Jeremiah 33:14-16   Advent 1/ 2015

If we’re going to talk honestly about hope on this first Sunday of Advent we need to speak about fear, for fear has crept into our lives and floods the public airwaves.

But today, we gather after

  • a bombing in Baghdad
  • a bombing in Beirut
  • an attack with guns and bombs on Paris
  • a bombing in Yola, Nigeria
  • a bombing in Kano, Nigeria
  • an attack on a hotel in Bamako, Mali
  • yet more bombings in Baghdad.
  • And fear has entered the conversation.

Fear of Daesh and other terrorist groups.

  • Fear of Muslims even though Muslims have been the targets and victims of many of the attacks.
  • Fear of refugees, particularly refugees from Syria and Iraq.
  • Political leaders and candidates and pundits have pandered to the fear and fed the fear.

XXA small language lesson.  Daesh is the name that many in the Arab world are now applying to the Islamic State.  It is an acronym based on the full name of the Islamic State [Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq w Belaad al-Sham – XX common English acronyms FYI – “for your information”; ASAP “as soon as possible”] But, standing by itself as a word daesh  by coincidenceXX   roughly means: “bigot who imposes his view on others.”

XXSo there is a lot of fear and we need to face the question of how we will respond to fear.   Some will preach that we should be afraid. We should hunker and hide in fear. And we should allow fear to guide us in our behavior and relationships with refugees. I will not do that.

Surrendering to fear in relation to our brothers and sisters who flee for their lives flies in the face of everything I believe as a follower of Jesus. It goes against everything I believe as a citizen of this country and it goes against policy statements and congregational actions of the United Church of Canada which has supported refugee resettlement for decades.

Some pastors may preach that we have nothing to fear. After all, fear not is what Jesus told his disciples on several occasions. Sermons will proclaim that that God is completely in control, life is working out according to God’s plan, God will protect us, and we have no reason for fear. I will not do that because it is dishonest

The world is a broken and fearful place. I know that and you know that. I fear for my African Canadian friends and Native Canadian friends in their encounters with law enforcement and in their daily lives within a racist society. I fear for the homeless on our streets, particularly as winter comes. I fear for my transgendered sisters and brothers who are often scorned. I fear for sisters and brothers who struggle with addiction, or lack access to mental health care, or who have lost jobs. I fear for those who serve in our military and come home to inadequate support and care. I fear what those who resort to terror might do. Acts of terror are, after all, a form of public theatre intended to provoke fear.

XXBut fear is not new and neither is hope.  In the sixth century before Jesus’ birth  Babylon was sweeping the world before it.  The entire known world had been at war for forty years.  Now it was coming to Jerusalem and Judah and there was no human power that could stop the Babylonian juggernaut.  When he spoke the words read today, Jeremiah was under house arrest.  Essentially the king (Zedechiah) had him arrested to shut him up.  Everything Jeremiah said was gloom and doom and destruction.  The bedrock conviction of Israel was that God would protect them because they were God’s people.  Jeremiah said: “Oh no.  You’ve got it wrong.  We have violated our covenant with God.  Those Babylonians out there.  They are the instruments of God.” King Zedechiah couldn’t take it any longer so he had Jeremiah thrown in jail.  It was from this arrest that Jeremiah bought a field – as a way of demonstrating the hope that shone through the darkness of the truth he proclaimed about the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem.  Nothing says “I believe in the future “quite like buying a piece of property in the darkest of conditions.

XXAdvent is the season of being out of kilter – like balanced between hope and fear.  We’re caught in the waiting: between joyful expectation and harsh reality.  If we’re honest we can admit that all the forced Christmas cheer in the world around us cannot compensate for either the general gloominess or the raw tragedy in the news and individual lives.  And yet, it sometimes feels like we try too hard.  Have you ever known someone – perhaps yourself in an awkward setting – who was trying too hard?  As if by speaking too quickly, laughing too loud, exaggerating their actions they could compensate for their anxiety or fear.  Our society feels a little like that in December.  As if, by exaggerating our forced gaiety somehow, we can push back the darkness.  But we know it doesn’t work.

