Monday, December 12, 2011

"In Reverse: God is Turning Things Upside Down" Advent 3B

Isaiah 61:1-11
The spirit of our God is upon me, because the Holy One has anointed me; God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of God’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Holy One, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines; but you shall be called priests of the Holy One, you shall be named ministers of our God; you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory. Because their shame was double, and dishonour was proclaimed as their lot, therefore they shall possess a double portion; everlasting joy shall be theirs. For I the Holy One love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom God has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Holy One, my whole being shall exult in my God, who has clothed me with the garments of salvation, and has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.

John 1:6-28
There was one sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of humans, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of an only son, full of grace and truth. (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Child, who is close to the Creator’s heart, who has made him known.
This is the testimony given by John when the religious leaders sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”
He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.”
And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?”
He said, “I am not.”
“Are you the prophet?”
He answered, “No.”
Then they said to him, “Who are you? Let us have an answer for those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?”
He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of our God,’” as the prophet Isaiah said.
Now they had been sent from the Pharisees. They asked him, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?”
John answered them, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.

Will you pray with me? God who is present in all places and times, open our hearts to be aware of your presence in our lives today, here and now. Give us grace to accept your love for us, and the courage to share that love with others. In the name of your child, our saviour Christ, amen.

As I prepared for worship this week, I realized that we needed one more reading. It’s one of the suggested readings for this week in Advent, and in fact is the reading that gives it the name Rejoicing Sunday. This reading is from Luke 1, and is sometimes called the Magnificat, from the Latin for the first word, which means, “I will magnify.”

“Mary said, “My soul magnifies God, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for the Holy One has looked with favour on the lowliness of God’s servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is God’s name. God’s mercy is for those who fear God from generation to generation. Almighty God has shown strength with God’s arm; and God has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  The Holy One has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; and has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. God has helped God’s servant Israel, in remembrance of God’s mercy, according to the promise God made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

What an amazing affirmation to come from Mary! Remember, this is the young woman who was found to be pregnant before she was married, something so shameful that her fiancĂ©, Joseph, who knew he had had nothing to do with her pregnancy, thought of breaking their engagement. She has been shamed, embarrassed. I can easily imagine the gossips of Nazareth looking down their noses at her and whispering as she passed. Remember, in those days, engagement was considered as binding as a marriage, and extra-marital affairs were punished by stoning. Women were essentially the property of the men in their lives—fathers, brothers, husbands, sons—and legitimacy of the children was very important in that culture.

So Mary has turned things upside down—and not in a good way for those around her! She is pregnant, but Joseph is not the father. He’s considering not marrying her after all, we read in another gospel, and he is only convinced to marry her anyway because of an angel in a dream. This is serious stuff!

And yet Mary is overjoyed to be expecting this baby—she sings this wonderful song of excitement and joy and praise to God, because she is expecting a baby who will do wonderful things for human beings. There will be a reversal of everything—the poor will be rich, the rich poor; the hungry will be full and those who have everything will have nothing. All that is wrong will become right, and those who have done what is wrong will get what they deserve. Everything will be turned inside out and fixed.

We’re talking about journeys this Advent… We’ve all had reverses in our travels, haven’t we? The luggage that’s lost, the car that breaks down, the child that gets sick, the map that wasn’t right—or maybe the GPS that we didn’t trust—the flights delayed or cancelled.  Sometimes those events make the rest of the trip even more important—the difficulties in getting home for a family Christmas make it even more special, the shared complications of a difficult trip bring out the best in our travelling companions. There’s a saying that if you really want to get to know someone, try building something with them or taking a trip with them! Those reversals help us to see what is good, and to appreciate what is good and right—sometimes only in hindsight, after it is all over, but those changes give us the opportunity to try again.

Remember in CS Lewis’s book—or maybe you’ve seen the movie—The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe that it was always winter and never Christmas, under the rule of the White Witch? But then Aslan, the son of the Emperor Across the Sea, arrives, and so does Father Christmas. The snow begins to melt, and the White Witch’s sleigh becomes useless; her powers wane away, in spite of her attempting to kill Aslan, and she is conquered. Aslan is a symbol of Christ in these novels; he is slain and rises again, he appears to several people throughout the series The Chronicles of Narnia, and he returns at the end.. When things begin to go backward—when the winter begins to fade—we know God is near.

And that’s what God is doing with the world in Jesus’ birth. God is rearranging the world, making the rich poor and vice versa. That reversal is in fact a very signal of God’s presence among us—when things start going backwards, we know God is present.

