“Strangers In A Foreign Land”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
November 29, 2015: Advent 1
Jeremiah 33:12-22 & Luke 21:25-36
Today is the start of our yearly journey to Bethlehem called Advent. Advent is a time of preparation, penitence, and prayer that gets us ready, head and heart, for the birth of Jesus. Advent is a season of good news, where we dig into the words of Scripture that speak of God’s promises and how God keeps those promises. Amid the beauty of this season—with lights and good food and warm blanket and even warmer memories—we have to remember that Christmas is about birth…Advent serves to make us ready for who and what will be born.
The good news of Advent speaks of two specific events: the birth of Christ and his Second Coming.
The ancient Israelite prophet Jeremiah spoke about the first of these two, the birth of Jesus, when God says through him, “The days are surely coming when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.” In modern terms, God is saying, “Don’t worry, better days are ahead…I’m going to keep my promises.” God kept the ancient promises by being born as one of us in Jesus, in Bethlehem. The birth of Jesus brought God’s peaceful and just kingdom into the world, though not as anyone could have expected. The baby Jesus grew into a man who taught and preached and healed and fed. Jesus upended the establishment that kept so many bowed down to the ground, and he lifted up those who were outcast, estranged, and oppressed. Even though he was wrongfully executed as a criminal, he rose from the grave to give his followers power to keep the peace and justice going. The birth of Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection radically changed the course of history.
We are here today because of this first event, the birth of Jesus. As I said last week, Jesus came to start a movement and movements need followers. Unlike political or social movements, the movement of Jesus is about God’s kingdom and not the advancement of a certain agenda. The movement of Jesus is eternal and good, bringing real and lasting change into the world. We are here today because the movement of Jesus has been passed on to us, and one day we will pass it on to those who come after. We are also here today because the birth of Jesus, his whole life, his death and resurrection, unlocked us from sin and unshackled us from the finality of death—the birth of Jesus set us free. We are here today because we are free. As free people, in a reconciled relationship with God and one another, we work and witness and worship to make God’s kingdom something real right here, right now. Making God’s kingdom something real right here, right now means that peace and justice prevail, love wins, and the good news of the gospel really goes out and changes things.
The good news of Advent speaks of a second event, one that Jesus himself describes in the gospel of Luke.
Jesus says, “There will be signs…Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with great power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” What Jesus is talking about here is his Second Coming, something more commonly known as ‘the end of time.’ Jesus warns his disciples to ‘be alert at all times’ because no one other than God knows when this day will come. When it does come, though, the sun and the moon and the stars and the whole earth will show signs. There will be distress among the nations; there will be roaring in the oceans and on the waves. There will be fear on this day, but Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” There is no reason to be afraid because this is the day on which Jesus will make all things new, the day he will redeem all things. The Second Coming will look and feel scary, but it is on this day that Jesus will establish a kingdom of peace and justice that will have no end.
This is good news because it offers us hope. The promised Second Coming of Jesus gives us hope because there will be a day when the trails and sufferings of this world, the pain and the fighting, will come to an everlasting end. The promised Second Coming of Jesus gives us hope because God has never left us alone and will come in Jesus to make everything right. The promised Second Coming of Jesus gives us hope because, just like a marathon runner who keeps going because she knows that there will be an end, we know that there will be an end and we will keep running. Hope is our fuel, it is what keeps our Christian life going. Fueled by this hope we will continue to work and witness and worship and live out God’s kingdom.
This is the good news of Advent and it is good news to the very maximum! We worship and serve a God who makes and keeps promises, who will come back one day to bring about a better day. This is hope and joy and peace and there is plenty to go around!
Consider with me for a few minutes, now, what this exceedingly good news might mean to someone who is different than we are, particularly someone who is having to seek refuge because the place they call home has been ravaged by war, religious violence, or natural disasters.
I know that this might seem to be an arbitrary place to focus our attention today, but it is not. There are many situations in our world in need of God’s good news, but none is more directly related to our heritage as people of faith than the refugee crisis coming out of the Middle East. Let me explain.
One of the most potent and reoccurring themes in the Scriptures, Old and New, is the theme of homeland, of having a place to truly call home. The first place this theme comes to life is in the story of Abraham and Sarah, or Abram and Sarai as they were called before all of God’s dreams for them came true. In Genesis 12 God says to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” God promises that Abram and his family will have a place to call home, and from that home they will be blessed in order to be a blessing. Abraham and Sarah never come to the place that God promised, so the promise is passed on to their son Isaac. The promise then passed through Isaac to Jacob and Jacob’s twelve sons. When Jacob’s youngest son, Joseph, died in Egypt at an old age, the promise was passed on to the nation of Israel in bondage in Egypt.
The promise of a home was taken up by Moses, the great liberator of the enslaved Israelites. On the other side of the Red Sea from their home of slavery, the Israelites wandered for many decades towards the home God had prepared for them. At the base of Mount Sinai these refugees from Egypt received God’s law, one of which in the book of Deuteronomy says, “You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” After the death of Moses, Joshua and his men pursued the promised land that they could call home, enlisting even the help of Rahab the prostitute, whose family line includes Jesus. Joshua reaches the land promised to Abraham, countless generations later.
