Joy in the midst of mourning: A Sermon for Advent 3, Year C

The images have become so familiar to us, the stories so eerily similar that we had almost become immune to their horror. They no longer surprise us. A shooting in a mall in Oregon went by almost unnoticed. Then on Friday, another horrific event. This time, because it was an elementary school, because children were involved, the shock and horror penetrated our thick skins. We watched as parents rushed to the scene to comfort their children who survived the massacre. We watched and heard as other parents wept inconsolately. As a society, we watched, we grieve, wonder.

Yesterday the stories trickled out. We heard of one young teacher who gave her life to protect the children in her classroom and heard the testimony of another young teacher who had herded her class into a tiny bathroom and tried to shield them with her own body. We heard of a beloved principal and a school psychologist who gave their lives heroically in an effort to avert the tragedy.

Those of us who are parents, or teachers, or students, have been deeply, profoundly affected by this tragedy, another in a senseless chain of violence. We are heartbroken, grieving. And we wonder how that community will deal with its grief and all this violence less than two weeks before Christmas, a season when we wish “Peace on Earth.” We wonder, too, how our entire society is in some way complicit in horrific events like these, with our insatiable thirst for violence, our inability to face our internal demons, and a lack of adequate care for the mentally ill.

I suppose the fact that we are so close to Christmas brought to mind the story of the slaughter of the innocents by Herod, and of these verses from Matthew’s gospel:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’

Rachel’s tears have become our tears; the tears of all who have lost beloved children, here and abroad.

We are in Advent. Christmas is only eight days away and although this is known as Gaudete Sunday, Rejoicing Sunday. our lessons encourage us to be filled with joy at the nearness of Christ’s coming, our hearts are heavy. The promised light of Advent seems nearly extinguished. Gloom and darkness are settling in around us, settling in our hearts. And the words of joy and hope seem like ashes and dust on our lips. I will turn to those songs of hope and joy, the songs from Isaiah and Zephaniah that we heard today, because they do have meaning today as they had meaning three days ago, before the senseless tragedy. I will turn to them but first I want to draw your attention to their context, the contexts in which they were written, for those contexts were full of fear and sadness and horror.

Zephaniah and Isaiah were both prophets in the southern kingdom of Judah. They lived roughly a century apart. Isaiah was active in the second half of the eighth century bce, at a time when Assyria was in the ascendant and threatening to conquer and destroy all of the neighboring kingdoms. Indeed, around 720 bce, Assyria conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, and its inhabitants were killed, carried off, and vanished from history. The southern kingdom survived only by a miracle but continued to exist as a vassal state of the more powerful Assyria, always under threat. By Zephaniah’s time, a century later, Judah and Jerusalem were losing their wiggle room. It was clear to all that the end was coming soon, and indeed, around 597 bce, Babylon conquered Judah and Jerusalem and carried off its political and religious elite into exile far off in Babylon.

Listen to some of Zephaniah’s words:

I will utterly sweep away everything
from the face of the earth, says the Lord.
I will sweep away humans and animals;
I will sweep away the birds of the air
and the fish of the sea.

Zephaniah’s prophecies come at a time of national crisis, when Judah’s very existence hangs in the balance and for two chapters imagery of destruction, Zephaniah predicts the end not only of Judah, but of all the surrounding nations. The message is unrelenting without any ray of hope for the listener or reader.

But suddenly, inexplicably the tone shifts. In the third chapter, in the reading we heard this morning, there is a very different mood. No reason is given for this transformation. Some scholars think it’s an addition from a much later date, either to make the prophecies of doom palatable to readers, or because it reflects a changed situation. Whatever the case, destruction was averted. Now Israel has been restored; the people are urged to sing, shout, and rejoice. Yahweh, too, sings:

“he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing”

Whatever has happened to Judah, both the people and their God rejoice.

There’s a similar theme in the Song from Isaiah we sang as our psalm: “Surely it is God who saves me, I will trust in him and be not afraid.” This song of Isaiah is not only a song of praise of what God is doing in the present moment. It also hearkens back to the mighty acts of God in history. It quotes almost verbatim that Song of Moses sung after the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, and the allusion to the springs of salvation also calls to mind Yahweh’s preservation of the Israelites in the wilderness when they were hungry and thirsty. Isaiah, like Zephaniah, sees God acting in the world, God saving God’s people, against enormous odds, and in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

And it is there that we need to be, in the assurance of God’s saving acts and in the hope of Christ’s coming. The drama of Advent is our faith that in the midst of a darkening world, the candles that we light each week reflect the light of Christ, the light of God, that breaks in upon a dark and desperate, a light that breaks in to shatter the darkness and turn our fear and grief into joy.

Advent is our faith that all evidence to the contrary, God breaks in on the world sharing God’s love in one human being, born in Bethlehem, who will show us the way of love, and usher in God’s reign. Nevertheless, the God who comes to us in Advent and Christmas is a God who is with us, Emmanuel, in the midst of our pain and grief, a God who accompanies us on our difficult journeys. The God who comes to us in Advent and Christmas is the God who died on the cross, crushed by oppression and hate, but whose resurrection defeats the powers of evil and offers us hope of a different world.

The candles that we light are candles of hope, but they are also expressions of our faith that in spite of all that is taking place around us, the deepening gloom of December, the horrific news from Newtown, and not just there, throughout the world, in stories that don’t capture our attention, in suffering that we don’t notice or hear about, in spite of all of that there are signs of God’s reign breaking in upon us, signs of the love of God in Jesus Christ.

We feel impotent in the presence of such heinous evil, and our little gestures of lighting candles seem meaningless, irrelevant, up against the powers arrayed against us. But they are neither meaningless nor irrelevant, they are signs of God’s coming to us in Jesus Christ, signs of the light that shines in the darkness, light that the darkness cannot overcome. Let us rejoice in that coming light, rejoice in the love that comes to us, and rejoice as we share that love with the world.

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