Preachers all over North America have been struggling this weekend, to know what to say in the aftermath of the violent event at the Sandy Hook School in Newtown, Connecticut. How can we approach the Advent theme of Joy, when as President Obama said in his television address, our hearts have been broken? It is not an exaggeration, or mere political overstatement. It was truly heart breaking to watch the news, and think about the children, their families, the teachers, the principal, the other school staff, all the first responders, and a whole community. I found it particularly hard to think about the kids I saw in the news coverage, who survived the attack, but who witnessed bullets flying by, and people being killed. What lies ahead for them?
While preparing for this morning, I read on the CBC news website about an attack this weekend at a school in China, in which 22 children and one adult were injured by a man wielding a knife. The attacker who had access to firearms did a lot more damage- twenty of his victims died of their wounds. But in both situations, a school filled with innocent children was the scene of the attack.
The Connecticut incident is getting most of the media attention right now. This terrible event pushes other stories off the front page. But I am still thinking about other places where school children and their families are at risk. I am remembering news videos about the Gaza strip, where schools, and homes, and hospitals have been targeted by missiles in the ongoing territorial fight between Israel and the people of Palestine.
One person acting alone to cause mayhem, suffering and death is not the same as an ongoing fight over territory and political autonomy, but I am not sure the differences matter to the victims.
Innocent victims. When I first heard the news yesterday about yet another gun-wielding American, at yet another school, terrorizing, wounding, and killing more innocent children, my consciousness went in at least two directions. Part of me was remembering fragments of the other similar stories from the last few years, and how each time this happens, someone in the U.S. government quickly says, like they did yesterday, “today is the day to grieve, not the day to talk about gun control ”. The preacher part of me was thinking about the biblical story of the slaughter of the innocents- which, like John the Baptist railing against sin, and calling the people, and the rulers, to repentance, is an unsavoury part of the Advent and Christmas story.
The slaughter of the innocents is the name given to an armed military action ordered by Herod, the Roman-appointed ruler of the Holy Land around the time of Jesus birth. Having learned from the visiting wise ones from the East of the birth of a great king, Herod commanded all the male children under the age of two be put to death. These children were guilty of no crime. It was not their fault that a power mad king feared one of them might grow up to be his rival. They had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Just like the kids in those schools, and all the kids who live in war zones, and disputed territories.
According to a website that tracks hot zones in the world, there are currently armed conflicts in 24 countries in Africa, 15 in Asia, including Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan, in 8 countries in the Middle East including Iran, Iraq and Israel, and in five countries in our hemisphere, including Colombia and Mexico. Worldwide, there are 60 countries involved in some kind of war. And those are just the more or less “official” conflicts. This of course does not include all the places where children are dying for lack of clean water, or adequate food, or being forced to work as slave labour in factories to support the world’s addiction to cheap manufactured goods.
As I mentioned earlier, preachers are struggling this weekend with how to celebrate the Advent theme of Joy. Many people have been following the tragic story from Connecticut. But as awful as that story is, it is just a few drops in the ocean of misery that individuals, and countries inflict on each other. This story has our attention this week, but there are, as we know, a lot of other ongoing stories.
So how do we respond as faithful people? The reading we heard this morning from the letter to the Philippians calls us to “4 Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! 5 Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Those are the words of a preacher and missionary named Paul, who founded many churches in the first century after the time of Jesus. Paul lived in a time when there was at least as much misery in the world as there is now. There were politicans who cared more about power than doing the right thing. There were people addicted to wealth, and status. There were poor people suffering at the hands of rich and powerful, who needed cheap labour to support their lifestyles. The details change, but the ways people have of hurting each other are pretty consistent through human history.
Even though Paul knew what the world could be like, he called upon people to place their hope and trust in God, and to “rejoice in the Lord”. He told them that they could know joy, even in the midst of hardship and misery.
Isaiah spoke similar words, to his own people, centuries before Jesus and Paul. He said,
“ Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord himself, is my strength and my defense; he has become my salvation. 3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”
Isaiah was a prophet in ancient Israel. He told people their only real hope, and the only way to real joy, was to follow the ways of God. Prophets did not claim that all the pain and evil in the world would instantly disappear. They told their people that they could experience true joy, in the midst of this world, as they began to live their lives differently. They could have a taste of the joy that God desires for all people.
So what do we have to do, to experience this real joy, that can grow in our hearts in spite of the pain in the world? John the Baptist, preaching out in the wilderness, and calling people to turn their lives around, had words that may help us. He keeps it pretty simple:
10 The crowd asked him, “Then what are we supposed to do?”
11 “If you have two coats, give one away,” he said. “Do the same with your food.”
12 Tax men also came to be baptized and said, “Teacher, what should we do?”
13 He told them, “No more extortion—collect only what is required by law.”
14 Soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”
He told them, “No shakedowns, no blackmail—and be content with your rations.”
The way of living that John is describing leads to true joy, which is something very different from the manufactured holiday happiness that is used to hypnotize at this time of year, so that we will spend more money. John is talking about leading a life that is based in trusting God, and daring to take part in God’s plan to make the world a more loving place.
As we read the gospel story about John the Baptist, we can see that his audience could hear and see something in what he was preaching. The story says:
15 The interest of the people by now was building. They were all beginning to wonder, “Could this John be the Messiah?”
16-17 But John intervened: “I’m baptizing you here in the river. The main character in this drama, to whom I’m a mere stagehand, will ignite the kingdom life, a fire, the Holy Spirit within you, changing you from the inside out. He’s going to clean house—make a clean sweep of your lives. He’ll place everything true in its proper place before God; everything false he’ll put out with the trash to be burned.”
John is talking about Jesus. Not the little baby Jesus in the manger, whose birth we are getting ready to celebrate, but the grown adult who came to bring a message about God’s continuing love for this world and its people, in spite of all the awful things we are capable of doing to each other.
The slaughter of the innocents reminds us there have always been forces in the world threatened by the way of love and peace that Jesus represents. But Herod’s troops failed in their effort. Thirty years later, different powerful forces conspired to kill Jesus. They even accused him of claiming to be king, to justify their violence. But Easter story of the adult Jesus is that even though he faced the worst cruelty and violence that the world could throw at him- it was not the end. God did not allow death and violence to be the whole story.
Jesus came to tell us that God will never give up on us, and that God is with us, in the midst of our lives in this world. Jesus came to tell us that we can live differently, and that God will work with us, and strengthen us, and give us sustaining glimpses of joy along the way. Amen