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Advent 2

Luke 3:1-6

All of the lectionary readings are, in some way, concerned with redemption. In last week’s sermon, we talked about Luke’s apocalypse, a she bear and a lost baby, a miracle of maternal love, and how redemption could come from the thing we fear the most. This week can be interpreted as expanding this idea, and the readings ask us some important questions.
How do we prepare the way of the Lord so that ‘all flesh will see the salvation of the Lord’?
How do we give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and guide our feet into the way of peace?

Preparing the way of the Lord so that all flesh will see the salvation of God is a pretty tall order, especially when it is accompanied by a command to turn your life completely around. The Greek word which is translated as ‘repent’ is metanoia, and it means to change, to begin anew, to do a 360 degree turn and reorganise your life.

And whilst Zechariah’s words in Luke 1 are directed to John, they are also words for us as well. Giving light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, and guiding everyone’s feet into the way of peace is even more frightening as a task. It is a vast undertaking, but one that Jesus frequently mentioned. ‘You are the light of the world’, he told his disciples. ‘Turn the other cheek’ he said. ‘Love your enemies, for it is easier to love your friends’. These are simple things to say, but are extremely difficult to do.

Last week we also talked about how the kingdom of God drawing near represented the renewal and reconciliation of the whole creation breaking into our present, where the prayer, “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” represented a future where correspondence of behaviour and existence between heaven and earth matched up, presumably resulting in a peaceful world characterised by equity and justice.

So how do we, as simple individuals, work toward the coming of such a kingdom? What is it that we are meant to be doing when we celebrate the coming of Jesus into our world? What does it mean to talk of being refined in fire, a quite fearful image? Jesus’ command to love our enemy, to shine a light on the places where the shadow of death is present, expects us to confront the bear of our time. How we interact and respond to this terror, this bear, will determine whether or not it will eat us up and destroy us, or whether it will be the instrument of our salvation.

The birthplace of the kingdom of God is often the place where we are forced to confront ourselves and our fears. It is where metanoia, a deep change in our life orientation can occur. Like psychologists who work on people’s self confidence by getting them to bungy jump or conquer phobic fears, we are being asked by God to confront the things we dread most in order to refine ourselves and to save others.
I am going to tell you another story to illustrate this. Like the story of the bear and the child, it too is a true story. It illustrates how the power of one person, when confronting a fear, can indeed change lives and forge the bonds of peace.

I have a friend on Facebook named Stephanie. Stephanie is a concert pianist and music teacher who lives in Sweden. Sweden has taken a considerable number of Syrian refugees, and there has been high anxiety and fear about this. Stephanie’s way of dealing with this fear was to get to know the bear, that is, the Syrian refugees in her locality in Sweden. On hearing that some American governors would not take Syrian refugees through fear of terrorism, Stephanie responded with this message.

“I don't blame you for being scared of Syrian refugees, American governors! The Syrian refugees I've come to know here in Sweden are indeed frightening. One of the first refugees I met was a dentist who spoke seven languages. Because Swedish wasn't one of them, he tried speaking French to me, but my eight years of study was no match for his fluency. Scary. I felt dumb. I have a Syrian refugee student here at school who has a masters in international marketing. He is older than most other students but wanted to learn to play the piano. He made progress at lightning speed. He practiced mostly on the kitchen table where he lived in Östersund until he could borrow an instrument. Scary how quickly he learned, even when all he had was the table. I also got to know a refugee family from Syria and enjoyed eating food at their home several times. The mother is an incredible cook. On two occasions she made at least 10 different and delicious dishes for us. I was overwhelmed by her skill. Scary. She was the same woman who called me earlier this year when my husband was in the hospital for several days. The hospital is in town, 45 minutes from our house in the country. She said I should stay with her family in town. The family had almost no furniture -- what they had was borrowed -- but she said they would look after me. She knew I had no family here. "Listen to me. I am your sister," she told me several times. When I hung up, I cried. It was overwhelming because I need to learn to open my heart as much as they opened theirs after everything they'd been through. I don't blame you, American governors. It might be scary for you to do that, too.”

