(A sermon based on Luke 3:7-18 & Philippians 4:4-7 for the Third Sunday of Advent.)
The candle of joy is now burning on the Advent wreath.
But how can we talk about joy in light of what has happened this week?
That is the question that has haunted me since the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut on Friday.
Then another question occurred to me: how can we talk about joy in light of what happens every week? While the deaths at Sandy Hook are shocking and heart-rending, especially when we consider the deaths of so many children, the truth is that many violent deaths occur every week. There were 14,612 murders in the United States in 2011; that averages out to 281 per week.
All tragedies are not due to violence, though. For example, some five million children in developing countries die each year due to malnutrition.
This is not even to mention the many public and private tragedies, the innumerable “little deaths,” that so many of us bear in our daily lives; it is not to mention all the people who are dying of a broken heart.
Some of you may be thinking, “I can’t believe he’s talking about such depressing things just nine days before Christmas!” Lutheran pastor Peter Marty told of a Christmas night service during which he spoke in his sermon of the recent murder of a young boy in Trenton, New Jersey. Following the service, a woman walked up to him and said, “I will never set foot in this church again.” Her reason, she said, was the inappropriateness of mentioning murdered children in a Christmas sermon. And, Marty said, she has kept her work; she has never come back. (Peter W. Marty, “Christmas Unvarnished”, Christian Century, December 12, 2012, p. 10)
Perhaps she had never read her Bible, either, since the murder of the children of Bethlehem is part of the story of the birth of Christ.
Friends, the coming of Jesus into the world was not, is not, and will never be anything other than a real life, real world event. The Church is not Fantasy Land and Christians do not live in Paradise; we are in the real world with its real tragedies and its real pains. It was into such a world that Jesus came.
We rightly love the words that the angel spoke to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth: “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy”; in our minds we hear Linus reciting the words in A Charlie Brown Christmas and we get a nice warm feeling, which is all well and good. But let’s remember that those shepherds were religious and social outcasts living in an occupied land; even after they went to visit the Christ Child they were religious and social outcasts living in an occupied land.
The difference for the shepherds was that they lived the rest of their lives knowing that God had come to them and that God was with them, all the time and no matter what. While there is no record of it, I would stake my life on my belief that it was, for them, enough.
We would do well to remember that those beautiful words of Paul that jar us so in light of Sandy Hook—“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”—were written from his prison cell during an incarceration that may well have culminated in his death, a death that resulted directly from his faithfulness to the Lord. Paul knew about having joy in the real and dangerous world.
Perhaps the better question to ask is, “How can we not talk about joy at a time like this?” Indeed, how can we not talk about—and live—in joy all the time? How can we not share joy all the time?
The joy we have to talk about, to live in, and to share is the joy of presence. There’s been a saying on some church signs lately that makes a good point; it goes something like “Christmas is not about the ‘presents’; it’s about the ‘presence.’” God has come to us in Jesus Christ. God will come to us in Jesus Christ. God does come to us in Jesus Christ.
How do we go about living in that joy?
First, we give ourselves over to God, in the sense of knowing that God is there with us and for us. We are never alone.
Second, we give ourselves over to other people, in the sense of being there with them and for them. We can make sure that they are never alone.
Right after telling us to rejoice always, Paul said, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone.” Such gentleness is a caring concern that does what it can for the good of other people. When people asked John the Baptist what they should do in light of his warnings of God’s judgment, John told them to think more of others than they did of themselves and to treat people fairly.
That’s how we live in joy: by sharing our lives with others. Having joy comes down to knowing the God is present with us and in us; living in joy comes down to sharing ourselves with each other. God has given God’s love to us. God’s love is more than enough if we share it; it is never enough if we don’t.
Writer Anne Lamott, reflecting on the Connecticut tragedy, said,
I also remembered a conversation I had with my Jesuit friend Tom Weston during a bleak, cold, excruciating Advent day, three years ago, that I wrote up in Some Assembly Required. Here is some of what we talked about, which I am finding helpful today:
Where, I asked that day in 2009, in such despair and chaos, is Advent?
He tried to wiggle out of it by saying, “You Protestants and your little questions!”
Then he said: “Faith is a decision. Do we believe we are ultimately doomed…and there’s no way out? Or that god and goodness makes a difference? There is heaven, community and hope—and hope that there is life beyond the grave.”
“But Tom, at the same time, the grave is very real, dark and cold and lonely.”
“Advent is not for the naïve. Because in spite of the dark and cold, we see light—you look up, or you make light, with candles, trees. And you give light. Beauty helps, in art and nature and faces. Friends help. Solidarity helps. If you ask me, when people return phone calls, it’s about as good as it gets. And who knows beyond that?”
Advent says that there is a way out of this trap—that we embrace our humanity, and Jesus’s humanity, and then we remember that he is wrapped up in God. It’s good to know where to find Jesus—in the least of these--among the broken, the very poor and marginalized. Jesus says, ‘You want to see me? Look there.’
So after talking to Tom that day, I did notice the beautiful, deciduous tree-lined streets of Marin, CGI-level flame-colored autumn leaves. Two towns over, I saw a dozen snowy egrets in what must have been a very delicious meadow by the side of the road, and I had enough sense to pull over and sit and watch them eat for awhile.
I called Tom yesterday as soon as I heard about the shootings. Neither of us said anything interesting, but we hung out together on the phone and listened to each other's voices, and grieved for the families of Newtown, and that helped. These tiny bits of connection to the broken are very real, and the kindness and attention people show to one another create a tiny bit of light. That’s Advent. (https://www.facebook.com/#!/AnneLamott?fref=ts, downloaded December 15, 2012)
“Advent is not for the naïve.” Jesus comes to us in the real, hard world. When we show love to others, a bit of light shines in the darkness.
For some reason, I’m thinking about children’s songs today.
“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine.”
“I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart.”
One day, God will fix it; for now, God loves. We can’t fix it now or ever; so for now—and from now on—let’s love.
O God, let the light, the love, and the joy show in the places we look for you, in the way we live in the world, and in the ways we treat other people….