Do Not Be Afraid

Do Not Be Afraid

I read somewhere this week that “the season of Advent is puzzling to many Christians. The stories read during the season are, by and large, not childhood favourites.” That seems right to me, given the stories that Alice read for us this morning. They’re not cheery, comforting stories. Well, that’s not quite true: they’re not cheery, but they are in their own way comforting, or at least they’re meant to be.

The stories of Advent also have a funny relationship with time: they call to mind God’s promises in the past, and invite us to wait expectantly for the fulfillment of those promises in the future. The near future? The distant future? The end of time? It’s not clear, and the language of prophecy, and the apocalyptic language—there will signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among the nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves—it’s enough to start us humming Jingle Bells loudly and running for the exits!

Such is the challenge we face in the church every year at this time. You come looking for Christmas cheer, and you get served up prophecy and apocalypse. At least that’s what you get with me as your minister. The world outside is hurtling headlong towards Christmas, and every year I invite you to slow down and savour the gifts of Advent. And every year I hear the plea, “Can’t we just get on with Christmas already?” And the answer of course is… no.

Some of this desire for a Christmassy mood is natural. For those of you raised in the United Church before the 1980s—which is the vast majority of our congregation today—you may have had little or no exposure to the season of Advent when you were children. The United Church didn’t really do Advent until the recent past.

For you, the season leading up to Christmas was the season leading up to Christmas—full of Christmas songs, and children’s pageants, parties, potlucks, and Christmas baking. For you, Advent just seems so “un-Christmassy.” You come for the Christmas baking, and I’m offering you one of my fibre bars.

As your pastor, I believe Advent, like fibre, is good for you and so I’m determined to keep working on this with you year after year.

I believe Advent is good for us because it offers us a time of quiet and reflection at the very moment when the world offers us a dizzying array of distraction and consumption. The whole of the Advent season is an invitation to not allow ourselves to be distracted. It’s an invitation to mindfulness.

In a world that seems at times to have become chaotic, maybe even apocalyptic, it’s good—perhaps even critical—to slow down, and reflect, and be mindful. Over the past few weeks there has been much sloganeering about terrorism, and war, and refugees. It’s very popular politically, but it’s not an example of mindfulness. It’s the opposite: often mindless, or at least heartless, reactivity.

Advent invites us to slow down, so that we can think better, so that we can engage our hearts, so that we can make better decisions, so that we can live better in the world.

Over the four weeks of Advent this is my goal: to explore Scripture with you, with this in mind—how can these stories, and how can this season, be a resource to us, to help us live better in the world? We’ll follow a theme called “Do Not Be Afraid,” which is also the title of the Gift of Music the choir will present after the sermon today. In the next few weeks, we’ll look at some of our fears, including our fear of those we call our enemies; our fear of commitment; our fear of saying Yes to God.

But today I want to spend a little time talking with you about our fears around time, the times we live in, our fears about the future. This seems to be a focus in our Scripture readings for today: both of them have this element of looking forward to a future time when things will be different.

These stories of course come from two different periods of history. The book of Jeremiah comes from around the time of the Babylonian exile—when Jerusalem and the surrounding kingdom of Judah were conquered, and all the best and brightest of the people were forcibly removed, and carried off into exile in Babylon.

That was about 600 years before the time of Jesus.

The Gospel of Luke concerns events in the life of Jesus and was written down after another episode of cataclysmic destruction in Jerusalem, when the Roman army destroyed the city in the year 70.

Here’s the thing to note: these are stories told and then written down by people who lived through everything we’ve lived through, and worse. They lived through their version of 9/11; they lived through civil war, and terrorism, and the experience of being refugees, exiles, victims.

I say this because I want us to understand that the Bible is not just some holy book with lovely, sacred stories that have nothing in common with our lived reality, with the world we live in. These stories are the inspired human witness of people’s relationship with God. They are a resource to us. The Bible is a record of a people’s survival through many disasters, and it can be a survival manual for us, too.

In both of these situations, separated by centuries but occurring in the same place, the message is the same: trust in God. In the midst of a chaotic world, where life is unsteady, and the future full of uncertainties, you can trust in God’s presence and in God’s promises. When it looks like the world is going to hell in a hand-basket, as it may seem to us and almost certainly seemed to them, you can still trust in God’s promises.

I read this week that this requires an act of imagination, of theological imagination. To trust in God’s presence when all the evidence seems to suggest God’s absence. To trust that the world can be different, when it looks like—what we see right now.

To believe that peace is possible in a place like Syria. To believe that a healthy future, full of possibilities, is available to children who grow up in sometimes wretched conditions in some First Nations communities in our province. To believe that trust is possible between Muslims and Christians and Jews and secularists in France and Europe. All of these require an act of theological imagination.

And it begins with a choice: to believe in things unseen, to align ourselves with God’s vision of how the world ought to be, even when we live in a world that is so different.

We have a choice to make as to the kind of world we believe in, the kind of world that make real by our actions. Do we join in the sloganeering and the fear-mongering? Can we believe for one minute that that’s what God would call us to: mistrust and fearfulness?

Or do we disengage from that and assume a different posture, a posture of mindfulness, of quiet reflection, being still enough to discern God’s presence, God’s whisper in our ears or in our hearts, God’s promise to us: Do not be afraid.

Friends, Advent is an invitation. To be still. To listen for God’s voice. To open our hearts and our minds. To imagine a new world, and to prepare ourselves to be a part of bringing it into being. It may not be what we were hoping for, but it may be the very thing that we need, and that God’s world needs.

I hope that you will accept the invitation, and that our journey together over the next few weeks will be fruitful. I want to close with a poem by Rachel M. Scubas called, “Not alone, but together”:

“Not alone, but together”

Advent is ours.
Neither you alone, nor I in isolation, wait.
We wait. For blessed hope, for revealed glory,
for God, who looked at humankind and said we should not be alone, but together.

So we’re in it together, this stretch of darkening days
that our Christian forebears called Advent.
It means “to come to,” means “an arrival.”

We have come to the winter of our faith.
We have arrived at the season of our stress.
What better time to practice prayerful presence
than this month of yearnings yet unrealized?

Blessed are we whose calendars crowd with obligations,
whose heads clog with colds, whose roads narrow,
whose churches swell with uneasy seekers
drawn Christward;
the Savior has been who we are.
When he returns as he promised,
he will surely find us anxious.
Will he find us together?

While we wait and hope, O God, throughout this Advent,
bless us and manifest your glory through the ones
with whom we walk this road to Bethlehem.


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