Living Between Advents: Immanuel by Rev. canon francis Omondi
We are called to live between Advents. Christ’s first coming which we celebrate every Christmas (First Advent) should give us a great sense of preparedness for the Second Advent. Meanwhile the Advent promise should sustain us in the in-between period with its great pressures. Here is the promise: God is with us, so that we might live. God is with us, so that we might believe. God is with us, because it is hard to believe, and God knows it!
We come into this year’s Advent season grieving. The brutal killing on Saturday 22nd November of 28 people and again on Tuesday 2nd December of 36 Christians in Mandera at the hands of Alshabaaab has shocked and frightened us. Here were Christians who had selflessly served the Muslim community, giving essential services mainly in education and health, whose dream of joining family for Christmas was cruelly cut off. These tragedies do test our trust with the Advent promise.
The promise of Immanuel was GIVEN to a reluctant king Ahaz of Judah in his crisis of faith. It is a story of national crisis and a king’s gut-wrenching fear. Here is the story:
Two neighbours to the north: Israel, with its capital in Samaria and Syria, with its capital in Damascus, are forming a coalition. Their kings, Pekah and Rezin, are vassals of the mighty Assyria. They have surrendered tribute, dignity, and human life. They want to put off the yoke of oppression. They press Ahaz to join them and commit Judah’s armies to their rebellion. He refuses. They respond with aggression. The year is 734 BCE the troops of Israel and Syria invade Judah (cf. 2 Kings 16:5). The prophet Isaiah shows Ahaz the future. God has already decreed against their plan and they will disappear from the pages of history. Only one thing only is needed. Believe. The call to faith is hard to answer. God knows that if he (God) stops talking, Judah doesn’t have a chance. The power of God would be too incredible to believe if there weren’t signs of it everywhere.
But there is tension in Ahaz. He must make political judgments that will lead to national security, health and life. External threats to national security seem to require military or diplomatic resolutions. Alliances with foreign nations might lead to worship of their gods. Seeking help from nations more powerful than Judah might signal lack of faith in Judah’s God. He is caught in the horns of dilemma.
Ask a sign of me, says God (Isaiah 7:11). Anything. What can you imagine? Lift your face, lift your mind, lift your hope upward, and I will show you a sign there in the sky. “And the Lord kept talking to Ahaz (Isaiah 7:10).
In an apparent act of faith Ahaz refuses both to ask for a sign nor to join the alliance with Israel and Syria. On the surface the refusals sounds righteous, but Isaiah sees through Ahaz’s pretence of faith and calls him out of his unbelief (cf. Isaiah 1:14). He seeks a practical option, Ahaz already has a plan and does not want to believe. It is easier to sell himself to Assyria than to wait for salvation from God. But God still gives even when we will not ask. “Therefore the Lord will give a sign to you.” It is a sign of salvation. It is still a sign of God’s power to save. It is a security for every promise, even when faith fails.
Look, says Isaiah. “Here: a virgin is pregnant, and she is giving birth to a son. And she will call his name ‘God is with us’” (7:14). This unprecedented miracle should have convinced Ahaz of God’s ability and power to rescue Judah. The mention of this name in the land should be the ground of all life and hope: God is with us.
Malcolm Muggeridge, the cynical British journalist who found faith in his later years, rightly admonishes us that: “Every happening, great and small, is a parable whereby God speaks to us, and the art of life is to get the message.” We should look at our persistent challenges here in this light. We live in the trauma of survival, uncertain of what awaits us. There seems not to be an end of this in sight.
Survival is a privilege which entails obligations. We must find for ourselves as survivors how to do our duty. Is there a way I can be a mouthpiece of those who did not survive, I want to keep their memory alive, to make sure the dead live on in that memory thereby seeking justice and not vengeance.
I firmly believe that God is calling us to walk the parallel rails of deeper awareness of the trauma and pain of terror on one hand and deeper resolve for progress on the other. Side by side God can use these two rails to propel us to a hopeful future of this country.
The daily death of our brothers and sisters has laid open these wounds of terrible pain. One could have been lulled into initially seeing this as a news story within a news cycle. It is not and it will continue. As a matter of fact today 2nd Dec, 36 more Christian quarry workers were brutally murdered 15km from Mandera. These massacres force us to see that in reality this is an old story within a recurring cycle.
In the images of the 28 bodies and today’s 36, it is too easy to project a son, a husband, a neighbour, and a colleague. They are rested with God and await the Second Advent. While who are grieving we still need to say with a strong voice that we recognize our country needs to be roused to better listen, to more fully understand, and to more deeply mourn. Living in Advent will ridicule the terrorists since our faith defies toucher and death. He promised persecution to his followers, because he himself was persecuted. For us now “Christian living” will be boldly living a life for Christ in the face of death.
Hopefully as we grow as a multi-religious mosaic and we will see things more clearly and feel things more deeply.
