Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:7-18
Advent is a time of light and darkness, hope and exile and welcome. A baby will be welcomed that brings hope but under the occupation of the Roman Empire and soon the holy family will flee into exile.
There is much talk about refugees these days—frankly much of what is heard is quite upsetting. Whether it is news about the conditions that drive communities and families from homes to the conditions of travel to the struggle to find a welcoming place to settle to the ways that many politicians talk about our policies towards accepting refugees—much of what we hear is troubling.
In addition to 3 million Syrian refugees there are thought to be 60 million refugees in the world. Refugee is a legal status of someone who been forced to leave their country to flee war, persecution, or natural disaster. This being the case many Brethren in Nigeria’s displaced for similar reasons are not refugees but IPDs—internally displaced persons (in Syria the internally displaced are 6.5 million). So the number of displaced persons—whether across international borders or internally—is much higher than the number of refugees.
Today I am going to read our scriptures—particularly the Luke passage—alongside considering the decades long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If you have paid attention to the so called “peace process” to find a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, you will know that the “return of refugees” is one of the ongoing contentious components. A few weeks ago I visited Bethlehem. I was in Palestine and Israel with Warren Clark, the head of Churches for Middle East Peace—of which the Church of the Brethren is a member. We were taken around Bethlehem by a refugee. He was a Palestinian Christian and, quite honestly, did not look like what one might expect a refugee to look like. He was, however, legally a refugee—his grandparents lost their land and had to flee during the nakba “the catastrophe” in 1948. What was a celebrated event by one community is considered the catastrophe by another. Our guide was probably about my age, his grandparents lost their home during the 1948 war. While many families remained in camps for generations his grandparents had the resources to buy a house in or near Bethlehem. So while still living in the under the military rule of occupation this family is in a better position than many of the 5 million that have this statues—1.5 million of which are live in refugee camps.
While many of our meetings during this trip were more formal in nature—with activists or political, business, and religious leaders—we had hired this fellow as a guide. He took us to the wall (which many tours to Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity strategically avoid—an enormous wall that looks like a high security prison isn’t good for business). The wall is ostensibly for security but is highly disruptive to life for Palestinians and often is used to separate people from the land and livelihoods. Our guide showed prominent graffiti from Banksy and others, much of which expressed the hope that the wall would come down. One read “1989 Berlin Wall, 2010 this Wall”. Another read “Make hummus not walls.” We also witnessed one of the regular protests with Palestinian youth throwing rocks and flinging marbles and tear gas being used to try to deter this next to a refugee camp near a military base.
Last year at Annual Conference (the big yearly gathering of the Church of the Brethren in which churches send delegates to discuss and make decisions guiding the life of the denomination) there was a “Resolution on Christian Minority Communities.” While it was officially brought from the Mission and Ministry Board, I had written an early draft and suggested this as a possible resolution. The idea emerged for me during a board meeting for Churches for Middle East Peace at the Franciscan Monastery in the Brookland neighborhood in Northeast DC. Archbishop Vicken Aykazian of the Armenian Church expressed great distress at the rapidly diminishing churches in the Middle East, the places of the earliest churches—particularly in Iraq and Palestine. In these places the percentage of the population has decreased but overall numbers have also decreased because of people moving away because of the difficulty of living under occupation or in the midst of conflict. The statement which was accepted at Annual Conference reads in part.
“As members of the global body of Christ we are concerned with the destruction of Christian communities in regions where Christians are targeted as religious minorities. While we are deeply concerned about the persecution of religious minorities regardless of religion or tradition, we feel a distinct call to speak out on behalf of those who are brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. “So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith” (Galatians 6:10).”…
“We also are alarmed by the rapidly diminishing Christian communities in places such as Iraq, Palestine, and Syria. The elimination of these ancient yet still vital Christian communities would not only be a human rights disaster and a loss for the peoples of the region, but also a tragic loss of historic Christian witness in the land where the church first took root.”
John—a prophet –judgment as good news?
In Luke 3:7-18 we see John the Baptizer doing his thing. Last Sunday Jeff preached on the first half of this chapter. It starts with a list of rulers—people in charge—Jeff noted that the word of God came from a wild eyed preacher living in the desert rather than any of these allegedly powerful people. He noted that the Spirit still speaks through us and we hear God speaking through one another—particularly as we gather here. John the Baptizer was this preacher—in last week’s text we read—“3 He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,”
It then continues to give him context within the biblical and prophetic tradition by quoting from Isaiah,
“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
5 Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
6 and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’”
This takes us to our passage. These verses start out sounding rather harsh—for example John begins by calling them a “brood of vipers”—though it sounds pretty judgmental the passage concludes saying–
18 “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”
He starts, saying, 8 “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” This is the good news. Though people stand under judgment they can turn.
“ Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham . 9 Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
Being the children of Abraham is not enough. Family connections and ancestry don’t save you. This is not saying “be a self-made person without history or heritage” but it is saying this doesn’t save you. This was part of the point—perhaps the main point—when the first brethren baptized themselves in the Eder River. They believed that being reconciled to God—joining the way of Jesus—was something that an adult needed to decide, and they re-baptized themselves.
In his preaching John poses what he takes to be a standard reply when calling people to repentance—Abraham is our father—and says God can make ancestors of Abraham for these rocks. He says if you are truly repenting you will prove it by the “fruits.” If you say you turn to God then particular things will happen. He gives very practical advice to those around him.
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13 He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
In response to repentance and the question of what to do, John suggests seemingly simple acts of justice. These are not elaborate system overturning things. They do not appear to be system altering acts. I kind of would like him to provide what I would think is the more substantial challenge to justice. How about challenging the system of the Roman Empire’s military occupation? How about radically altering the things taxes are used for in the vein of the National Campaign for a Peace Tax Fund–which would allow those opposed to war not to pay for war but for peacebuilding efforts?
The first few days of our trip we met with people and organizations working toward a resolution to this conflict—toward justice and peace for all wrapped up in the system. We met with the head of a bank, a chief negotiator, a head of a church in Jerusalem. We also met with former soldiers telling the story of their change and an activist who has documented the expansion of settlements for many years, all of which were discouraging, and really didn’t give me much idea how my little office could be involved.
My final meeting was with Omar at Sabeel. I was to meet Omar at the offices of the Sabeel Ecumenical Liberation Theology Center at 2:00 on Monday. Since I was no longer traveling with Churches for Middle East Peace I decided to utilize the bus system rather than a taxi to get there. After boarding and figuring out the number of shekels needed to pay for the trip I waited to get to the stop that might be nearest to Sabeel.
At Sabeel I met Omar. We sat and discussed their work, the situation, and theology. He told me he had met a group of students from a Brethren college recently and that they “couldn’t even see him” because he was Palestinian. He said that in the face of this great disappointment my simple email asking to meet him was something—I forget his exact words—I believe the gist was that it was a sign that in spite of disappointments by Christians in America who cannot see Christians in Palestine—that the Spirit is still at work and that there is yet hope.
Though there is much more to say I would like to highlight three practical (and by practical I mean spiritual and theological) points from these comments on a visit to the Holy Land and an Advent reading.
#1 There are social consequences of reading the Bible. Reading the Bible is not a spiritual practice detached from our lives, social context, or the world. The work of Sabeel is to read the Bible as Palestinian Christians in the context of living under military occupation. The context is not irrelevant for the work of the Spirit in the reading of our text. The Brethren are a community that is reading community and a praying community. In doing this we will be changed. There is proposed a Bible study in the new year. Do we think we are ready for it? As Sabeel reads John the Baptizer and Jesus proclaiming the good news they realize that the occupation is not only not good news for them it is not good news for anyone.
Let us read together.
#2. In our reading in Luke we see John give guidance on means of repentance. These are relatively simple acts of justice and compassion. Here is I will be very transparent—I have the privilege of getting a salary to work on this type of things. This means I get to spend all my time on big problems and conflicts and, and, and—truthfully even though I get to spend all my time on this I still feel overwhelmed and tired and powerless and inadequate. One evening during my trip while texting Jenn I had to say–“it’s been a rough day.” In the face of seemingly countless and insurmountable injustice John’s word’s commending [relatively] simple acts of justice and compassion are indeed good news. We are called to act but not to control history. For me this is good news.
Let us do simple acts of justice together.
#3. While meeting with Omar he asked that we remember the Christians of Palestine and pray for them. This is a man who is acutely aware of the political, social, and religious challenges. He said on several occasions he has counted the guns aimed at him while walking from his office to near where I was staying just outside the Damascus Gate in the Old City Jerusalem (which was a distance of about 2 miles)—the number was around 40. He is not unaware but what he asked for was prayer. He asked that we pray.
Let us pray together.