The People of Zion
2nd Sunday of Advent (Populus Zion)
December 7th/8th, 2014
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
Today is the Second Sunday in Advent, a Sunday historically referred to as Populus Zion, which means “The People of Zion.” It is a Sunday that offers us the opportunity to meditate on what it means to be the people of God, a time to reflect on our life together with Christians across the globe, and more immediately, a time to consider our life with the other Christians in this place. For we are the People of Zion here; we the Populus Zion. There are many things that could divide us as people. Some are not really very serious, like our sports allegiances. This place is filled with Wolverines and Spartans and Chippewas and Broncos. There are Crusaders and Mustangs and Ramblers and Patriots. And then there’s a whole host who really couldn’t care less about football or basketball or any other athletic competition. But that’s ok, for our unity as God’s people in this place is not found in pulling for the same teams.
On a more significant level, there are other realities at play in our world today that seek to divide us. We are in the midst of the holiday season, and it has been said more than once that you shouldn’t discuss politics at the Christmas party. Because politics divide. We live in the tenure of one of the most polarizing Presidents in recent memory, if not in the history of our nation. Health care reform, immigration, common core, economic policy, government relief programs and bailouts are all issues which many feel strongly about. Those issues might divide us as a people, for Christians can often in good conscience come to opposite conclusions about the best course of action for our country while still remaining faithful children of God. And that’s ok, for our unity as the Populus Zion is not found in voting for the same political candidates or endorsing the same programs.
We might be divided over current events in the 24 hour news cycle. The events of Ferguson, Missouri make that abundantly clear. The backlash from the grand jury’s decision not to indict the police officer sparked both peaceful and violent protests across the country, even here in Detroit. Some NFL players took to social media to share their views, while others shared theirs as they were taking the field. News shows and articles in print have tried to understand and analyze the situation from every angle possible, speculating about what these events say about who we are as American and who we are in process of becoming. In many cases, issues of race have taken center stage. The events on Long Island have only made matters worse. I don’t know what your personal stance is on the issue, and you don’t know mine. And that’s ok, for our unity as the Populus Zion is not found in our personal ethnicity nor is it found in our feelings about what’s been going on in Missouri since August.
Our unity is and always has been found in Christ himself. During this time of Advent we remember the ways that our Lord Jesus comes to us. He came in the past as a baby born in Bethlehem. He comes today through his Word and Sacraments. He will come in the future in a cloud with great power and glory. Our unity is found in these things, not in our race or our politics or social views. Our unity as the Populus Zion, the People of God, begins with the sin that we all share, for there is none who is righteous, not even one. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But God showed his love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. We are united as people who deserve condemnation, yet have not received it. As we make our way through this Advent season we remember also the unity we share in the forgiveness won for us by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. As we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus, we do so remembering that the reason he was born was to die. The reason he took on our humanity was to suffer in our place. The reason he became like us was so that we could become like him, risen from the dead and living unto eternity. We have unity in that.
We also have unity in the way that our Lord comes to us today. He comes to us today through the preaching of his word, a life giving word that creates faith in our hearts. That faith clings to Jesus so that all who believe in him are united to him, so that as Paul says in Galatians, I no longer live, Christ lives in me. And he lives in you too. But there is only one Jesus. All who are united to the one Jesus are therefore also united to everyone else who is in Christ. Much like we possess a certain level of unity by being all present in the same room right now, so also everyone who is in the one Christ is in the same place, and is therefore united to everyone else who is there too. We are united together as we are all baptized into the one Christ, for there is one body and one Spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. We are united together as we kneel at the one rail and feast on the same body and drink from the same cup, for there is only one Jesus. When someone takes the flesh of Jesus into their own body through the gift of this marvelous sacrament, Jesus lives in them and they live in Jesus. But there is only one Jesus, so everyone who lives united to Jesus through his body and blood also lives united the other people who have feasted on the body and blood of that same Christ. Thus we are united as the people of God in this place.
But the simple truth is that such a unity is difficult to maintain in reality. For the unity we possess in Christ allows for flexibility in many other areas of our life, not only in what sports teams we root for, but also in our politics, our musical preference, our clothing style, and a host of other areas. To actually live as the united body of Christ in this place is a difficult thing, which is why Paul ends his epistle to the Romans with this prayer for unity: “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” To live in this unity here in this place today requires God granting us the gifts of endurance and encouragement.
Endurance is key because, like any lasting relationship of value, we as the body of Christ in this place will hit difficult times. Satan would love nothing more than to see wedges driven into the body of Christ in this and every place. Other Bible translations render this phrase as the God of patience instead of the God of endurance. The word could also be translated as fortitude or perseverance. Basically, it means the ability to keep going in difficult circumstances. This is important because difficult times will fall upon us not only individually as the children of God in this fallen world, but also as the people of God gathered in this place. Satan will make sure of it. We as a congregation will have difficult times. We have had difficult times in the past. Finances get tight. There are disagreements over what course of action is best for the congregation. When the part of the building that we are sitting in today was still in the planning phases, there was much debate over whether or not building it was the right thing. There was a time in the 1940s where the congregation had to look seriously at whether or not to close the school, another divisive issue. Issues of finance and the future of the congregation threaten to divide us and every gathering of God’s people. The only way to make it through such situations is to endure, more specifically, to have the God of endurance give us the patience and perseverance necessary.
