Finding Joy?

Scripture: Isaiah 12:2-6

It Begins.

I had already written another sermon by the time I heard of the tragedy that took place at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

I intended to speak on the subject of Finding Joy, continuing my Advent series. But as the book of Ecclesiastes reminds us “For everything there is a season…a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance” (3:1, 4). Today, we weep and we mourn.

At 9:40 am on Friday, when the shooter forced his way into the Sandy Hook Elementary School, my daughter was in her kindergarden class here at Atchison Elementary. She is only a year younger than most of those who died on Friday. Her class is made up of 20 children, the same number as those children who were killed. And when I dropped her off that morning, I took it for granted that she would return home. But Friday, there were 20 children who did not return home.

And you know what? Despite the fact that Sandy Hook Elementary School is 1322 miles away (according to Google), I had to fight the urge to go and bring her home. I had to fight the parental reflex to protect, even in the most irrational of circumstances.

We kept our children close on Friday afternoon and evening, and we have every day since.

Because that whirlwind of emotion continues to grow and change.

Outrage at the shooting of innocents has been supplemented by outrage at the media. I still cannot believe that I saw interviews on Friday with other children who were at the school during the shooting. Really?!? Interviews with children?!? Haven’t they already been traumatized enough for one day?

And then came outrage at the talking heads who began the blame game. It’s the Republican’s fault for not allowing stricter gun control. It’s the Democrat’s fault for taking prayer out of schools. It’s America’s fault for not being a Christian nation.

Asking Why.

Everyone is asking why. But no one seems all that interested in listening for an answer to that question.

Before anyone has any time to actually reflect and try to answer that question, we jump from the question of “why” to the question of “what can we do to prevent it?” And the more I listen to people talking, the more I realize that “what can we do to prevent it from happening again?” is really just a dishonest way of asking, “how can I use this to my advantage?”

Because when I listen to the news, troll through the blogosphere, or check out my Facebook feed, that is really what I see. The people who have been lobbying for increased gun control are, not surprisingly, trying to use this tragedy to make their case. On the other end of the spectrum, those who have lobbied for increased carry permits are, also not surprisingly, claiming that their pet project could have prevented this tragedy. Preachers and proponents of prayer in schools are claiming that this has happened because we took prayer out of schools and forgotten our roots as a Christian nation. And of course those who are against video games have jumped on this too.

For all these people, the death of 28 innocents is just one more piece of evidence to put forward to prove they are right, just one more poker chip in the game of life, just one more tool to accomplish their agenda.

It is horrific.

It is not just the shooter who has taken and destroyed life. It is also every news commentator, preacher, Facebook poster, blog writer, or anyone else who wields this shooting in their own little war against the world.

How trite have we become? How selfish and self-centered? How is it that we have forgotten how to be human?

Because, somehow, I think that is at the root of it all: We have forgotten how to be human.

Answering Why.

The short answer to “why” has nothing to do with gun control or prayer; Republicans, Democrats, or even America. Tragedies like this one happen because there is evil in the world. Not—because we’re not praying in schools. Not—because we’re not a Christian nation. And certainly not—because God wills it.

The final battle has not yet been waged, and until then, another power exerts control in this world. You might call that power Satan or the Devil, but I call that power: cruelty, selfishness, hate, poverty, hostility, manipulation, divisiveness, violence.

These things don’t happen because one person is evil, they happen because we are all tainted by evil. We all have violence in us, and we all do violence to other people in our words, in our actions, and in our lack of action. And lest anyone object, remember that 1 John 1:10 says, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”

Somehow the powers of evil in this world have not only convinced us to trust in ourselves, rather than in God; not only have they convinced us that we have to look out for ourselves, rather than “in humility regard others as better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3); but they have also convinced us that we do not need to acknowledge others as human at all. The powers of darkness have convinced us that our neighbors are tools to be used, commodities to be bought and sold in the marketplace of power and money.

But these are beings made in the image of God, beings we are told to love as though they were our very selves.

We look to the person of Jesus as an example of how we are to live. And when we do so, we tend to think of those pure spiritual characteristics of Jesus that we believe we are to embody. But in my complicated emotions today, I wonder if Jesus came to teach us how to be human, as well.

Hospitality. Sharing. Kindness. Honesty. Compassion. Love. These are not exclusively divine characteristics that we failingly aspire to. These are human characteristics that we needed a divine being to remind us of.

Darkness.

It is Advent. Each week we light another candle, symbolizing the gradual in-breaking of the light of God in the world. As the light slowly grows, we anticipate the coming Light of the world.

Tragedy makes that light seem so dim. It makes peace look so weak. It makes love seem so foolish. It makes hope look so bleak. And joy?…joy looks impossible.

It’s dark. It’s really, really dark. And in moments like this, when we look away from the light, we see just how truly dark our world is. And it is terrifying.

But I keep going back to one of our traditional Christmas texts, the opening verses of the Gospel of John. It speaks of the Word, creation, and light. And speaking of Jesus as the light, John tells us that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5).

The irrationality of the slaying of innocents has a way of making the entire world seem like it is out of control. Everything is off-kilter. It makes us lose our sense of direction.

But yet the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Lives end, all far too quickly. Families are broken. A community is devastated.

But yet the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

The scripture text I read, on which my original sermon was based, concludes the first major division in the book of Isaiah, a section of Isaiah’s oracle that has largely focused on God’s judgment against the ancient Israelites for the injustices they have committed and their faithlessness regarding God.

But coming on the heels of those difficult words is the cool and refreshing words of Isaiah 12, expressing the confident hope that God will yet provide salvation to God’s people.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This tragedy reminds us that we still live in darkness, and that we are still in need of the light of God’s love.

I believe God grieves with us in this tragedy. I believe God actively works to prevent this and other tragedies. But we have free will. And we live in a world where evil reigns.

But the darkness will not overcome the light. God will yet provide salvation.

And on that day, we will beat our swords into plowshares.

On that day, the lion will lay down with the lamb.

On that day, we will teach our children war no more.

On that day, the light will rise to full noonday height, dispelling the darkness forever.

Until then, we pray. And we live lives of hope, peace, and even joy as we carry the flame of Christ’s love into the world.

May God forgive us, and may we become people of peace.

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