Philippians 1::3 I thank my God every time I remember you, 1:4 constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, 1:5 because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. 1:6 I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. 1:7 It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. 1:8 For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. 1:9 And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight
1:10 to help you to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless,
1:11 having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.
Every three years this passage from Paul’s letter to his Philippian friends comes up as part of the lectionary scripture schedule for the second Sunday of Advent. And every three years I wonder, “Why?” Are not Advent and Christmas about the wondrous workings of God on the grand scale of human and cosmic history, to bring about the fulfillment in creation of all of God’s purposes and promises through Jesus? Are not Advent and Christmas about apocalyptic signs and wonders in heaven and on earth? By “apocalyptic” I mean the revealing of God’s power and purposes in heaven and on earth. That’s what Advent Bible readings and messages are usually about: unveiling the big picture of God’s surprising work in the world.
What then do Paul’s very personal expression of love and fondness for a few Philippian Christians have to do with all the usual, prophetic and apocalyptic Bible prayers and passages of the Advent season? Couldn’t we save words like, “I thank my God every time I remember you,” and “you hold me in your heart,” and “God is my witness, how I long for all of you…” for, say, membership covenant renewal Sunday, or Christian World Fellowship Sunday, or Mutual Aid Sunday? How is this private, personal expression of love and friendship an Advent/Christmas season passage?
Well, it helps to have just come back from Africa, where Don and Kelly and I just went to be living expressions of the kind of care and affection for others which Paul expressed toward his Philippian friends. It helps also to have just visited people who greeted us, hosted us, honored us and sent us back with expressions of love and appreciation just as warm as the words we just heard. And those recent experiences opened my eyes to the Advent/Christmas connection with Paul’s kind and affectionate words to his Philippian friends. I better understand now how such love and communion in Christ are indeed apocalyptic signs of God’s cosmic work of redemption in this world on a scale just as grand as angels singing to shepherds, and wise men showing up with gifts from the East. Otherwise, if those first signs and wonders of Christmas were the last signs and wonders of Christmas, what would be the point?
Here’s why I say that such love, fellowship and friendship are in themselves apocalyptic signs of God at work: Philippi was as alien to Paul and his upbringing as West Africa is to us. Philippi was a Roman colony, so many of Paul’s Gentile Christian friends in Philippi would have been of the very class and kind of people who had occupied and oppressed Paul’s Jewish people for so long. That sounds like a setup for endless cycles of hatred, violence and vengeance. There was plenty of that between Jew and Gentile in the First Century AD. And no one knew how to stop that macabre merry-go-round and get off it. It would lead to all-out war in just a few years after these words were written. How much then Paul and any Roman colonist in Philippi should not have loved nor cared for each other.
The same could be said for your three travelers and the people of Burkina Faso. There could well have been enmity and antagonism between us and them. Some might even say there should have been, given the long and loathsome history between us. After all, it was not that long ago that people of those same tribes and families were kidnapped, shipped and sold as slaves here in the Western hemisphere, where their descendants still often live as second-and-third class citizens. One Burkinabe man asked me if there really were black people in America, like he had heard. When I told him Yes, there are, and then explained why and how that came about, he looked visibly shocked and stricken. I had to convince him that I, a white person, was just as distressed by that history as he was.
What’s more, most of the first white people whom the people of present-day Burkina Faso ever saw were armed invaders from France, soldiers in armies of colonial conquest, who brutally subjugated them, exploited their resources, and played the local tribes off against each other. This history has left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
Don’t dismiss all that as just “history.” Everywhere in this world, it seems, ancient and long-standing prejudices, grudges and conflicts between tribes, nations and peoples are raising their heads again. Debts from generations past, of slavery, genocide, conquest and colonialism keep coming due even among us descendants who did not personally participate in such things. In our hothouse partisan political climate today, there are identities and ideologies that require enemy identities and ideologies to fear and to fight to the death. Without such enemies, without such life-or-death, winner-take-all conflict, they have no reason for being, like antifa and Patriot Prayer. Must it be that everyone is doomed to be locked forever into some wrestling match to the death, which no one can quit, and yet, from which no one can emerge a winner for long?
