That it would be healed. That the entire world, the whole global community, nature, our environment, the animals and all creatures, everything would be healed. Brought back together the way it was on the seventh day of Creation. This is why God sent Jesus. To save us - to heal us. This is God’s plan.

And this is why we set aside our own wants and plans. This is why Joseph set aside his wants and plans - to have his own children with Mary and raise them up himself. Because God’s plan, as vague as it was, is so much better than our plan. Joseph’s plan concerned only his small circle. Our plans so often concern only ourselves and those around us. But God’s plan is for the entire world. For absolutely everyone.

And so we can, indeed, let go of our own plans. As hard as it is, and as much as it hurts us, we do it because we know that we, too, will be healed. God’s plan for healing the world includes us, who have sacrificed what we want. That is what it means to participate in God’s plan - it means to both sacrifice in order to take part in it, and to receive the benefits of the goodness God intends for the world. 
When God calls us to give up our plans, and to give up what we want, we don’t always see right away what the value is in that. I don’t think Joseph saw any immediate rewards for giving up his plans for a stable life and a firstborn child of his own. I’m not sure he ever saw the rewards for what he did - there is no mention of him being around when Jesus died and was raised again. Sometimes we don’t get to see all of God’s plan for the world. But we participate anyway, because what else, as followers of Christ, as children of God, are we to do? Joseph did not see this future we are living, where millions of Christians have experienced the new life that Christ showed us. We cannot see the future from here, where our sacrifice for God’s plan will bring light and new life to others. Only God can see that, and so only God can plan for that, which is why only God’s plan is worth following.

The saying goes that it is the darkest before dawn. Joseph’s story is the dark moment before the dawning of Christmas. Our Advent journey makes its final stop with him, as he gives up his plans, and sacrifices his wants for the greater good God has planned. But the dawn is coming. Christmas is coming. God-in-Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us is coming. And so, we too let go of what we want, like Joseph before us, knowing what it will cost us and knowing what the world will gain, and we turn to God and we say, Come, Lord Jesus, Come. Amen.

Advent 3 - Dec 11, 2016 - The Strength to be Idealists

What a vision the Magnificat presents us with. This beautiful hymn from Mary, that we sang for our Psalm reading today, gives us a vision of the world that God desires, where God establishes pure justice and equality. God “has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” In this simple song, Mary rejoices in God’s righteousness, that God does away with exploitation and inequality and with oppression and poverty. And to those who are powerless and poor, who are constantly hungry and struggling to make ends meet, this is a powerful hymn of freedom. It calls us to open our arms to embrace a radically different world than the one we currently live in, where the powerful assume ever larger thrones and where the rich enjoy their ever-increasing good things. Mary’s hymn reminds us that the world we live in, which tells us it is better to be powerful and rich than lowly and hungry, is not the world God intends for us. For those of us who are social justice idealists, the Magnificat feeds our soul and inspires us in our efforts.

But for those of us who are realists, the Magnificat is, well, something we listen to in church but not something we bring home with us. Because life isn’t that simple, is it? The idea that the world can be divided so cleanly between those with power and those without, between those who are rich and those are hungry, it’s a bit ridiculous. Realists know that the world is much too complicated to let idealists run the show. Take the issue of environmental justice, for example, and the discussions around carbon taxes and oil pipelines, and all of that. Now idealists would say that we need to get rid of fossil fuels immediately, and shut down all the pipelines and refineries, because they are destroying the environment and our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be living in a toxic soup and we have to stop it now. Realists, on the other hand, would say, Don’t be ridiculous, you can’t eliminate all the jobs that come from the pipelines and refineries. Those workers need to feed their families. The country’s economy would tank if we did that. We need these industries simply to survive to the second or third generation - clean air is useless if there’s no second or third generation to enjoy it.

And so the debate rages between the idealists and the realists. And then, somewhere in the middle, lies the rest of us. Those of us who wish we could live by the lofty ideals that Christ has set before us, of justice and equality, but who can’t argue against the realists because we need to get by in life. We act like the “crowds” in the Gospel of Matthew that we heard today, who go out to hear the idealist John the Baptist, but who aren’t willing to follow him to imprisonment. Instead, we find a way to compromise on our ideals. We turn to practicality and tradition. We act like realists and we dream like idealists, and when the young people come to us, because the young are often the most excited about living up to their ideals, when they come to us and say, “But don’t you care? How can you be such hypocrites? How can you compromise like that?” we stifle that twinge in our conscience and think, “You’ll get used to it. You’ll get used to compromising in order to get by, and one day you’ll understand.” And we think to ourselves how complicated the system is, and how it’s not so black and white, and how the division between powerful and powerless, between rich and poor, is not so simply made. And we listen to Mary’s Magnificat and we wonder, “Am I the powerful about to be brought down? Or the lowly about to be lifted up? Do I need to be filled with good things, or do I need to be emptied?” We acknowledge the vision that God calls us to, but we see the realities of the world, and we despair of being able to make any real changes in the world and try to get used to the way things are.

