Sunday, December 23, 2012

4th Sunday of Advent (C)
Confined Space–Abundant Grace

Picture: cc Clugg14

Sisters and brothers, imagine for a moment that you’ve lost or misplaced something. How do you feel? And what are you willing to do–where are you willing to go–to get it back? Would you ransack your room? Your whole house? Search through all your belongings? Just to find what is missing? Would you be willing even to crawl under your bed to look for it there? Or to dive into a garbage bin? Or jump into a monsoon drain? Or reach into a toilet bowl? … Into what confined space, into which inconvenient and uncomfortable place, would you be willing to go, just to get back what you’ve lost?

Well, it all depends, doesn’t it, sisters and brothers? If what you’ve lost is just a paper clip, or a one-cent or even a five-cent coin, the answer to all these questions is probably no. No reason to go to all that trouble for something that’s so easily replaced. But what if what is lost really means something to you? What if it is a diamond engagement ring? Or some other priceless object with deep sentimental value? Or what if it isn’t just an object that you’ve lost, but a person. A member of your family perhaps. A precious daughter or son. A beloved mother or father. A dear husband or wife. Some of us may have seen, for example, that notice posted near the entrance to the Farrer Road MRT station. It’s an appeal for news about an elderly gentleman with dementia, who has wandered off and gone missing. What if it is someone you love who is lost? What would you be willing to do? Where would you be willing to go to get him or her back?

Isn’t it true, sisters and brothers? That the lengths to which we are willing to go to search for something. The energy we are willing to expend. The confined spaces we are willing to enter. The uncomfortable places we are willing to visit. All serve to indicate to us just how much we treasure the particular thing that we have misplaced? Or the person whom we have lost?

And it’s helpful to remember this especially on this 4th Sunday in Advent. With Christmas just round the corner. For our first reading today is addressed precisely to people who are lost. People who feel themselves cut off from God. Unable to find their way home. People begging God to seek them out and to rescue them. To enter into the confusing and confining situations of their lives, and to lead them back to where they belong. People whose heartfelt prayer we made our own just now in our response to the psalm: Lord of hosts, bring us back; let your face shine on us and we shall be saved.

And God responds to this prayer with great generosity and compassion. God goes out of God’s way to seek out and to save the lost. God shows just how precious these people are–how precious we all are–to God, by deciding to enter into various confined spaces and inconvenient places, just to bring God’s people home. The first reading tells us about the first of these places: Bethlehem Ephrathah, the least of the clans of Judah, out of you will be born for me the one who is to rule over Israel. Out of love for his people, the almighty, infinite, and eternal God, proves himself willing not only to descend into the chaos of the earth–to be bound by the forces of gravity, to stumble along dusty streets, to struggle through rugged roads–but even to be born a helpless infant in an insignificant town. Bethlehem Ephrathah, the least of the clans of Judah. This is the first confined space in our readings into which God pours his mercy.

But to be born an infant God must also be willing to enter other confined spaces. Other inconvenient places. In the gospel, this place is found in two unlikely women. Into the aged womb of Elizabeth–long past the time of childbearing–God enters and prepares for himself a prophet. A voice that will cry out in the wilderness. Preparing a way for the Lord. Then, into the virginal womb of Mary–as yet untouched by the seed of any man–God enters in an even more amazing fashion. Becoming present to us in a remarkably new way. In the person and life of God’s only begotten son, Christ Jesus our Lord.

And the second reading reminds us of what this same Christ says to his heavenly Father upon coming into the world: You who wanted no sacrifice or oblation, prepared a body for me. A body, sisters and brothers. Yet another confined space. Another inconvenient place, into which God is willing to enter. Just to save us. His beloved people. The great God, whom no eye can see, and no thought can comprehend, is willing to suffer the constraints of human flesh. To endure heat and cold. Weakness and disease. Just so that we, who have been corrupted by sin and selfishness, might once again be made holy by the offering of his body made once and for all by Jesus Christ.

An insignificant town. A virginal womb. A vulnerable and fragile body. These are among the confined spaces into which our God is willing to enter just to seek out and to save those who have been lost. To seek out and to save you and me. What does this tell us, sisters and brothers, if not that we are precious in the eyes of God? That we are cherished and treasured. That we are loved and held very dear. That even in the midst of our many weaknesses our God refuses to give up on us. Refuses to let us go. Persists in pursuing us and calling to us. Bringing us home.

And that’s not all. For it is true that God is willing to enter into every manner of confined space. Every kind of inconvenient and uncomfortable place. Just to search for us. Then it follows that it is actually possible for us to find God in these same kinds of difficult places. In our own anxieties and struggles. Our doubts and temptations. In the many dark areas of our lives and of our world. In every difficult and challenging place where people may find themselves in need of help and of hope. God is already there waiting to be found by us. Isn’t this the experience of Mary and her cousin Elizabeth in the gospel? After conceiving Jesus in her womb, Mary embarks on a difficult journey. She travels to a town in the hill country of Judah on a mission of mercy. To help Elizabeth with her pregnancy. And when she finally greets her cousin, their meeting is filled with the presence of the Holy Spirit. The presence of the living God. A presence that brings peace and  joy and hope.

It is this same presence that we prayed for earlier in our opening prayer, when we beseeched our Lord to pour forth, the abundance of his grace into the confined spaces of our hearts, so that we too might experience the joy of God’s presence and share it with others around us.

Sisters and brothers, God loved the world so much that he sent his only Son into the troubled place of our humanity, to seek out and to save us who were lost. Into what confined and confining spaces are we willing to enter to experience the presence of this same merciful God today?

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