In such a world, any expressions of peace, friendship, fellowship and love between people with such vast differences and painful histories would themselves constitute miraculous signs and wonders on a scale matching angels breaking into the night sky near Bethlehem to sing to startled shepherds, and a strange new star that led Eastern magi to the Christ child. And that’s precisely what Don, Kelly and I witnessed and experienced last month: signs and wonders that stem from the signs and wonders we celebrate this Advent and Christmas season. Those signs and wonders included the worship, the fellowship, the food, the love, the hospitality and the friendship we shared with our friends and family of faith in Burkina Faso, when all the cultural differences between us, and everything about the brutal history of slavery and colonialism, past and present, would seem to make that impossible, you’d think.
But the coming of Christ, the Prince of Peace, has opened the door to happier alternative endings to all the sad and tragic stories of estrangement, oppression and violence between people.
Such reconciliation between such different and estranged peoples is one miraculous sign and wonder. There’s another, which Paul mentioned to his Philippian friends, and which we also witnessed in Burkina Faso last month, when he wrote, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” When Paul was writing, that miraculous sign and wonder was the growth of the Philippian church, growth in spiritual life and giftedness, growth in leadership capacity, growth in character and maturity, and probably numbers, too. That miracle stems also from the coming of Christ, sharing our flesh, so that all sorts of people might share God’s Spirit.
Don, Kelly and I saw the same miraculous kind of growth of the Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso, growth in giftedness, in numbers and in leadership capacity. The God who began a good work with the start of the Mennonite Church there 40 years ago is continuing it toward completion, on the day of Jesus Christ’s return.
Thirty years ago, we and our fellow missionaries there had long meetings discussing and praying and wringing our hands about how and where we might find more evangelists, church planters and linguists to fulfill our vision of having Bible translations and church planters in each of the dozen or so ethnic and linguistic groups in the southwest corner of Burkina Faso. If we got all those foreign workers—which looked doubtful—we would also then need school teachers and house parents for all their children, including our own. We would also need some administrative help for all the legalities and the paperwork related to being foreigners. People weren’t exactly lining up to leave Canada, the US or France to join us in such work.
But then a local church leader, Siaka Traore, said, “Yours is a good vision for mission work here.” Then he asked, “But why do all the workers for it have to be foreigners?”
Oh, duh! Could it be that, in our zeal to be non-colonialistic and to reach every people group in their own tribal, maternal language and cultures, we were unconsciously guilty of another kind of colonialism? That of thinking ourselves to be indispensable? Because of the education, the wealth and the power that we had as white North Americans and Europeans? I confess that the thought of not being indispensable to the work of God in Burkina Faso troubled me a bit at the time.
At that point, there were four Mennonite churches in the Province of Kenedougou. There were two Burkinabe leaders we might call, pastors; the rest were farmers and business people who doubled as church leaders, but who were only a little bit ahead of other church leaders in terms of Biblical literacy and the ability to read and write.
Yet the Spirit of God was no less present and powerful in them. As St. James puts it: “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?” (James 2:5).
Years later, Don and Kelly and I met, worshiped, sang, ate and even danced a bit (or, at least, we tried to) with people from the 25 Mennonite churches and growing in Burkina Faso, and with fifteen pastors and more in training. Some of them have formal Master’s level seminary degrees, the same as mine, but in French. Others have a basic Bible college education, in the Jula language. Our friend Fabe Traore is working on a Ph.D. in linguistics. The Burkinabe wife of Pastor Joseph Sinou–Eve is her name—is studying linguistics at the University in Ouagadougou, so that together they might relocate among an unreached tribal and linguistic group in their country, to plant churches and translate the Bible.