We can be at the very bottom of our well, no hope, no sight of a way out, desperate for another option, and certain this is the end, there is no solution—and it is in those moments that God comes to us and shows us how this upended life offers us a way, a new path.

I have been in this place. I was a destructive, abusive relationship with someone who denied that who I was, who I am, had validity or worth. I saw no way out. Because of circumstances—financial and personal—I felt that I was trapped. I saw no way out of this relationship, hellish as it was, even though it had scattered all my life-plans, all my hopes and plans and even my calling. When I saw no way, God sent a way—family members and dear friends who offered validation of who I was, encouragement as I struggled to find that way out, and support as I left the relationship and established myself again. It is no exaggeration to say that without those angels, those messengers from God, I would not be living out God’s purpose for my life. I would either be still in that destructive relationship or quite possibly dead. God sent me a way when I saw no way; God made that reversal possible.

We all have stories, or have heard stories, of people in similar circumstances—stripped of almost everything, without hope, utterly cast down. And then there’s a light, a hope—and that beam of hope becomes a rope to pull us out of that cast down place. Maybe it was financial straits, maybe it was a bad relationship, maybe it was loss of employment or income, maybe it was an addiction—whatever it was, God came to us in those times when everything we knew was in pieces around us…shattered, broken, scattered around us like so many shards of glass. The bits of our lives… But until we had come to that point, were we able to see and hear God’s guiding presence? If God had spoken to us one moment earlier, would we have heard? If we had known of God’s presence when things were just OK, would we have paid attention?

The power of God’s action in our lives comes from this fact—when life is at its worst, that is when God offers a reversal, a renewal—when things have most truly fallen apart, God’s grace comes to us, and offers a way when there seems to be no way.

Mary—pregnant when society said she should not be; the person struggling with addiction; the spouse caught in an abusive relationship; the worker in a dead-end job; the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered teen of homophobic parents; the employee laid off two weeks before Christmas, the homeless family ….and then God’s presence is clear, and the reversal comes, and God’s purpose is worked out.

It doesn’t mean that everything goes back to the way it was before, or that all of life is now perfect—but it does mean that we are living our lives as God intended. We have seen the reversal God sent, and our lives are on the right road. We have found the right map, the car is repaired, our luggage is found.

And what else can we do but sing in joy?! Mary rejoices over God’s promises of the poor becoming wealthy, the empty full and satisfied, the ones who were cast down lifted up. We too celebrate—freedom from addiction, healing from abuse, new confidence in who we are, a new path of opportunity and hope… Indeed, what else can we do but celebrate?

Well, here’s something else we can do. We can stop to look at our own lives, and what part we truly play in the reversals of other people. Are we willing to admit that we, too, are a cause, sometimes, of those shattered lives? Or are we afraid to have our world turned upside down? Are we the poor who will hear the good news of reversal, or are we the ones responsible for their poverty? Are we the broken-hearted who will be healed, or have we broken their hearts? Are we the captives who will be freed, or are we the captors who have restrained them? On what side of the reversals do we find ourselves? Did we neglect to tag our luggage properly, to be sure the car engine was tuned up, to allow enough time between flights?

I think these are legitimate questions to ask. We cannot take on the blame for all the world’s ills, but we also have to admit that we are oppressors and deniers and unforgiving—just as much as we are oppressed and denied and unforgiven.

Yes, my former partner denied God’s image and action in me and in my life—but I too denied God’s presence in my life and calling and allowed my vocation to be denigrated. If I was belittled and put down, I also denied the truth of my life and of God’s action in me.

In this season of preparation for God’s arrival among us once again, as a tiny baby in a manger, it is time to examine our own hearts for God’s presence, our own actions for errors.

Which side of the reversals of others are we on? Are we casting them down—emptying them, refusing to forgive, taking all they have, not recognizing the image of God in them? Or are we lifting them up—sharing God’s grace, filling them with good things, forgiving, loving, supporting them as they seek to fulfill God’s purpose for them and for us?

While we rejoice in the good that has been done for us, we cannot forget that others too, need that hand, that blessing, that support or forgiveness or hope that we can offer them.

 This year, let’s put our lives into reverse—reverse the sorrow, dismay, despair, pain, hopelessness and fear and turn them into joy, hope, healing, peace, and comfort. Let’s recognise the reversals from hope to grief as well as from sorrow to joy—especially the ones we have had a part in—and then do something about it. And then we can all truly sing Joy to the World.

In the name of the God who travels with us, amen.

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