Those gathered here today infrequently or perhaps visiting because of the season might be a bit taken aback by our liturgy. I know a number of people have stopped me at the Putnam, called/e-mailed me at home, and brought up the events at Watertown this past Friday before the service today. The proclamations of our liturgy might seem a bit incongruous with the tragic events of the CT shooting. Some 19 or 20 children have lost their lives, as have six or so adults charged with educating those kids. Why on earth would we gather as a worshipping community and light the candle of love? And should we not have chosen readings more appropriate to the events? After all, if children are being shot in their classroom by adults, the last thing we should be doing is proclaiming love. And who wants to read about a brood of vipers? We should be reading more about God’s comfort, should we not?
In answer to the first question, the question about our proclamation of love in the lighting of the third candle of Advent, there are at least two good reasons to light that candle and proclaim its significance. One, we are a liturgical church. That means, among other things, that our calendar is set long before the events in our life occur. Our liturgy reminds us that darkness is always trying to overcome the Light that has come into the world, Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. Our lectionary and seasons move us along, rather than allow us to dwell on subjects that we might explore for months. Secondly, though, and perhaps more significantly, we are reminded that the Nativity--the Silent Night and The Frost lay on the Ground night--are not the entire picture of the Incarnation. In fact, one of my favorite memes on Facebook this week is one that declares “Jesus was born into a war zone.”
Truer words have never been spoken. We might like to think that the massacre of children is a modern painful experience, but Romans and their enemies experienced such events far too often. We might like to think that the looming fiscal cliff, and its accompanying economic chaos if our leaders cannot agree on taxes and spending cuts, is a new anxiety, experienced only by two party democratic modern systems of government, but the people in the Empire would snort in derision at our claimed uniqueness. We might like to think that terrorism and warfare are a new phenomenon, as is the accompanying worry and fear for life, but both Romans and those outside the Empire would claim to be empathetic to our claims about those evils. Throw in random natural disasters like storms and droughts and diseases, and throw in the effort to understand which god or goddess in the Pantheon is exerting his or her will through those disasters, and you get a sense of the period into which Jesus was born. Don’t believe me? Think on this . . .
Augustus has settled all questions of succession and expanded the Empire to the point that he can sit back and take stock of tax receipts. Upon reflection he notices that taxes are low when compared to the rolls of the last estimates of the population within the Empire. So, he declares a census and forces everyone to head to their hometown to be registered so that he can make sure he is receiving all revenue due him. There will be very few exemptions granted. Those crippled and blind will have to find people to carry or to lead them to their hometowns. Even women who are nine months pregnant (and their husbands) will be unable to get out of this requirement. We who think the looming fiscal cliff is bad can only imagine how it would have felt to be nine months pregnant and forced to walk to DeKalb or maybe Grinnell to have the privilege of being taxed appropriately. But that is the world into which Jesus is born. And as much as we might like to think that things change, in reality, they are often the same.
Jesus entered the world with the purpose of reminding the people of the world that they were wonderfully fashioned by their Creator and loved incredibly by their Father in heaven. John 3:16 might be the most pithy statement of this purpose, but it is by no means the only statement or story of that love He bears us. That God would enter a world so besought by the consequences of those whom He created to redeem a people who do not recognize nor want Him is a testimony to the love of God and to the absolutely incredible lengths to which He is willing to go to restore us to Him. To be sure, that restoration will involve His death, and terrible pain and suffering before that, but it is an amazing thing to gather here as His people and reflect on the love exhibited in the Incarnation some 2000 years later in the middle of the midwest in the midst of such tragedies. Why? Because as people are seeking to place blame in events in our collective lives--blaming guns, blaming bad parenting, blaming violent video games, blaming somebody who buzzed in a killer, blaming mental illness, and blaming whatever else you may have heard that I have forgotten--we know the real cause, and we know that God Himself entered the world to make it possible that you and I and all who would hear the message of His coming into the world would know that the sin and selfishness which is the ultimate cause of such events has already been dealt with on the cross that ends His time as the Incarnation on earth.
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath might not be the words of comfort that we wanted to hear today, but are there any words, outside of the story of the slaughter of the Innocents, more appropriate? You see, while the world is looking to place blame for the events in CT, the shootings out west, and any other seeming senselessness in the world, you and I can gather here and celebrate in the season of Advent that God has judged and will finally judge the world one day. Those words of promised judgment by God give us hope when there is hopelessness. Why? Because John points directly to Jesus. When the people ask Him if He is the messiah, he says he is unworthy to untie the thong of the one coming. Why? Because he knows he needs to repent as well. Except for his willingness to repent, John the Baptist is little different from Herod. John understands that it is Jesus’ mission to deal with sin. The exultation and joy proclaimed in Zephaniah this morning can only be ultimately fulfilled when the sin has been removed from God’s people. The people who seek to be baptized into John’s repentance can be sorry for their sins and hardness of heart, but only Christ’s baptism will be able to create in them the hearts that God desires. John knows this, as should we.
Practically speaking, such understanding ought to make us stand out during events such as this. On the one hand, we as Christians ought not be participating in the blame game for these tragedies. We know the cause: sin. We also know the cure: Christ’s flesh and blood given and shed for us. Those on the outside might be tempted to vilify the perpetrator of this tragedy, and he is ultimately responsible for his actions, but those of us gathered here this day can never forget that nothing really separates from him in God’s eyes, except that we have been washed in Christ’s sacrifice. All of us gathered here today know that we were in God’s eyes murders like the young man in CT. We have all hated and despised others, and we know from Christ’s teaching that such attitudes are murder in His eyes. So we internalize that understanding “there but for the grace of God go I.” When people ask us how we face such evil, why we are not hiding in Montana, why we are not arming ourselves against such evil, we can speak to the redemption we have experienced in our own lives! The only cure for what ails the world is Christ. The only protection against evil is the love and power of God. And that, like John’s other teachings, can give the world around us one of the greatest gifts God has given us: hope!