But the Spirit of God is doing more than getting people titles and degrees. In one church we visited, we learned that the major force for evangelization in the area is women, without formal education or even literacy. Though unable to read or write, they are learning the Bible through messages that their pastor gives, in their maternal, tribal languages, and through Bible-based songs that they learn from other Christians, or that the Holy Spirit inspires among them. Not only are they sharing their faith powerfully and convincingly, they are enduring against ridicule, opposition, even persecution, often from within their own families, sometimes even from their own husbands.
The growth that we witnessed, in numbers, leadership, power and maturity in the Mennonite Church of Burkina Faso, only confirmed the wisdom of Siaka’s question: “Why do all the workers for this vision have to be foreigners?” In the thirty years since, my initial disquiet at the thought that maybe I am not indispensable to the work of God has changed to satisfaction and appreciation, even to joy and gratitude. What has proven true in Burkina Faso has proven true everywhere else I have ministered: It’s a privilege to be useful and helpful; it’s a privilege to be present and welcome, to be there and to see God at work. But only God is indispensable; that burden of indispensability is off my shoulders, as well as those of anyone else. What a relief!
If God can use our love, our friendship, our presence, our prayers and our humanly impure, imperfect and incomplete efforts in the work of God in this world, that alone is gift and privilege beyond anything we can merit or imagine. Maybe God getting that lesson through my head is another miraculous sign and wonder.
It’s a privilege like that of the shepherds around Bethlehem on the night of Christ’s birth. They were present, but they weren’t indispensable to God’s miraculous signs and wonders. They simply received the gift of being there, and of being included in on God’s wondrous work, to encourage others who are in the thick of it. Being with the church again in Burkina Faso was also a privilege and a blessing, like that of the magi who got to see the Christ child and to bring him gifts. They were supportive, helpful and useful, but they were not indispensable. And it’s a privilege like what Paul describes, when he says, “for all of you share in God’s grace with me……because of our sharing in the gospel.”
Such expressions of affection and appreciation were especially evident as we took our leave. In much of West Africa, whenever it is time to turn homeward, you don’t just look at your watch and say, “Well, time’s a’ wasting and I need to get moving along.” A visitor is in submission to his host. So you say, “We are asking for the road now.”
Your host may then say to everyone else around, “Our visitors are asking for the road.” At which time someone may say, “The road is not given.” Perhaps they have prepared some food for us, or they have a message for us to take, or something to deliver. If not, then the host says, “The road is given.” He may even quote the proverb that says, “the one who comes is also the one who goes,” or, “whenever we see anyone’s face, we know that will also see the back of their head.”
The people from whom we took leave also say: “You have undertaken a long and tiring journey to come see us. That pleases us greatly. May God reward you.”
To which we all say, Amina!
Then they’d say, “We also thank your people back home where you came from who permitted you to leave and come see us. When you get back home, greet and thank them for us.”
To which the guest replies, “They will hear it.”
Then your host might add, “Tell your friends, families and neighbors that we give thanks to God every day because we are yet here, even today, by the grace of God. And we ask you all not to forget us. Please keep praying for us, as we will continue to pray for you. Because, in the faith of Jesus, we are ‘same mother, same father’. And if we offended you in any way, please forgive us.”
To which we could reply: “There is no problem. If anything, you have honored us so much more than we deserve! And wherever you got all that you gave us, may God replenish it many fold.”
To which our hosts say, “Amina!”
The guests may add, “And please forgive us as well for anything we might have done or said that hurt.”
“As for us, no, there is no offense,” you hope your host says. Then they add: “May God give you a good/safe return; may you find your people in peace.”
Please reply with me: Amina!
“So, now we shall put you on the road,” says the host before he walks you out the gate and down the road a way.
The last parting words may be: “May God bring us back together some day.”
And everyone says: Amina!
“Whether here, on earth, or above, before the Lord’s throne, we will meet again some day.”
The expected response to that is: “May God show us that day!”[unison: Amina!]