Sunday, December 13, 2015

Third Advent: The Path of Trust

Our theme this Advent is a play on the word “bound”. We are bound for freedom—on our way to glory; but in our lives freedom is bound—tied up in chains of worry, care, and fear. Through the paths of justice, kindness and mercy, trust, and love, we come to the place where the chains that bind our freedom are broken. Then truly we are “freedom bound”, on our way to glory! Today I will reflect briefly on the four passages found in the bulletin, and then ask what it means to walk the path of trust on the way to freedom.

Isaiah 12
We find the word “trust” immediately in our first passage: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation.” What does this mean?

The passage begins with the phrase, “In that day”, which signals that Isaiah is looking at a goal at the end of a long path for God’s People. That path is filled with turmoil and trouble, so that God’s salvation is not obvious to them. Chapter 11 also promises the salvation of God, using language that points to the coming of the Messiah (reading from a Christian perspective).

Chapters 10 and 13 speak of judgment on Assyria (the Northern Kingdom of Israel’s enemy) and Babylon (the Southern Kingdom of Judah’s enemy). The whole promise of salvation and declaration of trust, then, comes in the context of trouble and fear, with which God judges the earth in order to bring salvation.

Zephaniah 3
Zephaniah prophesied a generation after Isaiah, during the reign of Josiah. He was a contemporary of Jeremiah, and the great-grandson of King Hezekiah. (Isaiah had prophesied in Hezekiah’s reign.) Where the great threat of Isaiah 12 was invasion by Assyria, the threat during Zephaniah’s life was invasion by Babylon. Chapters 1 and 2 speak of this threat and of the judgment that God is bringing upon the earth.

In this context our passage begins with judgment on Jerusalem (verses 1 to 8), which purifies a remnant who repent (verses 9 to 13). Repentance opens the way for God’s promise of salvation and joy. When God’s people truly repent, then God works within them to bring them a new life of freedom and restored worship. The word “trust” is not used, but the idea is clear: Trust in the Lord, who will restore you to life. We note the link between judgment and repentance, which is the necessary step on the way to salvation.

Luke 3
So we turn to Luke’s gospel and the preaching of John the Baptist. One notes immediately that John’s preaching was consistent with what Jesus also preached. John did not preach the grace of Jesus so clearly, but points towards it in this passage (“I baptize with water [repentance]; he will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”) But Jesus’ words in Luke 6: 27-31 sound a lot like John the Baptist.

Here is John’s message:
God’s judgment is coming. Only those who repent will survive. Repentance is acted out in concrete ways. You can’t just say, “I’m sorry”, but carry on as though nothing has changed. Don’t cheat your customers. Don’t abuse your power. Be generous and kind to each other. John rounds off his teaching with the promise of the Messiah, who will come with judgment and with grace to make their repentance real and effective.

Philippians 4
Paul rounds off our passages with a closing word of encouragement to the Christians in Philippi. They are worth reading again in full:
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

We think sometimes that Jesus and the gospels speak gentle words of encouragement and that Paul is the strict disciplinarian. In fact (as we see in the passage from Luke), John and Jesus have a lot to say about real repentance, and (as we see here) Paul often speaks about how good and kind and helpful Jesus is.

So Paul encourages us to rejoice in God’s salvation, to be gentle with each other, to leave our anxieties with God, and to allow God’s peace to permeate every part of our lives. In short, Paul tells us what trusting Jesus looks like. It’s a really cool picture!

Bringing the Texts Together
What do we learn from all of this? The ideas are not new or surprising, but restate what we already know, but sometimes forget.
1. God hates sin and evil and acts in this world to destroy it. We call this action: judgment.
2. The appropriate response to the evil in the world around us is repentance and turning to God.
3. God forgives those who turn and leave their participation in hatred and evil behind.
4. Forgiven people live with a radical trust in God, expressed in living with trust towards each other.

This last point needs a bit of explaining. You remember that the greatest command is to love God, and the second goes with it: Love your neighbour as yourself. John the Baptist says something like that by calling people to treat each other fairly and kindly. Paul says something like that at other points in his letters, most notably in Romans 12. Think of verses like 9 to 16:
Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. 10 Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. 13 Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. 16 Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Here Paul makes it clear that love for God is expressed by the way that we love each other. Similarly, our trust for God is made visible in the way that we trust each other. This does not mean a blind trust that ignores plain realities. If someone is winding up to hit you, get out of the way! Trust, with eyes wide open. But it does mean that we start with a basic stance of trust for others, both inside and outside the church. Let’s explore this idea a bit.

A Case Study from the Past Week
I read a story this past week. The story begins, “Massachusetts College of Art and Design professor Steve Locke shared a story on his personal blog earlier today about what happened when he wore this outfit [see picture] to work yesterday, an outfit that police told him matched the description of a robbery suspect in the area.” Locke tells how the police held him and asked him questions while people walked by. A white woman said to the police, “You’re busy today.” A black woman watched from a distance, praying. Locke is a black man. (See Locke’s blog for his story.)

