Political instability. Homeland security. Rampant fear. These seem to be the recurring themes we are hearing every week in cable news, radio talk shows, and social media posts as we face the unfolding events in our world today. However, we aren’t the only ones facing these challenges. In fact, these themes were the major areas of concern for the people of God addressed by the prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson for today.
The people of God were facing political instability after the death of King Uzziah of Judah. During this unstable and uncertain time, the nation of Judah struggled with idolatry, immorality, and political corruption.
The people of God were also facing challenges of homeland security as Assyria, the great power to the northeast, was steadily encroaching upon the borders of Judah. Assyria had just destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel and Samaria with incredible cruelty, and their acts of terror were causing rampant fear as the Assyrians were putting on the squeeze on the people of God.
In the midst of this situation, the prophet Isaiah was instructed by God to make this proclamation: “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.” I can imagine that in Isaiah’s day, this message of hope was met with skepticism. “Oh sure, God is our salvation and defense,” they might say, “but we also need to save and defend ourselves from these evil foreigners who want to kill us.” But then, Isaiah wasn’t finished with his proclamation. He goes on looking forward to a day when people will say, “Give praise to the LORD, sing praise to the LORD, shout aloud and sing for joy, and let this be known to all the world.” I can imagine that in Isaiah’s day, some people would have thought he was either naïve or crazy, or both. “How can anyone give praise and sing for joy in a time like this?”
Those responses are understandable, for human beings are wired to be finely attuned to threats to our well-being and existence. Fear can be a very helpful emotion to keep us safe and secure. And yet, human beings are also notoriously bad in assessing risk. For instance, the 2011 Report on Terrorism from the National Counter Terrorism Center notes that Americans are just as likely to be “crushed to death by their televisions or furniture each year” as they are to be killed by terrorists. The Jewish Daily Forward noted in 2013 that – even counting the people killed that year in the Boston marathon bombing – you are more likely to be killed by a toddler than a terrorist. Should we send someone downstairs to check on our nursery workers?!
But no matter how big the risks and dangers we face, throughout the Bible, God’s people are told over a hundred times to “fear not” or “be not afraid.” And in today’s New Testament reading, we hear the apostle Paul’s exhortation to “rejoice in the Lord always.” If you remember, this was the same Paul who, as recorded in Acts 16, was imprisoned while he and Silas were in the city of Philippi. In that prison, Paul and Silas sang songs of praise and devotion to God. Paul was also most likely in a house prison in Rome when he wrote this letter to the church in Philippi. So Paul wasn’t just mouthing off easy platitudes while living amid comfort, safety, and security. He lived through trying and fearful times, and despite being squeezed by imprisonment, torture and rejection, Paul’s spirit could not be broken or crushed. Paul understood that faithfulness to God does not guarantee security or comfort. He experienced great hardships, and yet, Paul displayed joyful praise and a gentle spirit, undergirded by prayer, and confident in the peace of God.
Paul was only following the example of his Lord Jesus, who, while hanging on the cross, the most horrific instrument of state sanctioned torture and terrorism, offered forgiveness to his enemies. While the sin of the world came bearing down upon him like a vice grip, Jesus spoke a word of hope and salvation to a dying thief next to him: “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). After hearing those words, I wonder if that thief thought to himself: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid.”
In this past month, terrorism, both worldwide and domestic, has dominated our national consciousness. Many words have been spoken and some shouted, and much ink has been spilled. And I wonder, what do the terrorists want to achieve? According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, terrorism is defined as “the use of violent acts to frighten the people in an area as a way of trying to achieve a political goal.” Terrorists want us to be afraid, not only of them, but also to fear one another, so that our society begins to crumble under the pressure of that fear.
There’s a story of an old Indian who was sharing his wisdom with his grandson. He told the grandson that we have two wolves inside us who struggle with each other. One is the wolf of peace, love, and kindness. The other is the wolf of fear and hatred. “Which wolf will win?” asked the grandson. The wise man gave this answer: “Whichever one we feed.”
And so, in these coming days, we have a choice as to whether or not to feed the wolf of fear and hatred. Washington Post reporter Andrew Shaver writes: “Perhaps the best way we can counter terrorists is to do just as the French pianist [did], who played “Imagine” in public outside the [very theatre where his countrymen were attacked. Perhaps we should follow the lead of] the widower whose wife died in the attack, whose open letter to the terrorists included this: “I will insult you with my happiness.” We can refuse to give [the terrorists] the fear they so desperately want from us.”
