Sermon from Advent I: Do Not Be Afraid

“Do not be afraid.”
Advent I; November 29, 2020
Revelation 1:12-18

There are two reasons to say to someone, “Do not be afraid.” One is because there is nothing to be afraid of. No, there is not a monster under your bed. No, the anxieties in your closet are not going to jump out at night and attack you. Do not be afraid; there is nothing to be afraid of.

The other reason is because there is something to be afraid of and you have someone strong on your side. There’s a thing among some of the guys called “Flex Friday;” they post pictures of muscles they’ve been working on to show their progress. It’s sort of like peacocks strutting around the yard, I know, but anyone who belongs to a gym knows what I’m talking about. I’m sure women have their equivalent. Anyway, I remember responding to one guy, “Wow! With those arms, I hope I never meet you in a dark alley! Unless you’re on my side.”

Exactly. Unless you’re on my side. When you hear this scary picture of the Lord Jesus in the first chapter of Revelation, he says, “Do not be afraid” not because he’s the “little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay” who couldn’t frighten anyone, but because the Lord who holds the keys of Death and of Hades is on your side.

I’m doing some different things with you this Advent, because everything is different this year. First, I’m not doing the readings you’re used to during Advent. We can forget about John the Baptist this year; we don’t need to talk about Mary’s pregnancy. You heard a prophecy from Isaiah (64:1-9) that we usually read during Advent, and we’ll read some more prophecies. But the other readings will be from Revelation this year, because Revelation is a book of hope and we need hope. Another thing that will be different is we’ll use Christmas carols throughout Advent, because we won’t be getting together to sing during Christmas and the carols will help to keep us grounded. But I’m saving “Silent Night” for Christmas Eve; I can bend only so far!

Back to the Scripture. We like to say that God doesn’t take sides in conflicts, and for most things that is true. God really isn’t a Notre Dame fan, regardless of the Touchdown Jesus overlooking their stadium. God doesn’t prefer the United States to other nations, and even though we say “The King’s English” to refer to the English that Jesus speaks, we know Jesus doesn’t speak English. He speaks Spanish. Just kidding.

But the Bible doesn’t mince words to say that when the rich back the poor into an alley, Flex Friday God is on the side of the poor. When an occupying power oppresses the indigenous people, the Lord is on the side of the oppressed. That doesn’t, alas, always mean that the bullies get what’s coming to them on our time scale, but Revelation makes clear that this scary Jesus says, “Do not be afraid” to those who are pushed down, shoved aside, forgotten by the glitterati.

History and the cause of justice suggest that God took sides in World War II. You may have heard about the “miracle of Midway;” perhaps you know the story of how General Patton enlisted the entire Third Army to pray for better weather at the Battle of the Bulge. He had 250,000 prayer cards printed with the following prayer:

Almighty and most merciful Father, we humbly beseech Thee, of Thy great goodness, to restrain these immoderate rains with which we have had to contend. Grant us fair weather for Battle. Graciously hearken to us as soldiers who call upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, we may advance from victory to victory, and crush the oppression and wickedness of our enemies and establish Thy justice among men and nations.[1]

They were distributed not only to chaplains but to soldiers and airmen with a call from the General for everyone to pray, not only in church but on the move and on the line and wherever they were. And you may know that, quite in opposition to the forecast, the weather cleared and nearly a week of good weather allowed the Allies to stop the German offensive.

Does God take sides in war? I’m not going to answer that definitively. But let us note what Nazism stood for and its assault especially on Jewish people, but also on homosexuals, disabled people, and the homes of free peoples.

The image of Jesus in the first chapter of Revelation is very different from what you are accustomed to: a nice guy holding children in his lap, cuddly baby in a manger. He is those things. But he is also the one whose eyes are like flames of fire, whose voice is like the sound of many waters. Stop and imagine that. What do you see when you look at someone whose eyes flash like fire? What do you hear that sounds like the roaring of many waters? And then see the two-edged sword coming from his mouth: the word of truth.

Those who indulge in lies and in self-deception should fear that word of truth. Those who ignore the clear call of God for justice should fear the sound of many waters. Those who care only about their own rights or power or freedom and have no care for the well-being of others should fear the fire flashing from his eyes. But to those who turn to Jesus for refuge, for help, for hope he says, “Do not be afraid.”

Now, I’m not going to make any predictions about the Lord’s timing. Six million Jews had died before the Nazis were vanquished. How many will die or be permanently harmed by COVID-19 before the world is vaccinated? How many Palestinians will lose their homes or their livelihood or their lives before justice is realized? Or even closer to home: how long will it be until you and I can see each other here again?

You know what it cost Jesus to become what he says of himself at the end of what I read to you: “the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades.” It cost him his life to become the Living One, and so many suffer and some also lose their lives while we cry out with Isaiah:

O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,
So that the mountains would quake at your presence –
As when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil –
To make your name known to your adversaries,
So that the nations might tremble at your presence! (64:1-2)

Our cry is heard. After the Allied victory at the Battle of the Bulge, General Patton said to the Chaplain who had worked with him on that prayer project, “Well, Padre, our prayers worked. I knew they would.” (Ibid.) The power of Christ is the power of character, who faced the Cross when he could have turned away from it. The power of Christ is the power of truth, which is the two-edged sword out of his mouth, cutting through lies and disinformation. The power of Christ flashes fire from his eyes and has a voice like the sound of many waters, bending the moral arc of the world toward justice.

Do not be afraid. The One who is our hope is the living one. He was dead, and see, he is alive forever and ever; and he has the keys of Death and of Hades.