121519 Advent 3 Healing and Holiness
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
During Advent we look at signs of God’s coming; like justice, joy, peace and healing. The 3rd Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday, or joy Sunday. Some years the texts also lead us to reflect on joy. But this year’s texts invite us to explore healing. I am feeling a tremendous need for healing today. I feel like my soul is wounded. Michelle Goldberg wrote an opinion piece in the NY Times on Friday that spoke of grief around all the threats to democracy. I experienced that grief one morning last week when I woke up to news about Boris Johnson’s win in England and a Washington Post article about how the narrow impeachment charges threaten to defeat democrats in next year’s elections. My soul hurt with that double whammy. My soul needs healing.
The good news is that Isaiah and Jesus offer it. Both connect healing to salvation in new ways, and establish a different relationship between healing and holiness. Isaiah even includes the healing of creation in salvation. All of that speaks to my grief. The connection to soul healing is as deep as the word used for healing. Sozo in Greek means both salvation and healing. Sometimes it is translated salvation, and sometimes healing. The church lost touch with major parts of Jesus’ ministry by focusing too much on a legal image of salvation: God, the judge, sends Jesus to die so that people can avoid the punishment of eternal damnation for their sins and receive eternal life. All the other beautiful and rich meanings of salvation were shoved aside in favor of the emphasis on humanity’s need for legal salvation from an angry God. The ambiguity in the word sozo elevates the importance of salvation as healing over a view of salvation as legal, and shows that healing is central to the Gospel story. We miss the beauty of God’s engagement in the world when we insist that salvation is primarily legal.
In Advent we prepare for God’s coming. One way to prepare is to notice what it’s like when God is around so we will recognize God when God comes. Isaiah and Jesus offer many of the same signs of God’s presence, and each offers additional ones as well. Isaiah writes: God will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. When John asks if Jesus is the one who has come to reveal God, Jesus answered: Go tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
For Jesus, healing happens when God comes. It’s as if the Gospel were saying, “When you see a lot of healing going on, God is present in that place.” It’s no accident that we’ve missed that insight. Much of the church considers the real Gospel story to be Jesus’ sacrificial death for our sin. But Jesus spoke very negatively about sacrifice. When religious leaders criticized Jesus for eating with sinners, he responded: Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ (9:13) When they criticized him for allowing his disciples to satisfy their hunger by plucking heads of grain on the Sabbath he said, If you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. (12:7) It’s strange that the church concluded that the Gospel is more about Jesus’ self sacrifice than his acts of mercy.
Who wouldn’t want everyone to have the chance to be healed? Well, it turns out that not everyone wants healing for everyone. Many have used the relationship between healing and holiness to separate people from God’s healing gifts. In the orthodoxy of Isaiah’s day, holiness was reserved for those who were ritually clean. The unclean couldn’t participate in the salvation God offered to Israel. 600 years later in Jesus’ day, Israel had even more rules about how to remain ritually clean, and therefore holy and acceptable to God. Each new rule excluded yet another group of people from the possibility of holiness, healing and salvation. Today many want to limit food give-aways to the homeless because it attracts the homeless to places that residents don’t want them, saying that it is not sanitary and there are no controls on the food preparation. Some want to restrict health care for immigrants because it might attract more to come here. Many seem to want to limit health insurance to those who can afford it.
Isaiah and Jesus had a very different view of the relationship between healing and holiness. Isaiah used the image of “The Holy Way,” saying that the unclean shall not travel on it. But God’s people will travel on it. That means that all God’s people are considered clean. Did Isaiah believe that stepping onto the holy way made people clean? Or did he believe that the rules of ritual cleanliness made it possible for all to become clean in God’s eyes? Either way he is speaking a very liberating Gospel into an oppressive situation.
Jesus does the same thing. He knew the religious leaders would take offense at his healing the sick, because of the elaborate rules for becoming and remaining ritually clean. But Jesus didn’t care as much about what the ritual law said about being holy and clean as he did about what the moral law said about loving God and loving neighbor. So it should come as no surprise that Jesus got in a lot of trouble for healing people of their diseases. He dared to offer healing and forgiveness to those whom the system kept safely on the margins of decent society. Religious leaders called it blasphemy, and concluded that it was “better that one man die for the sake of the people” than the whole system of salvation be destroyed (John 11:49) .
So after describing his ministry to John’s messengers, he said, Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me, because many found that view offensive. Jesus went on to talk about John as one who offended many because he also refused to follow the rules of a system that determined where holy people hang out and what they look like. Mary anticipated the same reality in her cradle song to Jesus, which we call Magnificat and sang today.
We still wrestle with the relationship between healing and holiness. The debate about Universal health care is basically a question about who deserves to be healed. We may not call it holiness, but the impact is the same. Some of you come to the table for a blessing because you believe you are too unworthy or unclean to receive the Eucharist. I keep repeating that we are all unworthy and that Eucharist only has value for those who know their welcome is not based on being worthy. Wherever Jesus is present, healing and forgiveness are also present. We don’t even have to see them. We just need to receive them. The Gospel I want people to experience at St. A affirms that you’re welcome to receive all God’s gifts. No matter how much your mother, or your teacher or your priest may have told you that you didn’t deserve them, or that God would punish you, the Gospel truth is that Jesus offers you healing and forgiveness without price and without condition.
To find a community that accepts parts of me that others reject meets a very deep longing requires more than welcoming people to the table. We need to welcome them into our hearts. When we fail to treat each other well; when we blame, shame and attack each other, it makes people want to flee from us. That’s why we need forgiveness and healing first. We blame, shame and attack because that’s how adults have responded to the unacceptable parts of us. We’re a community of wounded human beings, so we’ll never be fully consistent in the way we treat each other. But in our imperfections, something beautiful comes from seeing God rooted in grace and compassion rather than judgment and punishment. As we discover grace and compassion, we will treat each other more and more with that same grace and compassion rather than blame, shame and attack. The Gospel offers the good news that we don’t have to be very holy to be healed.
Finally, Isaiah helps us see that healing isn’t just for people. Creation itself is healed: Waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water. Our generation needs this dimension of healing like never before. The crisis of global warming forces us to face the truth that it is impossible to save some without saving all. The Africans have known this all along. As you know, it is the meaning of their word Ubuntu. Archbishop Tutu said: A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed. Entire societies and all creation need to behave like that. The United States can’t save its economy at the expense of the global environment. Developing countries will suffer the effects of global warming first; but every nation will be impacted by it. The Gospel offers healing to a polluted creation, and to people poisoned by the very elements they have polluted. All these forms of healing are connected. Where do you need healing? Where can you offer healing to the world?