Stephanie had put her post up without thinking it would make a difference. She just wanted to give an opinion, and detail something of her own journey from fear to embracing the bear and finding human beings just like herself. But sometimes by confronting the things we fear most, by sometimes risking jumping into the refiner’s fire, things can happen. The things we dread most can sometimes save us.
Stephanie put another post up. She wrote “I hope never again to beg you to read one of my long posts to the end. Forgive me. It's not about me, though it is a little bit, because these Syrians have been keeping me awake at night. You can read their own words at the end. Skip there if you don't have two minutes.”

I had two minutes, so I read her post. I will read it to you now.

“Ten days ago, I wrote a post about three beautiful Syrian refugees I've met since I've lived in Sweden: a dentist who spoke seven languages, a student of mine who has learned at record speed to play the piano, and a mother who was exceptionally kind to me when I was struggling. I didn't expect that the post would be shared the way it has been - 2,016 shares as I write on Facebook. I've looked at as many of their profiles as I can. The majority of people who shared the post are Syrian. Some are refugees. Others are established in different parts of the Arab world or the West. The pictures on their pages are of family members' graduations, of weddings, of children, of grandchildren, of wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends, beautiful places. While many posts are in Arabic, quite a few are in English. There are pleas for peace, for endurance, for stamina. "The barrier only makes the light that shines through it, even more beautiful," said one Syrian woman. Another wrote an incredible essay on the roots of the war, and points out (rightly, I think) that our Western politicians and our military industrial complex are also culpable. I've read their comments on my post: "They want to teach us humanity," said a Syrian man, "ignoring the civilisation that was born here." "There are many of us like this," wrote a Syrian woman.
Many also shared photos of suffering Syrian children on their pages. Some shared videos that I doubt will ever appear on television news. They looked like iphone videos. I couldn't watch them all the way through. In one case, it looked like a butcher shop had blown up, except the bits of bodies and the flood of blood were human.
I'm not naive. Even my refugee friends in Sweden have told me there are possibly ISIS members hiding among them here. The vetting has not been thorough in Sweden, and I understand the fears about this. I have them, too. The U.S. has a much, much longer and tougher vetting process in place. But what I learned is how incredibly important it is to Syrians that we in the West understand the difference between a terrorist and a refugee. The difference between a violent fundamentalist and people pretty much like you and me, except that these people have suffered a lot more than most of us ever have.
I got quite a few private Facebook messages from Syrians, which I found very moving. Some were from women, who often added a heart to their message at the end. Most were from young men. The kind of young men who get looked at as though they are terrorists. It's [not right], and our fearful assumptions are clearly painful for these young men. I got the sense that Syrians want to be seen for who they are.
I read their messages and responded. From a young man: "I'm a Syrian citizen living in the United States and what you wrote filled my heart with hope. I was afraid that everyone hated and blamed us for what is going on but you helped ease the pain for us."
Another young Syrian man: "Thank you for your post about the refugees. It means a lot. I read it to my sister, who began to remind me how smart our Syrian men and women are, and it reminded us that we still have the flame. God bless. Merry happy Thanksgiving."
From a Syrian woman: "Dear Stephanie, We do not know each other, but fate has brought me to your post about the Syrian refugees. I must admit that it brought tears to my eyes for many reasons. One of them primarily being that I myself am Syrian and had to leave home 3 years ago. My family and I are very fortunate that we found a new home in another place, and are able to put food on the table for our two boys, but millions of other Syrians do not have that privilege. Those are the lucky ones to have met people of your type. The other reason, is for the compassion and tolerance that resonated in your beautiful words. And so on my behalf, and on the behalf of all Syrians, I would like to thank you, over and over again, for being so educated, understanding and compassionate towards unfortunate people that were left incapacitated. Thank you Stephanie, I hope to meet you one day. [Name] Xx"

From a Syrian woman: "You words about Syrian refugees touched my heart. Thank you! Only if Syria had no war I would've invited you over to Damascus, the eldest capital in the world. We normally read history books, But when you are in Syria, you see history in your eyes. In the castles, streets of downtown, beautiful rivers, historic stadiums, oh my beloved Syria what did they do to you: you would walk in the streets of the Dimashque and feel the warmth of the hearts of its people, very welcoming, loving، generous Syrians, my people.

