As we enter the season of Advent, four Sundays when we prepare for the feast of Christmas, I was struck by Luke 14 and the fact that four distinct teachings of Jesus are given, all in the context of a feast that Jesus is attending, and each lesson giving us insight into the ultimate feast that is God’s kingdom.
It seems fitting to me as we approach the feast of Christmas that we might consider these four portraits of the feast of the kingdom.
The Feast is for Healing
In Luke 14.1-6, Jesus is on the way to a Sabbath feast when He encounters and heals a man with severe swelling. Dropsy, or edema, is a symptom of severe internal medical problems. We don’t know what this man’s particular diagnosis was, but we know for certain that he suffered significantly.
We also don’t know whether Jesus encountered this man at the feast or on the way to it. The text is unclear. But one thing Luke definitely wants us to know is that the Pharisees, who threw the feast, were deeply agitated by Jesus healing on the Sabbath day.
Nowhere in the law of Moses was healing forbidden on the Sabbath, but this self-righteous group of teachers had so twisted and entangled the simple Sabbath requirement of “rest” to mean that one could pull a goat from a ditch, but ignore the needs of a suffering fellow human being. Jesus confronted them on their absurd and inhumane interpretation of the Sabbath and – at least in the eyes of anyone who could see clearly – He shamed them for their legalistic overreach.
The feast of God, after all, is a feast of healing.
Which brings us to Christmas, that great feast of the church we are now entering. This feast, too, is for healing. Before it is a day for rest, it is a day for restoration. Before it is a day for opening gifts, it is a day for giving.
As I read it, Jesus is on the way to the feast when He sees the stricken man. Rather than make acceptable excuses (“I have to be somewhere.” “People are waiting for me.”) Jesus stops the procession to manifest God’s power.
How does this apply to us? Each of us will be very busy this Advent. Whether it is preparing food, racing toward deadlines, finishing finals, shopping for friends and family, or preparing for a small getaway, we are all very busy as we make our way to the 25th and the great feast. Yet we must never become so busy that we forget what the feast is about – and today’s story reminds us that, in the eyes of Jesus, the feast is for healing.
When might we expect the man with dropsy to appear before us? One thing is certain, it will never be at a time we could possibly plan for. Need doesn’t make appointments. It is always inconvenient, always interrupts the flow, and seldom understands we have somewhere to be. Interruptions on the way are an opportunity to be the hands of God; to make God manifest.
At Christmas, we all have something to do and somewhere to be. More importantly, however, we all have someone to be.
We use the word “Emmanuel” at Christmastime, which means “God with us.” May I suggest to you that Emmanual might also mean “God through us” this Christmas?
Some religious groups are dedicated to pursuing “the manifest presence of God.” That is, there are those who seek sensory experiences of the Divine – some sort of physical manifestation of the Spirit of God. These wayward worshippers employ throbbing music and strobing lights designed to overwhelm the natural senses and therefore dupe their followers into thinking they felt God, when they really just hit sensory overload. I can’t judge anyone’s motives, but to me Emmanuel, God’s presence, is more clearly manifested in the simple offering of a single cup of cold water in Jesus’s name to a thirsty soul than in the illusory shimmer of ten thousand TV lights.
There are, of course, far subtler ways to fake Emmauel this Christmas. Is God made manifest more in our inflatable manger scenes, our spiritualized home decor, and our Christmas bumper stickers, or more in the way we care for widows and orphans in their distress?
If this season is a reminder of anything it is that God desires to manifest His healing wings through our weak but willing hands. What types of healing might we manifest this Christmas as we recognize our part in the ongoing mission to experience Emmanuel?
If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them,
“Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body,
what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. (James 2.15-17)
We celebrate Emmanuel when we minister to the physical needs of others in the name of Jesus.
Emmanuel is giving bread to the hungry. Emmanuel is giving rides to the rideless. Emmanuel is donating new clothes to needy children. Emmanuel is walking slowly with the infirm. Emmanuel is sharing a meal with the lonely.
When we bring healing by meeting the physical needs of others in the name of Jesus, we rejoice to discover Emmanuel, God among us.
“When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles.
The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34.17-18)
We discover Emmanuel when we heal hearts in the name of Jesus.
Emmanuel is listening sincerely as teenagers share blessings and blahs. Emmanuel is sharing a meal with someone who is lonely. Emmanuel is visiting the sick. Emmanual is praying for and encouraging those who feel overwhelmed. Emmanuel is standing with the outcast, no matter how unpopular they may be. Emmanuel is being available with a shoulder to cry on.
When we bring healing to the hearts in the name of Jesus, we encounter Emmanuel, God among us.
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind,
that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12.2)
We manifest Emmanuel when we bring the healing power of truth to the minds of those around us.
Emmanuel is the truth being shared at an Aftershock, on the Porch, or on a Wednesday night. Emmanuel is contributing a counterpoint in a spirit of love to a world that doesn’t often seem to think critically. Emmanuel is being unashamed of the Gospel, “for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Emmanuel is not being afraid to ask the hardest questions in life, and unafraid of seeking truth that goes beyond mere sentimentality, for all truth belongs to God.
When we bring healing to minds, including our own, by “testing the spirits of this age to see whether they are from God,” we come to a deeper understanding of the truth of Emmanuel, God with us.
And when they had set them in the midst, they inquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?”
Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4.7-12)
Finally, the greatest need Emmanuel, and our greatest need for healing is spiritual. We can fix ailing bodies, but they will ail again; we can encourage broken hearts, but they may be broken again. We can correct errant thinking, but those minds are prone to wander again.
Each of these – bodies, hearts, minds – are subject to the deeper wounds borne by the spirit. Sober self-examination reveals the truth that this wound of the spirit is the result of our sin, and it is a mortal wound. If our spirits are not healed first – if we are not renewed in the most inward part – we can never truly have bodies, hearts, and minds that are right. We must never forget that we serve the broken bodied, love the broken hearted, and care for the broken minded, but our highest mission is to deliver those who are crushed in spirit by inviting them to the feast of the tender lamb who was slain so that we might be forgiven every sin, and that our spirits may be renewed at last. The good news of great joy is that God has paid the price and offered the perfect gift, His one and only Son, as an atoning sacrifice so that every spirit might be healed as we accept His perfect gift of grace for all humanity.
“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”
We are looking for Emmanuel – “God with us.” O Where, O Where, is Emmanuel?
If the feast of Christmas reminds us of anything at all, it should remind us that we are on a spiritual mission to manifest God’s love. This mission began long ago in the little town of Bethlehem, and the mission continues to this day. The gentle babe was born to bear the brutal stripes that heal and restore the spirits of all women and men. This Christmas, may the community of the redeemed – we who are called by His name, and who witness greater spiritual poverty now than at any point in history – see the mission of Emmanuel come to fruition. God with us. God among us. God through us.