After the death of Joshua, the Israelites enjoyed a long period of being home. But this was shattered by endless conquests from their neighbors and four decades of captivity in Babylon. Cyrus, who Isaiah prophecies about, conquered the Babylonian army and returned the refugee Israelites to their promised land. From the time of the Babylonian captivity until they were returned home, the great prophets of Israel stood up and proclaimed the better day that was coming when God would raise up for them the Messiah.
In the early pages of the New Testament we read about Jesus, the promised Messiah, and his family. They enjoyed only a short time of peace after Jesus was born. Herod the Great, for fear that this baby might upset his kingdom, decreed that all baby boys two years and under be slaughtered in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. At that moment, Jesus and his parents became refugees from violence, fleeing by night into Egypt where their ancestors were held in slavery. Only by the voice of an angel does the Holy Family come out from Egypt and settle in Nazareth.
We could easily characterize Paul as one who was without a place to call home, both because he was constantly escaping Roman persecution and because he was not always welcomed in preaching the gospel.
But it is in the book of Hebrews that all the promises of home, all the centuries of wandering, all the lives lost from escaping violence and persecution--that all of this comes to a great climax. The writer says at the very beginning of chapter thirteen, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”
It is this benediction from Hebrews that permeates my heart and mind when I see the crisis that refugees face in our world today. I wonder what a proper Christian response should be. I lament at the heated rhetoric that dominates this topic. I weep when I realize that I could be one of them. Our ancestors in faith have been refugees from the very beginning; our Lord and savior and his parents were refugees. There has to be some way that the good news of Advent can reach these displaced people, a way for Christians to respond to their suffering in peaceful and loving ways.
The one thing that is guiding our public discourse on Middle Eastern refugees is fear, and there is nothing further from the heart of the gospel than fear. The fear is understandable: refugees could be terrorists, they could be spies, they could severely jeopardize our security. And while they are understandable, these fears have totally blinded us to the fact that refugees of any kind are not numbers, threats, or disposable…they are first and foremost people. And the minute that people of faith forget or fail to see others as people, whether they are refugees or not, we have failed to follow in the steps of our Lord.
The fear is being pounded into our heads from all direction, from the media and from politicians, and the most powerful way for us to spread the good news of Advent is to abandon fear. We believe in a God who has taken displaced people under a divine wing and ushered them into a place to call home. We believe in a God who has promised us, and the entire world, a better day than what we have right now. We believe in a God who is going to come back and make all things new. We do not have to be afraid. We should not be afraid. As soon as fear is stripped away, we will see displaced people for who and what they are—creatures made in God’s image—and we can develop constructive and life-giving solutions to their suffering. As soon as fear is stripped away we will remember the calling of our faith to welcome strangers, not just because it is the right thing to do, but because we and our ancestors were once strangers in a foreign land. As soon as fear is stripped away, our hearts will open to a place of welcome, where we just might meet and angel. As soon as fear is stripped away, the eternal truth will be revealed that every human life is intricately linked to every other human life and every human life is valued by God.
This is not a call to give up important steps that ensure our security; I’m not saying that we should unquestioningly open our doors when there is a very real threat out there. What I am saying is that Christians cannot and should never say ‘no’ to refugee people; to do so would be to deny the faith and forget our history. If Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, Joshua, Rahab, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and the Apostle Paul had been turned away, met with fear, classified as a threat to be destroyed, the history of all of creation would be very different. If we as a society and as a Church do not do what we can to physically and spiritually welcome those who do not have a home, all of creation will take a very different course and humanity will be a little less humane. It is from a place of hope, of Advent and Christmas hope, that Christians can be strong leaders in making and securing a place for these members of God’s family to call home. It is from a place of hope, Advent and Christmas hope, that Christians can change the temperature of the discourse and provide a level and compassionate voice.
Remember the two events that Advent speaks of? The first is the birth of Christ, and the second is the Second Coming of Christ. The birth of Christ, and his life, death, and resurrection, has shown us just how deeply God loves and values the human family. It set us free from sin, giving us strength and courage for today, and the ability to be workers of peace and justice in our times. The second coming of Christ gives us hope that, in time, Christ will come back and institute an entirely new creation. That hope is what keeps us running this earthly race. Standing in between these two moments of history, between birth and Second Coming, you and I are called to actively engage and respond to the world we live in. We are called to be workers for God who do not get wrapped up in politics, but who wrap themselves in the profound compassion of God. In between these moments we are to welcome the stranger, preach good news to the poor, and lift up the outcast and estranged.
Right now, you and I as people of faith are being called to speak love and grace, calm and compassion into a crisis that is being met with nothing but fear. If we take up this work, if we are bold enough to wade into the murkiest and most turbulent waters of all time, God’s kingdom will come and all will know peace.
There is only one candle lit on the Advent wreath and that means that there is still time. There is still time to hear the good news of Advent and take it to heart. There is still time to look at the world and take this good news to it. There is still time to repent of past sins and walk in the new path of forgiveness. As we step off into Advent and come closer to Bethlehem day by day, have hope in the promises of God and take seriously your calling as a follower of Jesus. Christ will be born and he will come again; may we be found alert and waiting, ready to share with him how we lived the Gospel and did everything we could to welcome the stranger and share the hope of the coming of God’s better day. Amen.