Because God is with us

Third Sunday in Advent (December 16, 2012)
Common Lectionary Readings:
Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18

We visited friends in Washington, D.C., Dec. 8-9, and enjoyed a Christmas concert at Eastern Market.  The remainder of the week we spent time with friends and family in Harrisonburg and attended excellent Christmas programs at Mt. Clinton Mennonite (where Holden and Heidi attend) and Zion Mennonite (where Daryl’s mother attends).

Below is the sermon that Daryl preached at Park View Mennonite Church, Dec. 16.

Musicians play at Eastern Market in Washington, D.C., Dec. 9

Musicians play at Eastern Market in Washington, D.C., Dec. 9

Let me begin by thanking Park View Mennonite for its exemplary leadership in the collection of school kits for MCC. We are aware that this congregation has collected thousands of kits across the years.

Did you know that the country of Jordan is the largest recipient of school kits – sometimes receiving as many as 25,000 in a shipment? MCC partner Caritas Jordan has an extensive distribution network. So these kits end up in schools and community centers in nearly every corner of Jordan. The kits are so highly valued that sometimes a single kit is divided among two or more students. Whenever the kits are distributed, Caritas tells the story of how the kits were collected.

This past year there have been several interesting developments in Jordan with regard to school kits:

Caritas has distributed several thousand school kits to Syrian refugee children.  Many of the Syrian families streaming into Jordan arrive with only the clothing on their backs – so school supplies are a luxury item.  There are now more than 200,000 Syrian refugees living in Jordan and by some estimates the number could swell to 500,000 by spring.  The influx of refugees is placing enormous strain on Jordan’s infrastructure. Some elementary schools in Amman, for example, now have 60 students per classroom.

Caritas has also been working to develop a culture of volunteerism in Jordan.  Their vision is for Jordanian families to donate school kit materials and for volunteers to assemble the kits locally.  Several months ago, Evanna Hess from Lancaster and Jean Peifer from Hagerstown came to Jordan to help Caritas strengthen its capacity for collecting kits and other material resources like comforters.  For the coming year, Caritas has a goal of collecting 1,000 school kits locally.

The "Jinglers" gather once a year to play Christmas music together in D.C.

The “Jinglers” gather once a year to play Christmas music together in D.C.

The Lectionary readings for this third Sunday of Advent remind us that God is present with us.  This is an enormous encouragement given the volatile and uncertain world in which we live.

As a child growing up in Park View, I went through a period when I was terrified of sleeping alone.  There were a number of high profile kidnappings in the early 1960s. With my active imagination, I was convinced that I was the next victim.  My six-year-old analysis wasn’t sophisticated enough to realize that, with my dad drawing an EMC salary, our family could not possibly be a serious kidnapping target.

My bedroom on the second floor of our bungalow house overlooked a large maple tree along South College Avenue.  At night, laying in my bed and looking out my dormer window, I was pretty sure that the kidnapper was hiding behind that maple tree.  I was quick to shout out to my parents who slept on the first floor, alerting them that someone was certainly lurking in our front yard. Sometimes – just to prove that no one was out there — my mother would grab a broom, march out to our front yard and around the tree, waving the broom. (Whoever said that parenting is an easy job?)

Sleeping alone was no fun. Often I ended up in my parent’s bed or slept in my older sister’s room. It made a big difference to know that someone was right beside me.

As adults, we do a better job of masking our fears — but we still have them. All of us do. We are afraid of not having enough or of not being good enough. We are afraid of not belonging or of not being liked. We are afraid of being alone or of suffering alone.

Canadian Geese gather on a pond near our apartment in Harrisonburg

Canadian Geese gather on a pond near our apartment in Harrisonburg

The Good News for this third Sunday of Advent is that God is with us.

  •  “The Lord is in your midst,” Zephaniah repeats (Zeph. 3:14, 17).
  •   “Great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel,” Isaiah asserts (Is. 12:6).
  • “The Lord is near,” Paul assures the church at Philippi (Phil. 4:5).
  • In the Gospel reading, the crowds are filled with expectation – or as the New English Bible translates it, “The people were on tiptoe of expectation.” (v.15) — wondering if John the Baptist is the Messiah. But John responds, “One who is more powerful than I is coming.” (v.16)

God is in our midst. God is present with us. This is our affirmation of faith. It sounds good. But what does this mean for us practically?

