May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts always be acceptable in your sight, oh Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
As I preparing for this morning’s sermon this past week, I was struggling with the text. It is a difficult text to preach upon in many ways. John the Baptist, who is well known as the herald and harbinger of the coming of the messiah, is dressing down the Jews, his congregation in a real sense, and calling them all a brood of vipers. And he openly wonders as to who it was that warned them of the forthcoming messiah and why they are repenting now as he says,
“John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”
A scathing retort against any congregation and one I am sure I would never be able to get away with. And I was reading commentaries and essays on this passage on where I could focus my sermon, especially taking into considerations on our Advent theme of “Spend Less, Give More, Love All”. I could focus this homily on our desire as a people of God to leave behind the business as usual, for something new is about to arrive. A great message and focus for us as we re-discover what it is to live missionally again here in Old South.
I could look at the angle of those that rise to a new challenge because of a friend and mentor, as the disciples rose to new challenges through following Christ. And we have so many pop cultures examples of this too that I could draw upon for a laugh or two, like Karate Kid and Good Will Hunting. And imagine the unbelievable heights we will reach because we follow Christ? We could even share some stories of how we have risen to new challenges because of our faith, have a kind of revival and have old fashion testimonials.
And as I sat constructing a sermon that spoke of God’s grace and mercy, the hope we find in Jesus Christ, the expectant messiah, and how we can as community rise to any challenge if we follow our friend and mentor, Jesus Christ, that I should confess my struggles with the text had me writing my sermon on Friday. I was here in the sanctuary on Friday, preparing my sermon, preparing for last rites with one of our beloved, when my twitter account began to get a lot more active. That is when I tuned into CBC and then I heard about the tragedy in Newtown.
20 children gunned down and 6 adults. I was shacking by the news. I was numb at first, then angry, then completely sad. And as I fell to my knees in the sanctuary to pray at that moment for the victims, their families, and all those affected by this horrible, senseless event, and my mind was drawn to a different passage of scripture as I realized that the sermon I was working on could wait till another day.
All I could think about was the Gospel of Matthew, in chapter 2, after the wise men visit the infant Jesus and depart by another route so Herod does not find out where the Christ child is. I was drawn to the massacre of the Holy Infants as it is known.
“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 or 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 are no more.’”
I knew then that my original sermon could wait. And this Sunday as we light the candle of Love, we would need to, as a community here, as neighbours to those that have lost so many precious little children, need to stop and talk about the events. We would need to ask why? How? And it would be a challenge to our faith. We would need to weep and yes to wail with those that have lost so much.
In the coming days and weeks as more information becomes known, you may find yourself in conversations with people who will ask you where was God in this? Or you may find yourself talking to someone who believes they are speaking on behalf of God and interpreting the massacre. I would like to, first, offer you 5 things not to say. 5 bad theological answers to peoples’ questions. Then I want to offer you 5 things to say when asked or confronted with people who are seeking answers. And then lastly I would like to humbly offer a thought about where God is in the massacre of Holy Infants.
1. “God just needed another angel.”
Portraying God as someone who arbitrarily kills children to fill celestial openings is neither helpful nor faithful to God.
2. This happened because prayer was taking out of school.
I have seen a T-Shirt floating around Facebook that says, “A concerned students asks God, ‘why do you allow so much violence in schools. And the t-shirt portrays God as answering ‘Dear concerned student, I am not allowed in schools.”
This implies that God somehow not only let this event transpire, but also suggest that perhaps it is punishment and if we only had been good, more devout, our Jealous and vengeful God would not have allowed this to happen.
3. He/she was just on loan from God and God has now called them home.
The message here is that God is so frivolous that God will break parents’ hearts at will just because God can. It also communicates to parents and loved ones that they are not really entitled to their grief.
4. God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.
Bullsh*t! Actually, some people do get a lot more than any one person should ever have to handle. And it doesn’t come from God. Don’t trivialize someone’s grief with a “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” mentality.
5. This was God’s will or judgment.
Unless you are God, don’t use this line. Proclaiming that God seeks revenge or somehow willed that parents would lose 20 children does not speak of the incredible love that God has shown for us by giving his only Son to die. Knowing the pain He suffered while Christ died on the cross, I do not believe God would will 20 children to die in judgment of a society.
Many of these things will get said in the coming days, and they are pad answers that I don’t think speaks of the love we have known in Jesus Christ, the actions of Christ in the world and the continuing outpouring of love that we will experience at Christmas as the messiah comes among us. So when confronted or talking to your friends about this tragedy, here are 5 things or answers that speaks of who we are as a people of God.
1. I don’t believe God wanted this or willed it.
God creates and recreated everything new. In the Easter moment God renews all creation. Our God, the God that died upon the cross, never, ever willed pain, suffering or death upon any. This simply is not the message of Jesus Christ.
2. It’s okay to be angry, even if that is to be angry with God.
This often never gets said. That this is a time or mourning and we must keep our composer. I don’t believe that to be true. There are times when screaming, wailing and weeping is the only way. Be mad about this, please. And if you want to yell at God, do it. I am sure he can take it.
3. It’s not okay.
It seems so obvious, but sometimes this doesn’t get said enough. Sometimes the pieces don’t fit. Sometimes nothing works out right. And sometimes there is no way to fix it. And there is nothing okay about this. And it is not okay with God.
4. I don’t know why this happened.
People are looking for answers, but giving them pad answers can deny them their grief, their anger and their sorrow. We don’t know why this happened yet, and we may never know. Don’t trivialize it with stock answers. Say what we all feel, we don’t know why this happened.
5. I can’t imagine what you are going through.
Often there is nothing we can do in our support of others. There is nothing to do but hug one another and cry, weep and wail. There are times when the world makes so little sense. And the events that surround us shock us and can de-humanize us and they become far to commonplace. Allowing ourselves the opportunity to cry and be angry helps us keep our humanity in the face of such senseless violence.
So as we contemplate this tragedy and how the lives of so many are affected I want to simply remind you that God takes no joy in this, or is it any part of his plan or judgment upon us, his people. But that God’s actions in the world rather is this, God goes to those who have suffered and God choses to be with those that have lost so many beautiful children and loved ones, and God joins with them, with us and with the world, as he did with Rachel and God “weeps for his children;
he refuses to be consoled, because they are no more.’
Let us pray,
God of grace and mercy, to all who have suffered in this tragedy be with them in their suffering, in their weeping and their wailing; be with us and the millions trying to make sense of this event and we pray for those who that lost their lives, grant to them eternal rest and perpetual light shine upon them, may their souls and all the souls of the dearly departed rest forever in your peace, now and forever.