We are continuing this week our Advent theme of “Do not be afraid,” exploring our fears and God’s continued call to us of, “Do not be afraid.” This week I want to talk about our fears of other people.
The Second Sunday of Advent is the Sunday of Peace, and these things are connected. Conflict often arises when there is fear or distrust between people. And the readings that Linwood read for us today, particularly the Gospel reading, invite us into a wider vision, God’s vision for how life in the world ought to be.
In the Christian tradition, the Gospel text that Linwood read is known as the Benedictus, from the Latin for its opening words, “Blessed be.” In English, it’s also called the Song of Zechariah, Zechariah being the father of John the Baptist, who utters this song of praise on the occasion of the naming of his newborn son.
As an Advent reading, it contains those elements we talked about last week: recollection of God’s promises in the past, and the prediction of their fulfillment in the days to come.
Last week, we also had a reading from the Gospel of Luke and I pointed out the context in which this gospel was written down. It was in the immediate aftermath of the Jewish-Roman War that had happened in the years 66 to 73. That’s a conflict that the Jewish people lost, and they saw their homes, their cities, and their beloved temple destroyed.
It’s in this context that Zechariah sings about being “saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us”; of “being rescued from the hands of our enemies,” and being freed to serve God without fear; and of God guiding “our feet in the way of peace.” It’s a reminder that even when people have suffered great loss or great harm, our faith can enable us to generate hopeful, life-giving narratives.
That when we are feeling besieged, threatened, and fearful, our fear doesn’t have to have the last word.
As I said last week, the people who wrote this story down had lived through everything we’ve been through and worse. How easy it would have been for them to give into their fears and their hatreds, to narrow their horizons and hole themselves up behind the barricades for their own protection.
How easy it would have been for them to tell stories of retaliation, and vindication, and the final destruction of their enemies. And, in truth, there are places in Scripture where those sentiments are expressed.
But the witness of the early Christian community was so powerful, so world-changing, because in the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, they were able to imagine a way of living in the world that transcended all of the old enmities and divisions. The enmities and divisions and conflicts that had scarred human existence since the very beginning.
Jesus taught people to love their enemies; he commanded them to love one another across their differences.
He left them to ponder the really annoying wisdom that God makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain to water the fields of nice people and not-so-nice people. He told them stories about a father throwing his arms about the neck of a son who had been a fool and thrown all his money away, and about a landowner who paid the same full day’s wage to those who had worked only one hour as to those who had worked a full day in the scorching heat.
These are images of God, of course, of God who is radically unfair by human standards, because God is radically merciful. In the radical mercy of God, no one is left out, no one is an enemy, no one is excluded, no one is kept on the other side of a fence, or a wall, or an ocean.
But here’s the kicker: Jesus doesn’t just teach that God is merciful—Thanks be to God—he also teaches his followers, and yes, that includes his followers sitting here today: he teaches his followers to be merciful in the same way that God is merciful. To remove from our vocabulary words that make disparaging and diminishing distinctions.
Words like ‘enemy’, or ‘other’, or ‘them’. In some contexts, words like ‘terrorist’, or ‘Islamist’, or ‘refugee’. We’re invited to replace those words with ‘brother’, or ‘sister’, or ‘friend’.
This is the implication of the deep wisdom of Jesus’ teaching about God making the sun rise on good and bad people, and sending rain on the unjust and the just, and all the rest. There is deep and painful wisdom in this teaching; painful because it means relinquishing the notion that we are special, that we are ‘better than’ others.
We don’t want to do that because we are pretty clear that there are good people and bad people, and there is right and wrong. And believe me, I’m as clear about that as anyone; I have experienced and witnessed in my own life some of the most destructive and damaging forms of human behavior. I’ve been there, and it is thanks to my faith that I’ve been able to forgive and to heal. I’m also mindful that today is the twenty-sixth anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, in which fourteen women were killed by a gunman solely because of their gender. And there was another mass shooting in the U.S. this week.
So, yes there is right and wrong, and there are terrible things that happen in our world, injustices and abuses that we cannot ignore.
The deep and difficult wisdom in Jesus’ teaching is that we are meant to leave ultimate judgement in God’s hands, while we focus our efforts on cultivating compassion, working towards forgiveness and healing, and trying to see, whenever we can see it, that that the other—even the enemy—is one who is not so different from us.
There may be times when it is not possible for us to do this—for example when our personal safety is at risk. But for all those other times, when there’s not so much at risk for us, Jesus invites us to transcend our fears of other people.
We can do that if we can believe and trust that God is real, that God has made promises to our ancestors, that God makes promises to us, and that God can be relied on to keep his promises. That God knows and sees us and what is happening in our lives, and that God cares about us and our lives.
Zechariah could do this: he could shout out his joy, and sing out his hope, and dream a dream of peace even in the smoldering aftermath of war—he could do this because he trusted that God was real, that God made promises, and that God could be relied upon to keep his promises.
If we don’t believe this: that God is real, that God makes promises, that God keeps promises, then naturally we believe that it falls to us to make judgments, to make decisions about who to let in, and who to lock up, and who to drop bombs on.
But the deep and difficult and really annoying invitation of Advent is to suspend our disbelief, to imagine our way into Zechariah’s confidence that he could trust God. It’s to imagine that we can trust God. That maybe we don’t need to police the world so much as we need to train our hearts in God’s ways.
What would that be like? What would it be like if we really did drop words like enemy, them, terrorist, refugee from our vocabulary?
And while we’re at it we can drop the more everyday words we use to label those we disagree with—Liberal, Conservative, young people, old people, those people.
And replace them with those other words: sister, brother, friend. This may not work in every situation. But I invite you—no, Jesus invites you—to discern a few situations this week in which you can try this.
And as you do, I have no doubt that “by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us—all of us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Amen.
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