We left Syria, but Syria is alive in every Syrian's heart. [Name], Syrian American in Michigan"

From a Syrian female: "I'm a Syrian refugee here in Sweden too, and I really loved what u wrote and I shared it!! And I love seeing Swedes like u who support us and it's very nice. Thank u. heart emoticon [Name] I am 15 years old.””

Sometimes it is by simply living out our beliefs that we touch others most. When we confront our fear of the bear, we can be surprised by being nurtured instead of ripped limb from limb. We can be surprised by the ripples that grow from our actions of love and tolerance that radiate out into the world, carrying messages of peace to those who are most in need of it and if ever a race sat under the shadow of death, it is Syrians.
Returning blows for blows and hatred for hatred means that we will have to build bigger walls, drop bigger bombs, and wage bigger wars. Returning hatred with love, and understanding for ignorance, and kindness for intolerance can change the world.

Barbara Kingsolver, the teller of our bear story last week, suggests that we should never give up hope. She urges that every word of understanding, and every act of kindness lights a flame against the darkness. By responding with love instead of fear, we allow ourselves to reimagine our lives and our communities to find within us “a humanity we have not yet mustered, and a grace we were not aware of” and ultimately to deliver a world of true peace, security, freedom from fear and want, and justice.

Advent is a time of waiting, hoping, watching for the light in the darkness. The waiting is not always easy, and the hoping is sometimes hard.

I will end with the words of another friend of mine, who also put a post up on Facebook abut refugees and showing compassion to them. Sick of some of the anti-refugee rhetoric she was hearing from some conservative Christians, Mary wrote:
No, the answer doesn't lie in opening our bibles
It lies in our opening our computers
It lies in finding the closest Syrian church or Mosque
Or Refugee community assistance and going there to find out what is happening in our communities to serve the Afghani and Iraqi and Syrian refugees.
We will find it will not be easy.
It will take our time,
it will take our being in new spaces,
it will take our being uncomfortable,
it may take some of our money,
It will take our listening,
it will grow us in being wise
It will cause us anger on occasions
It will provoke laughter And tears
It will interrupt our lives
It will DEMAND much from us.
And we are followers of Jesus
to be shaped by the way
God sees the world
Not the way the world sees.
It's called being a disciple of Jesus.
It is being discomforted
Amid the Christmas time
This time, which really is about
being comforted
so that we might comfort others
and that will probably create
a LOT of discomforts
for us disciples this Christmas.
Luke Bretherton, a scholar,
an author calls it
"Hospitality As Holiness"
There is no inhospitable holiness.
Amen.

Elizabeth Raine

Elizabeth is minister at Tuggeranong Uniting, beginning her ministry here in December 2018. 

Over the years, she has had a number of diverse and interesting placements, such as a school chaplaincy, a tenancy worker with UnitingCare, a congregational minister, a lecturer at UTC, a Presbytery minister, and as an Intentional Interim minister. 

Quote for today

...But you know Him, for He lives with you, and will be in you. John14:17

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Our faith community began in 1975 as a small ecumenical gathering of people who settled in the new Canberra township of Tuggeranong. We have grown with the Tuggeranong Community, and our parish centre is the hub for our work, as a place of worship, of gathering, fellowship and ministry.

We come together for authentic and Christ-centred worship. While we worship in a variety of styles, we share a common focus on faithfully listening for God’s Word and sharing His kindness and compassion with others. We express our love for God and others through a range of ministries, and connections with our community.

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