I admit I’m kind of cynical about the way we celebrate Christmas.  Reports suggest that we spend on average about $900 on gifts alone.  Now given that that’s an average figure some of us must be spending truly astronomical amounts.  And that doesn’t cover all of the money we spend during the December season – just the gifts.  We will spend as much on celebrating the season as we give to charities throughout the year.  So, given that, I admit I’m a bit cynical about our “celebrations.”  That cynicism is “enhanced” – if that’s the right word – by the popular view of the season as somehow disconnected from anything challenging or painful in our world.  XXThere’s no question that many of us prefer the Hallmark version of Christmas to the biblical story and despite the number of refugee families on the move today, apparently some people have difficulty making a connection with the refugee family at the centre of the gospel story.  A young family, in an occupied country, pushed around by authorities who care nothing about their individual needs or wishes.  No, I’m not reading from the pages of the newspaper – but I could be.  The most striking example of that is the number of state governors south of the border who have declared that no Syrian refugees are welcome and who will, no doubt, make sure that large displays celebrating that one refugee family from Palestine are erected in front of government buildings.

XXHaving confessed all that I hasten to add that I am not at all cynical about the biblical message of Christmas.  God’s unconditional love for all people – not just the ones you or I happen to approve of – all people.   It is the hope that God’s rule will set things right and create peace and freedom for all creation.  When we least expect it.  God’s power comes into this aching world in ways we least expect and when we have the least evidence for optimism.  “In those days and at that time.”  “The days are surely coming, says the Lord.”  “I am making all creation new”  That’s a message of Christmas I can get behind!  

Maybe it’s the waiting we don’t like.  Like it or not, waiting is the essence of our faith.  While we go about doing the important things we do, we wait and watch for God’s new heavens and new earth.  You can’t take promise from the Christian message – and that means you can’t take waiting out either.  But waiting for the promise to be fulfilled is tough.  When the news is filled with stories of violence and war; when the most vulnerable at home and abroad suffer, we want action.  Waiting is tough.  Traditionally, in the northern hemisphere, Advent is a time of waiting in the stillness and the growing dark as the days get shorter.  Waiting in stillness; being silent as we wait for the coming of the light.  But we don’t like stillness.  It’s uncomfortable.  We want to fill it with chatter, with happy music, with fidgeting and shuffling papers.  Anything not to wait in silence.

Yet there is a reason for the stillness.  It serves to focus our hearts and minds.  In the last couple of weeks there has been so much shouting of bigotry, ignorance and fear.  In the days to come there will be so much of buy, buy, buy.  Stillness serves to focus our hopes on the heart of our faith.  Right now – at this very moment – God is doing a new thing.  God is creating the future of justice, freedom, reconciliation and wholeness.  The days are surely coming.

XX In this Advent season can we bear witness by our faith and our hope?  There will be lots of seasonal gatherings where you may have the chance to speak a word of truth in the face of fear and bigotry which lumps all people of a particular race or religion together and labels them enemy.  You know better.  You’ve heard the story that says God loves all of the human family equally.  You know that God looks to the heart – not to the clothing or the accent or the language.  Will you bear witness to that hope?  You may have opportunity to hear voices of division and fear.  Will you bear witness to the genuine message of Christmas – God’s promise of reconciliation and wholeness?  I would encourage us all to find ways to make room in our lives for stillness – as uncomfortable as that may be – and let the stillness move you to “lift up your hearts, for your redemption draws near.”

As we consider responding to our sisters and brothers who are refugees, we quickly realize we cannot do everything to meet their needs. But as Archbishop Oscar Romero taught us, each of us can do something.  Perhaps we can write a letter to elected officials. Or give money. Or work with refugees who will arrive—providing transportation—becoming friends—helping gather needed household supplies. That is not everything. But it is something. Each of us can do something. Each of us can find concrete ways to love as we follow the Refugee Jesus who is coming into the world as King.  We who announce his coming in word and deed were not meant to hide. We were meant to walk out in hope and compassion. Fear feeds terror. The coming Jesus calls us, invites us, challenges us, transforms us to witness to the Gospel with generous hospitality—to live as Jesus lived—to love as Jesus loves. In the face of terror and in the face of fear, hope and faith and love are the way forward; they are the way to life.