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The following sermon, by Katie Shaw Thompson co-pastor of the Ivester Church of the Brethren, was delivered on December 16, 2012. With clear pastoral insight, Katie places the then recent tragedy at Sandy Hook within the season of Advent.
Instead of the words of John the Baptist, I feel moved to bring you a different scripture reading this morning. This scripture is part of the Christmas story that is understandably often skipped over.
It is also a verse that flew around the internet and Facebook after the tragic events at Sandy Hook Elementary School.These words are all too relevant for the grief experienced by so many.
Mathew 2: 16-19
When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated,and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: ’A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; She refused to be consoled, because they were no more.’
Sometimes I can read this passage and let it be something that happened far away a long time ago, or maybe never, maybe just another part of a great story. But not today. Now, after the news of yet another shooting I read this text and it hits close. Too close.
I don’t think you need to have an 11-week old son at home to feel how wrong, wrong, wrong this story is and how wrong, wrong, wrong the terrible violence that occurred at Sandy Hook elementary school was.
As the president said in his address,
Our hearts are broken today — for the parents and grandparents, sisters and brothers of these little children, and for the families of the adults who were lost. Our hearts are broken for the parents of the survivors as well, for as blessed as they are to have their children home tonight, they know that their children’s innocence has been torn away from them too early, and there are no words that will ease their pain.
Our hearts are also broken because we are reminded once more just how real evil and suffering are in this world. My heart is broken and my stomach is turned that any human being could massacre innocent children, whether it is a man in Connecticut, or Herod, or Pharaoh.
I wish that I could pretend I didn’t believe that God’s peace and forgiveness could extend to men like that. My heart is broken and my stomach is turned at the thought that those could have been children that I know and love.
I wish that I could have some guarantee that I could keep my baby safe from violence of any kind. It would be easy in times like these for parents like me to be tempted to want to deadbolt our doors seal up our windows, and keep the world away from our children.
Yet, we know we cannot. And we know that to do so, would be to let evil win. To do so, would be to let murderers win.
In my New Interpreter’s commentary on this passage of Matthew, one wise scholar writes: “God does not will these deaths, but until God’s empire is established in full, rulers will do such things.”
I would add that those who seek power over others by violence will do such things, until God’s empire is established in full. I do not believe that God willed this terrible tragedy in Connecticut or that God willed that long ago terrible tragedy in Bethlehem.
But I do believe that God is in the midst of those tragedies. God walks right in and sits beside Rachel as she wails, and God mourns too. I do believe that God is a God big enough to hold all kinds of grief. I do believe that God is the spirit that ignites a spark of hope, and love, and yes, even joy, in the midst of the greatest darkness.
It would be easy in times like these for Christians like me not to want to light the joy candle. But it is precisely in times like these that we must. For in lighting the candle of joy even in the midst of grief we declare that joy will come again.
We declare that violence and hatred and suffering do not get the last word. It is precisely in times like these that we need all the celebration of Christmas. Not to celebrate with superficial smiles and shallow warmth, but rather with defiant cheers and tearful gratitude.
That is the true spirit of Christmas, That is the message of Christ.
No matter how dark the night,the light of Christ is brighter. No matter how terrible the violence, the peace of Christ is stronger. No matter how hot the hatred, the love of Christ is warmer. THAT is indeed something to celebrate!
At the beginning of this week I heard songwriter Tracey Thorn’s new Christmas album, I was particularly caught by her the words of her song entitled simply, Joy.
“When someone very dear,
calls with the words everything’s all clear.
It’s what you want to hear.
But you know it might be different in the new year.
That’s why, that’s why, we hang the lights so high.
You loved it as a kid
And now you need it more than you ever did
Its because of the dark
We see the beauty in the spark.
So light the winter fire
and watch as the flames go higher.
We’ll gather up our fears
and face down the coming years,
and all that they destroy
and in their face we’ll throw out JOY.”
It is important to take time to grieve and not to simply glaze over difficulties and pain. Yet, experts tell us that re-establishing some routine and order is important after trauma to re-establish a sense of safety and normalcy.
Even in the midst of their grieving a local church in Newtown, CT did just that. They held a live nativity service Saturday re-enacting that first Christmas night. Their celebration in the midst of grieving flies in the face of all the evil, suffering, and pain they continue to experience and reminds us all of light that is stronger than any darkness.
So we must celebrate with joy this Christmas, not with superficial smiles and shallow cheer, but with faithful warmth and tearful gratitude.
So, muster all the joy you can this season and invite someone to share it with you. For I find joy is grown and amplified when we share it with others, when I see it in the eyes of children or in the eyes of someone who needed it badly this season.
This need to witness to the joy, this need to share and amplify joy is why we tell children about Santa Claus. Its why we give presents, and prepare meals and go caroling, to share joy with others.
We light the joy candle on our advent wreath this week
In defiance of all that is dark and evil in this world.
In defiance of suffering.
May the spark of Christ shine brightly in our hearts this season despite the darkness of our world.
May it be so. Amen.
Katie is a 2012 graduates of Bethany Theological Seminary. She is co-pastor of the Ivester Church of the Brethren along with her husband Parker.