Last year as a student pastor, I was scheduled to preach the third Sunday of Advent. I prepared a sermon for children and adults alike. But then there was the horror of the shootings at Newtown. How to preach Joy in the midst of that pain? And how do we ever preach Joy in our world with all of its horrors and hate and scandal without sounding like Pollyanna?
I wish we could say that we’ve done more to prevent this type of thing from happening again, and for me, that is part of the pain of remembering. But last year, only a few days after the shooting while wounds were so raw and fear was stuck in our throats, my words were not addressing prevention or gun violence. I do think we need to talk, no, to do more about that. Another blog post, perhaps.
Anyway, these words were written for the particular context of the days immediately following the shootings at Newtown, and yet I think they still offer something of what it means to live in Joy, to Love against all that is not love in our world.
You know, I had my sermon all prepared for today. You can see what was to be the title there in the worship bulletin. I was going to talk to you about John the Baptist and the Grinch. But I just can’t talk about a children’s story after Friday’s elementary school shootings in Connecticut. Twenty-eight people dead, the majority of them little children. How can we hold that horror?
We hurt because we are vulnerable; we have hearts of flesh not iron and steel. Jesus tells us that our vulnerability is beatitude; it is in our vulnerability that we are blessed. Blessed are you who mourn, blessed are you who hunger and thirst for justice, blessed are you who weep, blessed are you who are excluded. One of the characteristics of blessedness for Jesus is vulnerability. And you know, the wisdom of Islam teaches that the wound is the place in us where the light gets through. So we don’t run from our fear, our horror, our sadness, our grief. We acknowledge it. We name it. When we can name our vulnerability, then we can name our need.
It’s not for nothing that we celebrate Advent in the darkest time of the celestial year. The day with the least hours of light and the longest night is coming up this Friday. And we remember that God didn’t come into our world after it had been made perfect and tidy. Jesus came precisely when and where there was no room for him. And he continues to do that today. Where we least expect him and at the place of our greatest need – our vulnerability – there we should look for him.
And so like clockwork the third Sunday of Advent has come ‘round, and the candle we light today is for Joy. The third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is Latin for “Rejoice!” the first word of the reading from Philippians. You see, Advent used to be a penitential season, like Lent. And in the 10th century, people marked the middle of Advent with rose color instead of purple. That’s why we have the pink candle this Sunday. Halfway through the expectant longing of Advent, now we know the light is coming and the rose color symbolizes the nearness of the Lord.
But we may not be ready for rose-colored anything today. I don’t think I am. I want to hang on to the Advent theme of How Long O Lord today. How Long O Lord, the senseless shootings. How Long O Lord, neighbors with broken minds and spirits in violence. We are simply confounded when we think about the wracked mind of the 20-year old who brought weapons into a school, killing innocent children, their teachers, his mother and himself. We cannot begin to imagine the horrors that the survivors carry. How can we hold this pain? Our hearts break with the weight of it, the pictures, the names, the stories, the unimaginable grief of the children and families.
When Paul urges us to rejoice always, he is not expecting us always to be happy. Happiness and joy are not synonymous. Happiness is a feeling, and it comes from things that are more external. We know it has an opposite feeling: unhappiness. Joy, on the other hand, has no opposite. Joy is an innate quality within us arising out of our true identity as children of God. The joy Jesus gives us is a joy no one can take away from us; it is imprinted on our hearts. It is a certainty of God’s love for us whether we are alone on a voyage, have just lost our job, are living in chaos or on top of the world. Our joy arises out of our certain hope in our God who has pledged to be with us always, no matter what. Even in the darkest nights when we feel most alone.
And Paul kind of had a handle on this stuff. He was in chains in prison when he wrote the letter to the Philippians, a group of people whom he dearly loved. He didn’t know if he’d ever get out of prison. He didn’t know if he’d ever see anyone from that community again. Yet he was joyful. And he urged them to rejoice always and to pray.
When John went about preaching, telling people to change, to prepare for the coming of Jesus, the people to whom he preached had been praying a lot of How Long O Lord, too. And John preached a powerful word. He preached about one who would come who would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. The one who was coming would question the status quo, turn things upside-down. We’ve heard the story, and we know the power of the one who is coming, the power of the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace to comfort us in our deepest sadness, to gather us close to his heart.
But John will not let them rest on their birthright by having descended from Abraham. He exhorts them – and us – to bear fruit, to be people of integrity, to care for others and to act with fairness and justice. The people had asked him, What should we do?
This Advent, and especially today in the midst of another monstrous sadness, we are asking the same thing, What should we do? There will be a lot of talk – it is already starting – about policies and politics, about guns and mental health. But this weekend, and this third week of Advent, let us repent, if you will, of taking each other for granted. What should we do?
Friends, I offer you this: Please. Think of each person who is dear to you. Tell them you love them. Tell them again. Kiss them. Hold them close. Don’t take them for granted. Take them to a concert, take them to dinner, take them by the hand for a walk. Buy them flowers for no special reason, except that you love them. But love them. Oh, please do love them. For love is the only power that can change our world. And only love can drive away fear. Amen.
(Third Sunday of Advent, 2012, Luke 3.7-16; Philippians 4.4-9)