And do we get used to things, and we do get by pretty comfortably, until along comes Jesus in our Gospel reading from Matthew. In our reading, Jesus turns to the crowds who have come to see John, and lectures them for getting too comfortable with the situation they’re in. Jesus points to John the Baptist as someone who didn’t compromise - John was not a “reed shaken by the wind,” that, in order to survive, bends down when confronted by a bigger force. John was not someone “dressed in soft robes,” who took a job with the big company, as it were, in order to make a living and have something nice to wear. No, John was a prophet, and “more than a prophet,” which means that John refused to compromise, John refused to sacrifice his ideals, John refused to give into the realist’s perspective. John remained an idealist until the day he died - it was the reason he died, actually - and yet Jesus tells the crowds, and us, that here is truly a great man. Here is who we should be imitating.

I have no doubt, though, that the crowds listened to Jesus and then thought, like we do, “But it’s not that easy! It’s not that easy to extricate ourselves from the system! Yes, I want to do what’s right and participate in justice, but I can’t get rid of my gas-burning car and rely only on public transportation. I can’t cash in all my RRSPs and give the money to the poor. I just don’t see how I can do this!” We thirst for righteousness, as the Beatitudes say; we want the world to be a just and equitable place. Whether we are idealists or realists or somewhere in-between, I know that we all want the lowly to be lifted up and the poor to be filled with good things. It’s just that it seems so impossible. God’s kingdom seems like a only a dream - never something that will be a reality.

In the midst of this darkness, our readings for today give us two messages of light and hope. The first comes from the letter of James. “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. ... Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. ... We call blessed those who showed endurance. You have heard of the endurance of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.” The letter of James calls us to endure, to be strong, to have patience. Not in the sense of getting used to things the way they are until God comes to fix them, but in the sense of holding to our ideals, and continuing the daily struggle to live as God’s children, strengthened by the knowledge that the Lord is going to make things right. The Lord is going to untangle this mess we find ourselves in, and restore justice in a compassionate and merciful manner. Cast us off our thrones where we are powerful, yes, but also lift us up in those areas where we are lowly, so that no one is too high or too low. The letter of James says to us that because God is going to do these things, we can stand firm in the face of opposition, like the oak tree in the river bed instead of the reed, resisting the call to give in to exploitative systems because we know they won’t last forever.

Our second message comes from Mary. One of the things that gets overlooked when we read the Magnificat is the tense of her words. That is, Mary is not speaking about what God will do. She is speaking about what God has done. God has brought the powerful down from their thrones. God has filled the hungry with good things. God has done great things for God’s people. This is not something we are waiting for, something we are hoping will one day happen, this is something God has done, and is continually doing! God, who is not confined by our linear timeline, has acted for justice, and is acting for justice, and will act for justice all at the same time. God has untangled us from the systems of oppression we find ourselves in, and is now untangling us, and will untangle us!
And so we can, indeed, engage in living as idealists rather than as realists. Because the world we envision will be brought about, and has been brought about, by God. If it was all up to us, then yes, we could revert to our realistic ways of living and get used to injustice. But it isn’t up to us. It’s up to God, and the power of God to restore the world to justice and life is beyond anything we know. As our reading from Isaiah says, God’s power causes flowers to bloom in the desert, causes weak bodies to become strong, causes the blind to see and deaf to hear. God’s power brings water to the thirsty and food to the hungry. God’s power becomes embodied in a tiny baby born two thousand years ago who goes on to love the world so dearly that he dies, and then is given new life, sharing it with all of us. God’s power ends the everlasting hold of death. God restores everlasting joy and peace to the world, bringing everyone into God’s circle of righteousness. We can endure this current darkness because God has already brought light into the world!

This is the meaning of Advent. This simultaneous looking backwards, and looking forwards, and acting in the present. We look back with joy to the moment that God upended the systems of power by incarnating in a human baby of no standing, born in a stable. We look forward with a patient hope to the moment that God will fulfill God’s upending of power by establishing a kingdom of justice and righteousness for all, filled with compassion and mercy. And we act in the present as if what we hope for has already come to pass, and as if what God has done in the past is our new reality. We refuse to get used to things the way they are and instead we proclaim, with the fervour of the idealist and the practicality of the realist, “Come, Lord Jesus, come!” Amen.