I was looking forward to preaching this sermon. Not only has it been a couple of weeks since last I got the opportunity, but joy is a great theme to preach on this close to Christmas. The service itself is designed to highlight this theme. We’ve already lit the candle of joy, and all our hymns speak of joy as well. But, the joy of this Advent and Christmas season has been interrupted by the horrific tragedy that hit our nation on Friday. I think that most of us are still reeling from the shock of learning that a young man entered an elementary school and killed twenty-six people, twenty of whom were small children, before turning his gun on himself. We can’t hear a word from God this morning without acknowledging the grief and anger that wraps our nation.
We began worship this morning listening to the voices of our children singing the Friendly Beast song. They blessed us not only with their songs, but more importantly with their presence. And yet, even as we celebrate their lives our hearts break for the families in Newtown, Connecticut who will spend the holidays grieving the loss of their children. We grieve with them, as the President reminded us on Friday as he fought back tears, because “these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children.”
We come this day to worship with hearts broken and minds full of questions. We want to know why this happened. But we also want to know how we can prevent events like this from happening again. Of course, acts of violence, with and without guns, occur every day, and too often the victims are children.
The prevention question might be even more difficult to answer than the why question, because these kinds of questions often have political implications, making them more difficult to handle. Debates are already starting about gun laws, mental health issues, and whether we have allowed a culture of violence to take root in our nation. I think that all of these questions need to be addressed. None of these conversations are going to be easy. I know that we are not – as a congregation – of one mind on the issue of gun control. Then there’s the mental health issue. Because our society stigmatizes people with mental illness or mental health issues such as depression, many hide their illnesses or forgo treatment. As for the culture of violence – why do we enjoy violent movies and video games? Is it merely a release from feelings of aggression or does it stir things up? So, can we have calm and gentle conversations about issues that really matter to our society?
The Metro Coalition of Congregations, in which we’re a participant, is taking up these kinds of issues. For instance, the Health Care task force is looking at mental health issues, while the gun violence task force has been talking to people both inside and outside of law enforcement to get a handle on ways of addressing gun violence in our society, including raising questions about the recent gun legislation passed by the legislature and now on the governor’s desk.
There’s another question on the hearts of many people and that is – where was God? There are no easy answers to this question, but I do believe that God walks with those who grieve and will walk with us as we seek answers to these difficult questions as well as solutions to the problems that afflict our lives and the lives of those in our communities.
So, with heaviness of heart pressing down on us this day, we hear Paul’s command: “Rejoice in the Lord – Always! Again, I say rejoice” This command may sound flippant and unrealistic at a moment like this, but if not now, when?
Maybe the reason why we struggle with this command is that it sounds a lot Bobby McFerrin singing: “Don’t Worry, Be happy.” That sounds too much like living with your head in the clouds and seems to ignore the enormity of the problems that press in on us, whether it’s a fiscal cliff or struggles with illness, injury, or the loss of a job. When we read a passage like this, we want to ask – How do you find joy in the midst of all of life’s concerns?
Perhaps we can find the answer in the message of Advent. This message is one of anticipation and expectation. Advent points us toward the coming reign of God. Although, it’s difficult to find joy when we get stuck living in the past or when present realities weigh us down, Advent challenges us to lift up our eyes and behold the work of God in our midst. As our opening hymn declares:
Christians all, your Lord is coming, drawing near in holy birth. Ring the bells and sound the trumpets. Let your music fill the earth.
Rejoice because hope abounds, even in the midst of moments like this because we can live with God’s vision as our own guiding vision.
But, according to Paul, not only should we rejoice in the Lord, but we’re supposed to let go of our worries and our anxiety. Now, if you’re like me, anxiety is part of life. We all worry about things – big and small. When we live this way, however, it’s difficult to find joy in life. But Paul offers us a way forward. He says: instead of worrying pray. Bring your requests to God with thanksgiving. Yes, lay your burdens down before the Lord, and come find your rest in Jesus.
St. Augustine put it well – “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” Augustine, like Paul, knew that freedom from worry and anxiety requires us to lay down our heavy burdens and take on the yoke of Christ, which Jesus says is easy and light. It’s this yoke that binds us together with God (Mt. 11:28-30), and as we’re yoked together in Christ, we discover the value of community. Too often anxiety and fear take hold when we think we’re alone, but when we’re in community we find strength to move forward in life.
Paul’s words seem to echo those of the prophet Zephaniah. This prophet, about whom we know little, speaks to people living in exile. They’ve suffered greatly living in a foreign land, knowing that their Temple had been destroyed. It seemed as if they’d lost everything. Hope had long since disappeared, and yet just when everything seemed hopeless, the prophet offers this word:
“Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart Daughter Zion. The Lord has removed your judgment; he has turned away your enemy. The Lord, the King of Israel, is in your midst; you will no longer fear evil” (Zephaniah 3:14-15).
Advent calls out to us, inviting us to rejoice because Emmanuel is near at hand. We have hope because God is in our midst.
Paul’s words might seem naive, but he knew what it was like to suffer. After all, he wrote these words from a jail cell, and he wrote to a community in conflict. They were anxious about their own future, but Paul directs them to God, telling them that their hope lay in their relationship with God.
If they could take hold of this joy that is found through prayer, then they could live together with gentleness. Or as Martin Luther put it: they should be “lenient” with each other. When we live with fear and anxiety, we find it difficult to be gentle. Anxiety and stress cause us to become cranky with each other and then we snap at each other. That’s what was happening in Philippi, but Paul knew a better way, and he offers us that same better way.
Pray, Paul says, and lay your burdens down before the Lord, so that “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (NRSV) This peace isn’t the kind of peace that the world gives us. It’s not an absence of conflict or problems. Karl Barth writes that “the peace of God is the order and security of the kingdom of Christ among those who are his.” It’s a sense of calmness in the midst of the storm.
Yes, the future may be uncertain. The conversations we need to have as a congregation, as a community, as a nation, and even as a world might be difficult. Indeed, they may even seem frightening. When we think of the events of this Friday, we may feel as if all is lost. It’s understandable to feel this way, but it needn’t define the way we live our lives. We can go forward into the future, by taking hold of this promise, that God will bring peace to our hearts and minds, and with this peace comes joy – always and forever.