In Amman, we live near the King Abdullah Mosque – one of the most prominent mosques in Jordan. The mosque has a massive dome covered with blue tiles.  The inside of the dome is also blue because the architect believed that faith should be the same on the inside as on the outside. In the same way, as Anabaptist Christians we believe there is a close connection between what we believe and how we live. Our affirmations of faith are not abstract ideas. They have a direct effect on how we act. To paraphrase the Apostle James, “Faith without action is void of life and power.”

If we truly believe something, it shapes our actions. There are many examples from daily life:

  • If we believe that the temperatures will drop well below freezing, we drain our outdoor faucets and check the antifreeze level in our car engines.
  • If we believe that a major snow storm is coming, we stock up on food.
  • If we believe that economic hard times are ahead, we tighten our spending.

A core affirmation of our faith – and something we especially emphasize during this Advent season – is that God is with us; God is in our midst.

Sunset over the mountains of West Virginia

Sunset over the mountains of West Virginia

Taken together, today’s texts suggest three attitudes and actions that should grow out of this belief:

Because God is with us, we need not be afraid or worried

As a nation, we have invested immense treasure in military might – almost as much as the rest of the world combined.  Yet the stronger our military, the more fearful we seem to become.  U.S. embassies around the world have become like fortresses with staff often sequestered inside. On more than one occasion, U.S. embassy staff in Amman have lamented to us that they are not free to visit places where MCC workers routinely travel.

Fear was something the people of Judah dealt with as well. With the Assyrians and the Babylonians close by – theirs was not an easy neighborhood.

Into this context, Zephaniah announced that there was no need to be afraid, because God will give victory (3:17).  Appropriately, Zephaniah’s name means, “Yahweh protects.” Zephaniah – who some scholars believe was a disciple of Isaiah – writes that God has turned away our enemies (v.15).  God will deal with our oppressors (v.19). God will remove the disasters that beset us (v.18).

In a second reading, Isaiah — who prophesied during the expansion of the Assyrian empire — adds that the people need not be afraid because God is our strength, our might and our salvation (Isaiah 12: 2).  Isaiah assumed the demise of Judah. But he also predicted its restoration from captivity.  Isaiah’s name means, “The Lord saves.”

Paul writes to the church at Philippi: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 4:6-7)

EMU’s Center for Interfaith Engagement is hosting a visiting Islamic scholar from Iran — Dr. Amir Akrami. Dr. Akrami has been teaching a Monday night course on basic concepts of Islam.  Two weeks ago he reflected that, in the Islamic tradition, remembrance of God is the purpose of prayer.  “Remembrance of God takes away our disturbances,” he said.

Sydney now has two teeth on top and two on bottom -- and is taking her first steps

Sydney now has two teeth on top and two on bottom — and is taking her first steps

Because God is with us, we can rejoice and give thanks
“Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!” Zephaniah urges. “Rejoice and exult with all your heart.” (3:14)

“Give thanks to the Lord,” Isaiah exclaims in a hymn expressing gratitude for God’s salvation. “Sing praises . . . shout aloud and sing for joy.” (12:3-6)

“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” Paul tells the church at Philippi. Indeed, in his short letter, Paul uses the word “joy” or “rejoice” no less than 16 times.

Zephaniah lived in the 7th century BC. The short book that bears his name speaks of God’s impending judgment on Judah and the surrounding nations.  In the first two chapters, these judgments are introduced with the phrase “On that day.”

But in today’s reading, this phrase is given a hopeful twist. “On that day,” promises Zephaniah, there will be cause for celebration for a remnant (v.16).  “The LORD has taken away the judgments against you,” Zephaniah assures. “God has turned away your enemies.” (v15)

Furthermore, according to Zephaniah, we can rejoice and give thanks because God promises to remove disaster (v18), to deal with oppressors (19a), to save the lame (19b), to gather the outcasts (19c), to replace shame with honor (19d), to gather us and bring us home (v.20a), to make us renowned and praised among the nations (20b), and to restore our fortunes (20c).