What do you see in my hand? It’s an orange. If I were to apply pressure and squeeze it, what would you expect to come out? Orange juice. That’s how you know it is an orange. If grape juice comes out, you might say, well, it may look like an orange, but it’s really an over-sized grape. Similarly, Christians, if you squeeze them, what would you expect to come out? A Christ-like spirit. That’s one way you’d know they are Christians. And what is the fruit of that Spirit? According to Galatians 5, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Now, none of us is perfect, and we won’t fully display all those characteristics. Yet, as Christians, when we are squeezed, how many of the characteristics of the fruit of the Spirit will people see, as opposed to fear?
On this third Sunday of Advent, we continue to see the change in our Advent tree in the sanctuary. What was once a stump with a branch, is now a full tree covered with Christmons, which are symbols representing Jesus Christ. Imagine this tree under pressure, and when it is squeezed, what people see are symbols of Christ blossoming forth. This Advent, we have moved from promise and preparation, to praise, which is an expression of gratitude to God in Christ as an act of worship.
Last April, when a group of us from UBC visited Israel, we spent an afternoon in Bethlehem, which is in the West Bank, controlled by the Palestinians, separated by a barbed wired wall from the rest of Israel. After going through a security check point, we visited the Church of the Nativity and then stopped in a souvenir shop owned by Palestinian Christians. Bethlehem is the place where most of the olive wood carvings in Israel are made, but these believers were not allowed to sell their carvings in Israel. They were stuck in the West Bank, dependent on tourists to come to them to support their livelihood. These Palestinian believers, while facing political and economic pressures, joyfully welcomed us and proudly showed us their art and craft. In that shop, this nativity set you see on our communion table caught our eye. It was made from one olive tree trunk. In the skillful hands of an artist, this dead stump was transformed into a thing of beauty depicting the scene of Jesus’ birth. If you look carefully, the baby Jesus is not in the manger. The baby Jesus will arrive on Christmas Eve. Until then, we wait with joy and praise.
As many of you know, our friend and fellow church member Mildred has been in the intensive care unit at UVA medical center. She gave me permission to tell you her story this morning. On the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Mildred suffered a brain aneurysm that was located in a very difficult spot to treat without risking damage or a stroke. Last Monday afternoon, the surgeon performed a scan to see how the vessel was doing, and found that while the vessel was healing, there was still a 50-50 chance that it could still burst. While Mildred was still under anesthesia, the surgeon asked her husband and son whether he should attempt to put in a stent, which will involve risk, and which might or might not work. While Mildred had already told her husband and son her wishes if this scenario occurred, they both agonized over the decision before following Mildred’s wish to proceed with the operation. For several hours, Mildred’s life hung in the balance, and all the family could do was wait.
The next morning, I went over to visit Mildred, and I was greeted by a big smile from her and her son. The surgeon had just been by to tell Mildred that the procedure went well and if things continue to progress, she could be moved out of the ICU in a couple of days. As a matter of fact, Mildred was moved out of the hospital and into rehab late Friday afternoon. But on that morning, you could feel the joy, see the relief, and hear the thanksgiving in Mildred. Throughout this ordeal, Mildred felt the love of this congregation, she experienced the presence of her deceased parents Charles and Edna Witter, she was embraced by the calming peace of God, and she was strengthened by the uplifting power of prayer. I responded, “Yes, prayer really works.” And Mildred said something I’ll never forget. She said, “There will come a day when I’ll be back in this hospital and the prognosis will be different. That’s OK too, because I know that I’m in God’s hands.”
I asked Mildred’s permission to tell this story because throughout her ordeal, Isaiah’s words of praise came echoing to me, “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid.” I also saw Mildred living out the truth of Paul’s words: “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.”
On that Monday morning, I witnessed a woman of faith being squeezed by a dire situation beyond her control, and throughout that uncertain and fearful time, I felt the hope of God pouring out, I saw the peace of Christ blanketing her, and I experienced the joy of Christ’s spirit radiating forth. And it led all of us in that ICU room to give praise to God.
Surely God is our salvation; we will trust and not be afraid. Because God is our salvation, we can respond with joy by worshiping and praising this God.
Praise God, from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heav’nly host;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
 Andrew Shaver, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2015/11/23/youre-more-likely-to-be-fatally-crushed-by-furniture-than-killed-by-a-terrorist/.