My Love is Stronger

By Anne Grizzle. This sermon is based on Zephaniah 3:14, Is. 12:2 -6, Phil. 4:4-7, and Luke 3:7-18

Last week at a writing retreat, I was sitting at dinner with Raphael Anzenberger from France. I asked him, “How have the shootings affected you and the people of France?” He said, “The bombings earlier this year were aimed at targets of our values, like for you the Twin Towers. But the latest shootings were amidst ordinary life. So there is more fear, for attack any time or place.” With shootings in our own country – in a school in Newtown, a church in Charleston, most recently a community center for the disabled in San Bernadino, we too wonder where and when terror might hit. The fear level is near where it was after 9/11.

Fear amidst this world is not something new. The times into which each of the prophets in today’s readings spoke had their own fears. And our Lord came down amidst a world filled with terrors of its own. The holy family had to come, pregnant or not, for a census to a place with no room in the inn. Then they had to flee for fear of Herod’s killing all the first born male babies, a horrid massacre of his time. The prophets, Zephaniah, Isaiah and John the Baptist have a few things to say to us today.

Zephaniah reminds us, “The Lord is in your midst. Do not fear, do not let your hands grow weak.” He gives us an image that I find remarkably calming: the image of God rejoicing over us with gladness, renewing us in love, singing over us. A college friend of my son who came to faith in Christ out of a hard and difficult family life, told us the image that kept him from fear…this one from Zephaniah. He remembered as a small child being held and rocked by his grandmother who sang over him in love. So he would imagine God holding him in love, God singing over him. We can leave today not only with Zephaniah’s words ringing in our ears but this image in our minds of God singing with love over us.

The prophet Isaiah also speaks against fear, calling us to active TRUST. “I will trust and not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.” Can you imagine or remember a time you were afraid in your life and someone you love called you to trust? Perhaps as a child learning to walk when parents encouraged you to step out, right there to hold you up if you fell? Perhaps the trust exercise, falling back into the arms of a group that volunteered to catch you at camp? Perhaps like my friend Michele who recently called and asked “Should I really go ahead with my trip to Israel at this time?” She went and had remarkable experiences. A man I met recently has Lou Gehrig’s disease and learned this week the experimental drug is not working and all they can do now is pain meds. The greatest fear of this large, normally active little league coach is having to be cared for. When I asked if he had any sense from God when he prayed about this, he described a crying out to God with his fear and a sense several hours later that maybe the way to overcome fear is to walk through it. I don’t know what your trust invitations are this morning, maybe not as huge as some of these. But we all have fears and in each instance might be helped to realize the whole of our faith life is our God reaching out to us and inviting us to walk in trust, not that everything will work out easily, but that God’s love will hold us through all things, even death itself.

Fear often needs something beyond an image in our mind. We have to DO something to help our bodies move out of a fearful posture. Isaiah goes on to say, “give thanks and call on his name….sing praises to the Lord Philippians 4 counsels us in a similar way “Do not worry about anything but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” Sometimes when I wake up anxious or find my mind circling round with the anxieties of my day, I have to consciously begin naming all the things I am thankful for very specifically… Abby, Annarose, Rachel, Caleb, Forest, Annie…the sun coming up and shining through the fog, magnolia leaves on the table with red winter berries, hot steam from my cup of coffee…. I find my fear slips away a bit as I move into thanks. Jesus also calls us to include in our prayer our enemies. When we pray for the neighbor who annoys us or even ISIS, our fears can dissipate. And Isaiah says to sing praise. We sing praise here in church and that lifts fear, but we can also sing ourselves through our days. I mean out loud whether in the shower or car or woods or home. Giving thanks and singing are great antidotes to fear. A stark image of this from the movie The Sound of Music is of the Von Trapp family singing on stage in front of their persecutors. It is hard to stay afraid when we engage out body and voice singing for praise and thanks. Sometimes when we come to God in prayer and with thanksgiving amidst our worries, we experience that mystery we read about in Philippians of the “peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” guarding our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

 In our gospel reading, John the Baptist warns the crowds coming to be baptized to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” and not rest on the laurels of who their ancestors were. Those are good words for us today, for us who have been baptized here at Trinity. The crowds asked him, “What should we DO?” John was clear. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise. All who help with Trinity lunch follow this call. He went on to speak specifically to people of various professions. What would fruits of repentance look like for a tax collector? Collect no more than the amount prescribed. Soldiers asked him and he said, “do not extort money from anyone ...and be satisfied with your wages.” Imagine his answer to you in your own calling. Professors ask, “What should we do?” Perhaps you would hear, Pay some extra attention to the frustrating student, the one who is different and struggling.” Lawyers ask, “What should we do?” Perhaps you hear an answer, “Remember your call not to seek the most money for yourself but the most justice for those who come to you.” Health care professionals ask, “What should we do?” “Serve those without coat or resources with the same care as those without.” Mothers ask, “What should we do?” Perhaps he would say, “Be patient and keep caring when they have just thrown the jar of mustard on the floor.Whoever you are, whatever you do ask the same question and listen to Scripture and your own soul for an answer so that we too may bear fruit in keeping with our repentance. As we seek to walk out our faith, this is a way as well to combat fear. We enter the ranks not of those who cower at fear of those who terrorize but we gather as baptized followers of the one who calls us to live out love in action.

One of my favorite songs is by John Bell of the Iona Community, a soft song almost like a lullaby. I often hum it to myself, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid. My love is stronger. My love is stronger …” In I John I: 18 we read, “But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” In these days of fear, we who claim Christ and his love have great opportunity to pray and offer love, the antidote to fear. Our mobilization of love must be stronger than any terror. To whom and where might you bring love, surprising love even in the little ways of a smile and kindness – to your own family and friends but also beyond to a check out cashier at Walmart, a child on the playground, a stranger to this country, a grumpy Scrooge.

Amidst our comings and goings in this Advent season, a common question comes, “Are you ready for Christmas?” And so Advent calls to us, “Are you ready for Christ’s coming – to dwell in your home and very heart as you walk this earth? Are you ready for Christ’s coming when he comes again or we come to him by way of our own dying?” Are we ready with a faith that is stronger than death? Are we ready with a love that is stronger than fear? I hope we all are using this Advent season to continue our readiness for Christ and to be bearers in a dark world of a God who loved us enough to come into our darkness, vulnerable as a babe and loving even to the point of death. That is a love which can cast out all fear. Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel has come to us.