It might be arrogant for me to presume to understand John’s attitude, but having spent the day doing lego robots at the Putnam yesterday, I feel I was immersed in this reading. Being known as the community pastor or the human trafficking pastor means that I am sought out in public places in the wake of such tragedies. Where was God while this was going on? Why didn’t he hit the shooter with a lightning bolt if He really loves little kids and save them? Do you think it was his mental illness or something else that triggered this? My favorite questions, though, were the ones asking me how I live knowing that I have seven kids, anyone of whom could be killed in such a tragedy. Like any good parent, a Christian parent tries to protect his or her children to the best of his or her ability. But Christian parents should understand the trust that our Lord places in us when He blesses us with children. Our primary responsibility in relation to those children is to teach them that they are loved and have been redeemed by God. Some might think that our primary responsibility is provision or protection or encouragement of those children, and that is a significant part of parents’ obligation to their children; but our chief obligation is to teach them of the love that their Father in heaven bears for them. Why? Because everything we might think we can accomplish is an illusion. Life is, quite simply, too fragile for us to ensure. Death lingers over us at any time. None of us knows the when and none of us know the how. Disease, accidents, senseless violence, natural disasters--all can be an enemy of life. How can we ever hope to protect others perfectly when we cannot protect ourselves? None of those parents who sent their kids to school on Friday had any inclination they were sending them to their deaths. Friday morning was just like Thursday and Wednesday and Tuesday and a Friday in November and a Friday in October, just as it was for the loved ones of the adults killed. And yet, today, all find themselves in a situation of incredible grief, of seemingly unrelenting sorrow.
Who told you to flee the coming wrath?--It is, of course, at the grave where the rubber of our faith meets the road of reality. Those parents who believe Jesus is Lord understand the promise of the Resurrection. We might not be able to protect our children from every evil, but we know the One who can. We also know that if, in His inscrutable wisdom, He allows us or our children to face tragedy, He, and He alone, has the power and authority to redeem that tragedy. Even if we are separated by death, we know that in the end we will be united with our loved ones for all eternity with Christ. That, brothers and sisters, is the consolation of our faith! That, brothers and sisters, is why it is incumbent upon parents to teach their children of the saving works that He has done. Without the hope we have in Christ, there is only mourning, sadness, and emptiness.
As this week proceeds, I am sure the press will notice that some families will handle the stress and sadness better than others. My guess is that there will be both Christians and non Christians who now face the death of a loved one. One group will be singing alleluias even at the grave; the other will be left seeking meaning in the senseless. Perhaps, thanks to our relationship with Bryan and Paul, we will get to hear firsthand incredible stories of redemption. More likely, knowing Bryan, we will also get to hear incredible stories of those seeking to find the meaning behind it all, seeking an account of the joy that is in the heart of believers. Think I am nuts? Think on this: Is there anyone in the world who can better relate to parents who have lost a child than a pastor who has as well? And is there anyone better able to be heard than Bryan? Part of this entire story is that the seeds for His glory have already been sown. We can sit back, pray, and watch the growth bear fruit for God’s glory and further redemption in the lives of those whom He uses to tell His story in the face of such pain.
All of which brings me back to one of those first questions that seekers might be pondering: How can you be celebrating love at a time of this kind of violence? The peace we proclaim is not a simple ”let’s all get along,” a hippy dippy love fest in the sky. The love that we proclaim in the face of violence, in the face of death, in the face of hurt is the love of God. It is a reorientation from our will be down to His will be done. It is the utter trust and adoration of a young child. It is the emptying of ourselves and the trust that He will fill us with His Spirit and then use as to accomplish His will. One of the revelations of Scripture is that our Father in heaven loves us. We are His children. And though we sin and rebel, like the Father in the Prodigal Son parable, He is ever ready for us to return to Him and just as quick to embrace us. Better still, when He came among us as fully human, fully divine in the Incarnation, he reminded us that we needed to come to Him as children, trusting in His provision, goodness, and power to keep His promises and to do us good. In the midst of such tragedies it is imperative that we remind ourselves of that love in which He holds us, that love which caused Him to seek our redemption when we could not accomplish it ourselves, that love for each one of us that caused Him to lay down that life for our sake that we might be raised with Him to eternal life. Our Father in heaven, better than most of us gathered here today, knows the pain of losing a child. He knows the hurt, the anger, the anxiety, and the quest for meaning. But only He can give meaning; only He can redeem. Knowing all that, we come to him this day, praying Lord come again swiftly, kindle in us the light that shines in the darkness, and the love which conquers all.
Brothers and sisters, there will be other tragedies, some more personal and some more global in perspective. There will be deaths and diseases and wars and violent acts and other acts of rebellion. All, however, are held in His hand. All have already been redeemed. The cross reminds us every day of His love and commitment to us and His unwillingness to leave us to our own fate; and His empty tomb reminds us of His ultimate power to see us safely to Him. That is our hope, that is our message, that is the light which keeps us from dashing against the shores of darkness when violence like this rears its ugly head. Pray that, like John, we may point others in our lives to Him that they may share in His peace, His hope, and His love.