A preface: It's the reality of preaching that sometimes what you have prepared during the week just isn't going to fit come Sunday, especially when something major happens, either in the life of the community or the outer world. What I had already prepared just didn't seem to fit with what I was feeling this last weekend, and I know that there were people who needed to hear some words of hope about the death of those kids. So this is my "Saturday afternoon special."
During Sunday morning worship it felt like everything we did, every song we sang and word we spoke as a congregation had taken on a special meaning. Everything we did had taken on this weightiness, a deepness that felt like what we were doing was a matter of life and death (which it is, really). And in the end, it was deeply cathartic and healing, like something evil had been flushed from the air and we could now lift up our heads without fearing what we would see.
Anyway, here is what God used me to say:
Grace and peace to you from God our father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.
Today it’s hard to feel like celebrating. The Christmas lights are still going up, the cheerful holiday music is still playing, and the malls are still as packed as ever at this time of year. And yet, open any newspaper or log-in to any social media site and you cannot escape the horrible details of what happened two days ago in that school in Connecticut. The festive holiday carols seem to turn bitter in our mouths as we think about the families for whom this Christmas will be unthinkably heartbreaking.
Every death is tragic and a cause for sadness by family and friends. The death of a child is especially agonizing. But the death of children as victims of a senseless and violent act is nearly incomprehensible.
This tragedy rattles us to the very marrow of our trust in God; it penetrates to the very core of who we believe our God to be. It causes us to ask ourselves, how could a truly good God allow such a thing to happen to the most innocent and helpless among us?
There are no easy answers to be found. For countless centuries, we have been hurting and killing one another even as we have tried to understand why. And for just as long we have wondered why God doesn’t just get completely fed up with us and either turn us into do-gooder robots or completely leave us alone to destroy one another. Apparently God refuses to do either, and our best guesses can never adequately explain why.
But there is one thing we do know, one thing that we profess even in the midst of intense suffering and even despair - we cling to the hope that the Lord is near and is in our midst. And this is how we can rejoice even in the midst of tragedy. This is why we can still light our third candle, the joy candle, in our Advent wreath today.
In less than two weeks’ time, we will celebrate the birth of Jesus, our Lord and savior. On Christmas Eve we will be singing “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright,” and “joy to the world.” Truth be told, though, the world that Jesus was born into was not very joyful at all. The moments of calmness and brightness were few and far between. By this time the people of Israel had been under the subjugation of one empire or another for hundreds of years. Israel’s latest oppressors, the Roman Empire, enforced peace by their military might, and generally treated them as second-class citizens in their own country. Any other child born the same night as Jesus had a short and harsh life to look forward to, and that’s only if they succeeded in keeping their head down and doing what they were told. If they didn't, the punishment was brutal and fatal.
Things had not improved much by the time Jesus had grown up. The people still prayed that their messiah would come and deliver them from their bitter existence, to mightily kick the Romans out of their land and establish a great kingdom of their own. But I imagine that they were getting very tired of waiting by now. God had seemed to be silent for so long, they must have begun to wonder if God had indeed forgotten them. Then enter John the Baptist, stage right.
It’s not hard to see why the people began to think that John the Baptist might be their man, with his booming voice and fearless truth-telling. I would probably never be brave enough to begin a sermon: “You children of snakes!” But John had no fear. He was not afraid to call out the religious authorities on their hypocrisy. He was also not afraid to call out the immorality of those in power – and it is his critique of King Herod that lands him in prison and leads to his beheading later on.
John was not afraid because he knew that the Lord was near, and was in their very midst. When the people began to hope that John was the Messiah they had been hoping for, he immediately set them straight. John told them – you think what I’M doing is radical and life-changing? Just you wait! I’m only the warm-up act. The one coming after me is the main event, and because of him, EVERYTHING is going to change!
Fast forward two thousand years, and how much has really changed? For all of our modern marvels of technology, our breakthroughs in science, our fast travel and even faster means of communication, are we better off now? In many ways, yes, our lives have vastly improved compared to those in the past. But instead of being a slave to Caesar, we find ourselves slaves to consumerism. Instead of short lives of hardship, we are slowing dying of excess. Instead of physical isolation and separation, we now hide from ourselves and others inside our computers. And with all our technological prowess, we have also found more efficient and elaborate ways to hurt one another. In all this time, we have not really changed.
But in all this time, God has not changed either. And that’s a good thing. The faithfulness, the love, and the goodness of the Lord toward God’s people have remained the same, today, tomorrow, and always. The Lord is always near to us, and our God is always in our midst, even in the midst of pain and suffering. ESPECIALLY in the midst of pain and suffering.
God has always been in the thick of it with us. No amount of misery, no amount of self-destructive tendencies, no amount of violence could ever make God turn away from us. No life is too broken, no sorrow is too deep, no death is too tragic for God to be near.
To cut a young life short in such a violent way is a wrong beyond imagining. It is upsetting and infuriating. Be angry. Yes, even be angry at God. Shake your fists at the heavens and yell, even. “God, how could this happen?” But cling even tighter to the hope in the nearness of God, even if you are barely holding on by your fingertips. And hope even more boldly that violence cannot and will not triumph forever.
In the words of the prophet Zephaniah, our Lord is a warrior, but not one who wins victory for himself alone. Our Lord is a warrior, but one who saves the lame and gathers the outcast and makes them part of the community. Our Lord is a warrior who takes away shame, and restores, and renews. Our Lord is a warrior who does not use weapons or force, but instead reveals himself to us in the form of a helpless baby to show us that oppression and violence are unacceptable. Our Lord is a warrior of peace.
And this indeed is cause for rejoicing.
Though songs of praise may stick in our throats today, Zephaniah says that God sings for us even when find we cannot. Disasters can and will still come, but we do not need to fear them. A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.
At this time and in all times, I pray that the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.