He gives us that perseverance through the encouragement of the Scriptures. As Paul says in verse 4, the things written in the pages of Scripture were written to give us hope, to encourage us. The God of encouragement continues to encourage us through his Word, for his Word reveals the reality of the situation. It reveals the reality of our sin and the depths of the debts which we owed our Father in heaven. When we know and understand how much we have been forgiven, it inspires us to be more charitable and compassionate with those around us. We find encouragement through the gift of forgiveness, for when we know how patient our Lord has been with us we gladly show the same patience to the people around us. That is why it is so important for us to continue to gather together as the Populus Zion in this place. For here, as we confess our sin together, as we are forgiven together, as we partake of the same bread and wine together, we see the unity we possess as the body of Christ. Such unity colors our interactions with each other, filling our conversations with the love and forgiveness of Christ himself. When times for endurance arise, we can be patient with each other because of the encouragement we have in worshiping together.
The point of this, Paul says, is that we might live in harmony with each other. Some translations render this as a wish for unity, but I think the image of harmony is more appropriate, for while we do certainly possess unity as the body of Christ, it is a unity in harmony. Harmony is a beautiful thing. When a single note is complemented with a second or third or fourth note, the resulting sound is much richer and fuller than that single note was by itself. Take the image of a symphony. Individually, each instrument is playing its part. The notes of the clarinet are different than the notes of the flute or the oboe. The trumpets play different notes than the trombones or saxophone. The cello plays something different from the bass or violin. If each one were to simply do whatever it felt like, if the wood winds ignored the brass and the strings altogether, the resulting sound would be harsh on your ears. But when the sections work together, when the individual instruments within each section work together, even though they are playing different notes, the sound is full and rich and wonderful. They may be playing different notes, but they play the same song.
Paul’s prayer for the Church of God in Rome, and his prayer for us who are the Church of God at St. John Fraser, is that the God of endurance would give us endurance, that the God of encouragement would continue to encourage us through his Word, so that we might be a beautiful harmony in this place. You might be a different instrument than the person sitting next to you. But when you are both playing the same song, the music is beautiful. The song we play is the unity we possess in our Lord Jesus Christ. We may be a symphony of different instruments playing different notes, but the melody is Christ.
When Satan sets about to divide us as the Body of Christ, we would do well to remember that harmony not only allows for different notes and instruments, it actually requires them. If we were all playing the exact same notes, we would not be a harmony but a unison. We would do well to embrace the different notes that work together to give us harmony in this place. The future of St. John requires both people playing the notes of aspiration and growth and ever expanding ministries, like the notes of a piccolo dancing high above the melody. But harmony also requires the stable base of those who would be prudent and cautious with the congregation’s finances and resources. And yet the melody is the same: a desire to see the gospel of forgiveness brought into people’s lives. Harmony in this place requires both seeking ways to engage the current culture while at the same time remaining true to the tradition of our church body and the timeless confession of the Gospel.
When such differences come up for discussion, when Satan attempts to turn us against each other, we would do well to remember that we are all playing the same song, just different parts in that song. Disagreement ought not lead to name calling or defensive rhetoric, for we are united together as the body of Christ in this place. Disagreement should lead to discussion, and discussion should remember that all parties involved are doing what they do out of love for this congregation and out of a desire to see the Gospel of Christ brought into the lives of the people in these pews, the children in those classrooms, and all those in the community around us. Such discussion is not always easy; it takes endurance and perseverance. It would be easy to throw up our hands in disagreement and simply write off the other person as ignorant or selfish or silly. It would be easy to quit and go home when we don’t get our way. But through the perseverance that comes from the God of endurance we can set about weathering the storm, remaining in harmony with one another through the encouragement we have in the body of Christ.
For whatever discussion we may have and whatever disagreement may arise, we know that Christ is coming again in glory to deliver us into paradise. As we continue on this Advent road, we remember that its end is not found in the manger of Christmas. Neither is it found at the foot of the cross or in the empty tomb. Our Lord will come again, and when he does all other differences between us will fade into meaningless oblivion. All disagreements will cease to matter as we enter side by side into the new and perfect creation. That is the end that is awaiting us all. Until that day, as you and I continue to walk side by side as the People of Zion, may the God of endurance and encouragement grant us to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together we may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
 Luke 21:27
 Romans 3:10
 Romans 3:23
 Romans 5:8
 Galatians 2:20
 Ephesians 4:4-6
 Romans 15:5-6
 Romans 15:5-6