Debating whether the killers are true Muslims or not, is not a fruitful line of argument. We may not dispute Alshabaab’s own claim to be Muslims and they have been motivated by Islamic teaching and history. It is true that Muslims opposed to Alshabaab are equally in danger. On 8 December 2012, the Kamakunji MP Yusuf Hasan of Somali heritage was injured, together with several others in a blast in an Eastleigh mosque, having been deemed a hinderance to Alshabaab agenda. We do know also that the selective and deliberate killing of Christians is a piercing reminder that we are disproportionately more likely to be killed than our Somali and Muslim counterparts. Muslims of this country have been peaceful and have lived harmoniously with non-Muslims in all corners of this country. But these latest atrocities has left us puzzled and seeking to know the truth.
We should note that the aggression on Kenya this time is external, under the hands of Alshabaab from Somalia. We need to be wary of the development of these networks within Kenya. Crisis Group Briefings reports of 24-September 2014 [Kenya; Alshabaab closer home] and of June [Somalia; Al-shababaab, pp7-8] points to a growing movement which has led to crisis within Islam; “the steady entrenchment Wahabbism in the Muslim constituency in Kenya which ‘has certainly brought tension between older ‘Muslim’ elites who are closer to the Kenyan establishment, and the new, more politically assertive and outward- looking ‘Islamist’ ulama (scholars and religious authorities). The routine argument is that the growing influence of Wahhabism has provided the ideological groundwork for the progression to violent activism.’”
This report elaborates that “Ideological differences are increasingly acute and (partially) reflect the growth of Wahhabism (an orientation of Salafism) at the expense of traditional orientations – often termed ‘Sufism’ – especially in north-east Kenya and on the coast (arguably where Sufism was more entrenched). Wahhabism’s core message is an implicitly political critique of the secular, nation-state government and while it does not preach violence per se, it informs much of the core theological outlook of the Salafi-jihadi trend, including al-Qaeda.”
Whether one could link these directly though is moot and sharply divides opinions. We have demanded to see a more common Kenyan Muslim stance on the extremist action. The fact that mosques can be taken over from within by extremist groups, should solicit action of mainstream Kenyan Muslim organisations, so that their message should hold appeal has wider significance for county and national government.
This however is not without its challenges. Some Wahhabi clerics have spoken out against Al-shabaab at great personal risk to themselves. Sheikh Mohamed Abdi Umal a rare Salafi-Wahhabi ulama, a popular and prominent Somali cleric based in Eastleigh received death threats from Al-Shabaab after issuing a fatwa (judicial opinion) that decried the Westgate attack and declared it haram (unlawful). In a 14 May 2014 speech, the then Al-Shabaab emir, Ahmed Abdi Godane, called on Muslims in Kenya to ignore what he called ‘evil scholars’.
In the soul-searching taking place throughout the country, there are hints that this could be a defining moment for the second rail: namely greater resolve for progress. We who have borne the brunt of victimisation because of faith must avoid the temptation of collective guilt on the Muslim population in this country. While opposing the the World Jewish Congress’ threats of unpleasant consequences for all Austrians in case Kurt Waldheim were elected the country’s president in 1987, Simon Wiesenthal, expressed his conviction on individual guilt and utter rejection of collective guilt or threats.
He said, “It took quite a long time – maybe a year – before I could bring myself to reject the idea of collective guilt. You must understand. When you come out of the concentration camp and see that no one is still alive – you don’t take the time to really think things over. At that time I felt that everyone was guilty, including those who were not involved at all, even those in other countries, who had been indifferent because they were not bothered by the Nazis themselves.” [In Zeugen des Jahrhunderts. Jüdische Lebenswege, p.78. Trans. from German.]
Collective threats are incompatible with our Christian ethics: they ignore the fact that these very Christians have been victims of collective threats and collective accusations. We must believe only in individual guilt, not in collective guilt and I share this opinion with the whole civilised world.There is no justice without the truth. We should never accuse anyone to aid terrorism without being in possession of conclusive evidence of his/her guilt in the form of witness testimonies or other documentation.
Let us move in our imaginations to Carthage, in the year 410. When St. Augustine received the news that Rome, the great Rome, has been sacked and the barbarians had taken over, his first thought was to reassure his flock. “If this catastrophe is indeed true,” he told them, “it must be God’s will. Men build cities and men destroy cities, but the City of God they didn’t build and cannot destroy. The Heavenly City,” he continues, “outshines Rome beyond comparison. There, instead of victory, is truth; instead of high rank, holiness; instead of peace, felicity; instead of life, eternity….. Thus we come to see that in our fallen state, our imperfection, we can conceive perfection. Immanuel, the presence of God among us in the lineaments of Man, we have a window in the walls of time, which looks out onto this Heavenly City.”
There is much more to the story of Immanuel. It is our story too. I invite you to open up to how this proclamation reveals the persistence of our God who knows how we struggle with faith and will give any sign, any grace, to help us believe and live.