As I read the story, I observed that Locke gave the police credit for remaining professional and courteous, but they would not accept his self-identification as an art professor, even though he was wearing his ID card. At one point in the conversation he says, “It was at this moment that I knew that I was probably going to die.  I am not being dramatic when I say this.  I was not going to get into a police car.  I was not going to present myself to some victim.  I was not going let someone tell the cops that I was not guilty when I already told them that I had nothing to do with any robbery.  I was not going to let them take me anywhere because if they did, the chance I was going to be accused of something I did not do rose exponentially.  I knew this in my heart.” In the end the police concluded that he was not the man they were looking for and let him go. They apologized for disturbing his lunch break, but he was so shaken that he stumbled through class and went home, cancelling all other appointments.

You see the problem. Told by Locke, the story is of the potential for police to hurt and kill. Told by the police involved, they could have noted their fear that a break and enter might turn into a shoot-out. They were acting out of fear as well, and their fear also has been justified in experience.

Here is our problem—a radical lack of trust in our society. People do not trust the police. Officers do not trust the people they stop. I know that this case study in mistrust comes from New England (Massachusetts), and we may be inclined to say that this is an American problem. After all, we’re Canadians! We elected Trudeau just to prove that we are not driven by fear! But of course the same undercurrent of fear is part of our lives as well. The same struggle to trust each other surfaces in our conversations and actions.

I think of the church that I come from, the Brethren in Christ. A few years ago the leadership proposed to the General Conference that we divide into two General Conferences, one in the USA and one in Canada. The move was a response to political and economic realities in North America. It is just too difficult to run one conference that crosses national boundaries. The proposal passed, but more than one person wonder why the Canadians were separating from the Americans. Somehow those opposed to the proposal felt that the action was a real betrayal. To put it another way, we didn’t trust each other (at least not completely)—and the mistrust was not simply an American phenomenon. This is a minor example; the hurt feelings were cared for without much difficulty, but how often have we acted out of a belief that someone in the church is pursuing an agenda that we don’t want? We fail to act in a trusting manner often enough.

So What Should We Do?
You may think that I have stretched the application too far. Can one really say that how we trust God shows up in the way that we trust each other? But think about it again. If you act out of fear and mistrust, you act on the basis that the other person controls your destiny. You are not trusting God, but trying to control what happens to you.

The passages we read suggest that hardship and trouble function in our world as God’s discipline to draw us back to himself. That clearly is what Isaiah, and Zephaniah, and John the Baptist are saying. And when we put ourselves completely and radically into God’s care, we are no longer afraid. We are set free to interact with others without fear. I play soccer at the EMC church on Main Street on Monday evenings. Some months ago a Muslim friend who also plays there came in. “Do you think I’m a terrorist?” he asked. People had been accusing him of being a terrorist because he is Muslim. They were acting out of fear, failing to trust him and showing their lack of trust in God.

I am asking you this morning to renew your trust in God and to act out that trust by trusting the people around you. You need to count the cost of such a stance. If you live trusting people around you, sooner or later someone will betray your trust and that will hurt. If we act on that hurt, we can become bound by fear, like the person in Paul Simon’s song from 1965:
A winter’s day
In a deep and dark December
I am alone
Gazing from my window
To the streets below
On a freshly fallen, silent shroud of snow
I am a rock
I am an island

I’ve built walls
A fortress, steep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship
Friendship causes pain.
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.
I am a rock
I am an island

Don’t talk of love
Well, I’ve heard the words before
It’s sleeping in my memory
And I won’t disturb the slumber
Of feelings that have died
If I never loved, I never would have cried
I am a rock
I am an island

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room
Safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock
I am an island

And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries
(Taken from Paul Simon’s website.)

But then you learn to trust God more deeply and to leave the hurt with God to work with and to bring healing. And you keep on trusting people around you. That means living in an open and vulnerable way—not fighting back when people attack you, not looking for your advantage in relationships with others. You see, this open and vulnerable path is the path of trust, and it leads to real freedom, freedom that comes from relying on God for everything. In my own experience this kind of life is beyond my ability to live. I can’t do it. You can’t do it either. We try, and for a few days we succeed and feel good about ourselves. But then we come under pressure and snap at our family or at someone at work. We struggle to relate to people around us, and we stop living in simple trust.

When that happens, I have to turn back to God. I try to take more time in prayer, in silence before God. I seek to live more fully in God’s presence. I work at trusting God alone and always. But you know something? I can’t—and you can’t—work hard enough to create this complete dependency. Only God can create this complete trust in your life. Only God can give us the grace and strength to follow Christ in all of life. So we repent of our failures. We turn to God again. We open ourselves up to God’s healing Spirit, and start to live again openly and vulnerably with the people around us. It’s a long road to freedom, and we are Freedom Bound!

Steinbach Mennonite Church                                             
Sunday, 13 Dec, 2015
Isaiah 12:1-6; Zephaniah 3:14-20; Luke 3:7-18; Philippians 4:4-7

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