Contrary to Expectations

  Today’s sermon title proved to be prophetic about the sermon itself. The sermon I drafted yesterday was contrary to the expectations I had when I titled a different draft on Wednesday. Most people know that what happened between the two drafts was an act of violence so terrible that it will haunt our hearts through all of our Advent and Christmas celebrations.

  In this new age of social media, we need not read only the reaction of journalists and politicians. Some of you shared your raw emotions on Facebook, which allows us to express our collective lament in a new way, and feel a connection to a larger community of grief and support. Here’s just a sampling of your postings:

  • “After 24 years of teaching kindergarten, five and six year olds are still some of my favorite people to spend the day with. They are brutally honest, hilarious, trusting, eager balls of energy. My heart is so heavy tonight for the families in Connecticut. I just can’t wrap my brain around the magnitude of what’s happened.”
  • “Heartfelt prayers go out to everyone affected by the tragedy. The families, as well as the educators who take every attack against children and colleagues personally, need prayers. I cannot imagine my students having to go through this. If teachers were allowed to hug students, I would have hugged every one of them after I found out about this senseless shooting.”
  • “Going home to hug my babies. I’m at a loss of words for what I’m feeling right now. Those poor families.”
  • “No words. No consolation.”
  • “My prayers go out to the victims and thanks to all the teachers and first-responders who risked their lives.”
  • “Today was a tragic day: one man destroyed dozens of families hundreds of family members and scared a nation. My thought is, if one person can do this, why can’t every one of us do something positive to each other to offset the negative of today?”

 There is no sermon that can magically erase the shock and grief of what happened on Friday in that Connecticut school. Twenty first-graders who, that morning, were fed, groomed, and bustled off to school, were dead before lunchtime. The fact that they and several adults never will return home will leave a hole in hearts of families forever. Even our distant hearing of it will impact emotions and shape perceptions for a long time.

 What are we to say about these things?

  • When we gather as a community of faith in the wake of tragedy, we can express precisely the kinds of laments that many of you did on Facebook. The psalms witness to the way our spiritual ancestors poured out their sadness and anger about violence and death. We can say these things to God, confident that God understands our grief.
  • We can remind one another that events like these don’t deny the goodness of God as much as confirm the Bible’s description of human nature. In our increasingly post-Christian culture, some people like to believe that God is an unnecessary relic of a past age, that all people are basically good, and that with a little more education, a little more money, or a little more personal freedom, humans will create for themselves a paradise on earth. The Bible describes humanity in more nuanced terms: good, in so far as they reflect the goodness of God the creator; but also with the capacity for making poor moral choices that lead to pain and suffering of life in a fallen world. The Bible goes on to describe a transformation made possible by Jesus Christ, through whom God enters humanity’s tragic story with the announcement of good news and the opportunity for redemption. What happened on Friday doesn’t deny God’s existence; it confirms our need for God to repair a brokenness for which we have no human tool.
  • We can remind ourselves that for reasons mysterious, the full redemption for which we long has not arrived as quickly as we would like. Our scripture lessons for today are a witness to that fact. When Jesus arrived on the scene surrounded by miraculous signs, his disciples expected a decisive political victory, not a crucifixion. When Luke penned his gospel, the early Christian Church expected Jesus’ glorious second coming, not reminders of the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of invading armies. When Paul wrote to the Christians at Rome, they were wondering why their faith in Christ was rewarded not with prominence and a growing base for mission, but only with loss of property and physical suffering inflicted by unbelieving political authorities. Often, the task of Jesus and his apostles was to point out how God was taking them in a direction contrary to their original expectations, that victory would come not by making a detour around suffering, but by going right through the middle of it.
  • In the wake of tragedy, we can remind ourselves to be grateful for evidence that God is at work through human history, despite the pain we feel today. I read an article this week that highlighted some of the good things that have happened in recent years.[1] The total number of people who have died as the result of war and terrorism is down 50% this decade from the 1990s, and down even more compared to the five preceding decades. The richest countries are not locked in arms races that threaten our planet’s extinction, and more of the world is at peace. One-hundred years ago, when people prayed to God to eliminate the suffering of cancer or heart disease or orthopedic pain, they simply couldn’t have imagined the advances that have taken place that make so many lives, including our own, far longer and richer than they could have been throughout 99% of human history.

 Advent is a season of high expectations; this week, at least some of our expectations for peace on earth and goodwill toward all were crushed.  What, then, should we do?  Among all of the things that have been said in the past few days, perhaps none provides a better prescription than the Facebook post I read earlier: “If one person can do this, why can’t every one of us do something positive to each other to offset the negative of today?”

 Finally, I want to share a memory with you. Evelyn Ballweg is gone now; she was one of our dear saints who could remember the “old” building, before this one was constructed in 1923. Evelyn was deeply influenced by her father’s Christian faith. When Evelyn was young, her brother was a victim of a flu epidemic. Evelyn had a clear memory of her father standing at the bedside, and offering a prayer of thanksgiving.  For years afterward, he would speak of his son, and say, “I’m just so grateful to God for giving me that boy for ten years.” There is something quite profound in the spirit of thanksgiving reflected by this saint from our collective past. Even in difficult circumstances, thanksgiving is possible for those who believe that God is at work in spite of tragedy, that God is building in us hope for better things, and preparing us for a brighter future. As Paul Manz wrote in that great anthem we sometimes sing, “E’en so, Lord, quickly come, and night shall be no more.”

 In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

[1] Fareed Zakaria, “This Astonishing Age,” Readers Digest, January 2013, p. 74 ff.


~ by JohnH1962 on December 16, 2012.

One Response to “Contrary to Expectations”

  1. We are all sadden by this tragedy. As I watched the tv screen and all the news of this community I prayed for those I didn’t know. As I prayed I saw in my mind’s eye the picture I remember as a child in my Sunday school classroom of Jesus sitting with the children. I find comfort with that view and believe that Jesus was saying, “Let the children come to me.” They are gone from us but safe in heaven.

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