Advent Tragedy: What To Expect From God After Sandy Hook
(This is the text of the sermon I prepared for today, the Sunday following the slaughter of the innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newton, Connecticut. At first, I changed what I was planning to preach when these events took place. Joy in the midst of such a tragedy seemed misplaced. Then I remembered that, as Christians, we aren't called to be joyful only in the good times. The following is the summary of my own struggle to understand my calling as a Christian in the face of such evil. )
"Rejoice in the Lord always;
again I will say, rejoice.
Let your gentleness
be known to everyone.
The Lord is near.
Do not worry about anything,
but in everything by prayer and supplication
let your requests be made known to God.
And the peace of God,
which surpasses all understanding,
will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
Paul, writing from prison, The Letter to the Philippians 4:4-7, NRSV
Joy in the midst of grief. Peace that knows no understanding. Words. How do we live, as Christians, in the face of evil? How can faith help us when six and seven year old children are gunned down in a little town just like ours? How can we even talk about joy without sounding like simpletons, and insensitive ones, at a time like this? There are so many questions we cannot answer. So many emotions.
Trying to Make Sense Out of the Senseless
The natural human instinct is to cry out against our maker when tragedy strikes. We need someone to blame and it seems that God has broad shoulders and can carry that blame. In the midst of tragedy and disaster, there are few true atheists. We may be angry at God, but we tend not to deny God’s existence when the rubber meets the road and we are tested beyond our ability to cope. We may curse God, but at least we’re communicating. When something happens like what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Friday, we need our faith, we need God, because the absence of God would make an already senseless tragedy even worse.
One of the things we do as grieving human beings is try to find purpose and meaning in the death of our loved ones. We do this in various ways. Sometimes we tell ourselves, and others, that it was God’s will. We say this because then the death of our loved one becomes a piece of a great puzzle, one we aren’t really meant to be able to piece together, but a plan with God’s intention’s written all over it. This can be comforting, but I would never say this to someone who was grieving.
Another thing we do is fixate on heaven, on the afterlife as vindication for all of our suffering here on earth. Our loved one may be gone, but we will meet again someday in the presence of God. This can also be very comforting in the midst of tortuous grief, but I wouldn’t say it to a parent who has just found out that his first grade daughter has been killed.
Another way we attempt to find sense in the midst of horror is by saying that what was meant for evil, God will turn to good. The words even fail on our lips as we say them. Like Job, whose family and fortune were replenished after everything was taken from him, it isn’t enough. Even if we believe it, it doesn’t help, and I couldn’t say it as I looked into the eyes of a grief stricken mother or spouse.
The Human Condition
Can the slaughter of children ever be God’s will? No. Saying that it is part of God’s plan, or that we should only be concerned with the afterlife and not this one, or promising that God will bring good from the bad just seems insensitive to me at a time like this.
We are human beings, created in the image of God. Becoming truly human is what God intends for us. So much so, that God condescended to be born into the world, into history as a human being, subject to all the suffering that we experience.
Jesus was fully human. The essence of the true humanity, growing to experience human suffering, joy, pain, heartbreak, and death. All parts of a finite life, authentically lived. God wants life for us, God certainly wanted life for those children, and God knows we live in the midst of death. Our world is broken. Thus says the Lord through the prophet Jeremiah:
"A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more."
God knows that tragedy and disaster are part of our existence. Individual and systemic sin has made us less human and God works continually, through the Spirit of Christ, to chip away the inhumanity and reveal what lies beneath it, our true selves, fully human.
Joy In a Good Friday World
So, how can we be joyful in this season of Advent which will always be remembered as the time that a masked and armed young man entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and brutally murdered twenty young children, and six adults? How do we bear witness? It is too soon for resurrection, it is only Good Friday. The sky is still black and stormy. There will be three long days before we see resurrection. For now, we have only the meantime.
I can’t fake joy. I don’t know about you, but I can’t. Doing so at a time like this would be absurd. But today I am joyful in a way that passes all understanding. I’m going to try to understand, though, for your sake and mine. I’ll try to bear witness because the gift is being revealed to us even now. Isaiah prophesied:
the young woman is with child
and shall bear a son,
and shall name him Immanuel.”
God With Us
This is the season of Immanuel, which means God-with-us. This birth of Immanuel into humanity gives me great comfort and joy. No matter how bad things get, and we’ve seen that they can get very bad, God is with us. God is with us, experiencing the depth of grief that we feel at this most horrifying tragedy.
God’s presence with us doesn’t mean that we will not suffer. We are human. Suffering is part of the package. But God weeps with us. God comforts us.
No, God’s presence with us doesn’t mean that we will not suffer. It means that we will never suffer alone. I believe that is a good enough reason for joy. And I believe we are called to bear witness to this joy in our grieving world.
Is God's presence comforting to you?
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