Why rejoice and give thanks? “Because God “is great (v.6) and has done gloriously” (v.5), Isaiah proclaims. Using the image of a well, which was a favorite place for recounting God’s deeds, Isaiah promises, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” (v.3)

Eastern Market has been rebuilt from a major fire that heavily damaged the building in 2007

Eastern Market has been rebuilt from a major fire that heavily damaged the building in 2007

Because God is with us, we are to bear the fruits of gentleness, generosity and justice

God’s presence inspires and calls us to live in new ways. At least that is the way it is supposed to work.

“Let your gentleness be known to everyone,” Paul urges the church at Philippi. (Phil 4:5)

In the Gospel reading, John the Baptist demands that the people “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” (Luke 3:8) Specifically, John calls for the people to act generously and justly. Luke writes:

And the crowds asked (John the Baptist), “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” (vv.10-14)

Fruit worthy of repentance is to act generously.  It is sharing clothing and food with those in need.

Fruit worthy of repentance is also to act justly.  Tax collectors at the time of Jesus purchased from the Romans the right to collect the assessed taxes – in much the same way that many debt collection agencies work today.  These hated tax collectors often added significantly to the assessed amounts and pocketed the difference.  Scholars say that the soldiers John addressed here were not those associated with Herod or Pilate but were soldiers who provided armed support for the tax collectors — hired thugs so to speak.

What does it look like to bear the fruits of gentleness, generosity and justice in today’s world?  Allow me to speak briefly about how we might engage the current volatile situation in the Middle East.

In the past two year, long-standing regimes have fallen in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen. More than 40,000 Syrians have been killed in a civil war that rages on.  An average of 200-300 Iraqis are still killed in violence each month.  There is constant threat of a military attack against Iran. The truce between Hamas and Israel masks major issues that have yet to be transformed.  Even in Jordan – a country thought to be one of the most stable in the region – protestors are increasingly emboldened in their weekly demands for major reforms and al Qaeda operatives are beginning to pop up.

We have heard a number of common themes in our five years living in the Middle East:

  • Middle Eastern Christians are looking for evidence that Western Christians have not abandoned them.  This voice is particularly prominent among Palestinian Christians who are confounded by the Western church’s embrace of a theology of Christian Zionism and its uncritical support for the State of Israel.
  •  More broadly Middle Easterners are looking for evidence that the United States is not anti-Islamic.  The U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – and constant threats against Iran – have led many to conclude that the United States is engaging in a new Crusade against Muslims.
  • Middle Easterners are also looking for evidence that the U.S. is interested in being a good global neighbor rather than a country which imposes its will on others or supports human rights only when it’s convenient.

So what can we do?

  • Get to know the growing number of Middle Eastern students living in this area.  Invite them into your homes. Hospitality is central in Middle Eastern culture. Listen to their stories and perspectives.  You will be amazed at the nuances their voices add to the perspectives one hears on network news or even on NPR.  The realities on the ground are far more complex than can be captured in a two-minute news report.
  • Participate in a learning tour to the Middle East or bring Palestinian, Syrian, Iraqi or Iranian speakers to your church for a Sunday School conversation.
  • Continue to generously support MCC’s and Mennonite Mission Network’s presence in the region.  Send regular notes of support to workers who you know personally.
  • Engage in advocacy aimed at calling this nation to be a good global neighbor.  Keep collecting school kits. But also keep open an active channel with your elected representatives.  Remind them that being a good neighbor is as much in the U.S. national interest as it is in the interest of others.

We may no longer be afraid of sleeping alone like a child.  But our adult lives tend to be fraught with all kinds of other fears.  In this Advent season we remember that, because God is with us, we need not be afraid or worried.  In this Advent season we remember that, because God is with us, we can rejoice and give thanks.  In this Advent season we remember that, because God is with us we must bear the fruits of gentleness, generosity and justice.

It matters what we believe.  And true faith always makes a difference in how we live.

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