The following sermon was preached at Covenant and Trinity United Methodist Churches in Gastonia, NC on the Sunday following the December 14, 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. One year later, we are still being called to overcome evil with good.
Christmas is about children.
Not just God’s gift born in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago, but the look of joy on children’s faces as they carefully hold a candle on Christmas Eve, set out cookies for Santa, and rip open a present on Christmas morning. And yet, this Christmas, all of us can’t help but think about 20 little children who won’t be celebrating with their families this year. We can see their faces, can’t we? Emilie’s smile that could light up a room. Ana who loved to listen to her daddy play jazz. Dylan’s blue eyes and dimples. Jack, whose first love was football and the New York Giants. Jessica, who adored anything to do with horses. Noah’s long eyelashes. Allison, who liked to color. Too many names. Too many sweet and innocent faces. Charlotte. Daniel. Olivia. Josephine. Madeleine. Catherine. Chase. Jesse. Grace. Caroline. Avielle. James. Benjamin.
Unlike any time I can remember since 9/11, a shadow has fallen over our country. In between the laughter of parties and music of carols, there are tears as we try to watch or listen to the news. What is it about Newtown that has affected us so deeply? In the past year, there have been shootings at a mall, a temple, and a movie theater, not to mention all of the people who are killed every day in violent acts around the world. I think it’s because in these little children’s faces, we see our own children. We think about the kids we know in elementary school. We think about the teachers we know who would do anything to protect the kids in their classes. And deep down, we are left with an aching sense of injustice; that things should not be this way. That Christmas should be filled with images of happy children, not tiny coffins.
Between the tears, that aching feeling leads to questions. For anyone who’s suffered loss, you know what that feels like. After you cry, you ask, “Why?” You ask, “Where was God?”
The Sunday after the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary, residents of Newtown flocked to the churches and synagogues, just like people did after 9/11, asking those questions, trying to make sense of things, trying to hold on to something in the face of such unimaginable evil. How can a God who is good and all-powerful allow evil to exist? Theologians call that the question of “theodicy” – and for centuries, it has been the one question that has presented the most profound challenge not only to Christianity in particular, but to faith in God in general. Where was God? Why didn’t God do something to save those kids?
How do we answer that question? On today of all days, how can we talk and sing about “peace on earth” when the world is anything but peaceful? Can we say anything at all?
When something terrible like this happens, you realize that – we are all theologians, not just pastors or seminary professors. Do you have certain beliefs about God or ways of talking about God to others? Well, then guess what? You’re a theologian! Now, unless you’re into starting your own religion, most of us don’t start from scratch with our understanding of God, do we? No, much of what we believe has been handed down to us from our parents and our religious community. For us Christians, what we believe about God comes from the experiences of people over hundreds of years written down in a book we call the Bible. Still, the Bible can be dangerous in the hands of an individual, can’t it? If you try hard enough, you can pretty much find a verse in the Bible that you can twist and use to say whatever it is you’re wanting to say. That’s why we interpret the Bible using our own brain and life experience, but we also stand on the shoulders of wise women and men who have gone before us.
It’s important that we do this: that we know what the Bible says and we know our own history and language about God, otherwise, in times of tragedy or disaster, we’ll end up borrowing somebody else’s theology. And the truth is, there are some Christians out there who’ll get in front of a camera or start typing at their computer and say some very wrong, very unbiblical things about God. We’ve got to be able to recognize those statements for what they are: bad theology. Lies about God. We’ve got to call it out when we hear it, in love of course, but otherwise, people might believe the terrible things people are saying about the God we know and love!
Where was God?
The first lie is this: God wasn’t there at all.
Have you heard this lie? Maybe you saw a popular post that got passed around on Facebook or saw a video of a politician turned TV commentator saying, basically, “God didn’t show up at Sandy Hook because ‘we kicked God out of public schools’.” Brothers and sisters, that might make for a catchy one-liner, and I’m all for the religious freedom of all students being protected in our schools, but let’s think about what’s being said there! Do we think that God’s presence is somehow dictated by something as trivial as whether or not teachers are allowed to start class with a prayer? As the joke goes, as long as there are pop quizzes and tests and EOGs, there will always be prayers in schools! Do we honestly think that we can kick out God? Isn’t the whole message of Christmas that God shows up in the places we least expect – in the womb of a virgin girl, in a cattle trough? This is the truth that the Bible teaches: God can be wherever God wants to be. God doesn’t need our invitation or our permission to be anywhere. What did the prophet Isaiah say the Christ child would be called? “Emmanuel.” God with us. God with us sitting here this morning. And God with every teacher and every child in Sandy Hook Elementary that day. God is with us, whether we want him to be or not.
The second lie is even more sinister, though we hear it so often that it sounds true: That God was there, but that this was all part of God’s plan.
The worst version of this lie is put forward by the folks from Westboro Baptist Church, these are the people who protest the funerals of fallen soldiers and threatened to picket the funerals of the children who were killed in Newtown, saying that God killed them to judge America for its sins. I’m sure that repulses us. And it should. These are people who are speaking in the name of our God and we should call this lie out for what it is: blasphemy. But there is less offensive version that a lot of people say with good intentions: “everything happens for a reason.” This is often said to make people feel better, I hear people say it all the time, “we’re not supposed to ask questions, we just accept that this was God’s will and one day it will all be explained to us!” Do we really think that murdering innocent women and children could ever be God’s will?! That line of thinking leads you to determinism, where we are all just a bunch of puppets and God is the puppet-master, directing our every thought and action. The problem with determinism is this: if God is responsible for everything that happens, then God is also responsible for evil and sin. Well, the Bible is clear on that point. God is holy, God is light, God is love, and in him there is no darkness at all. God cannot be the source of evil. God is not some puppet-master, determining our every move. God did not kill those children as some sort of twisted way to punish the rest of us.
But then, we’re still left with the question: Where was God? If God didn’t abandon us, if God didn’t cause this, then why didn’t he stop it from happening?
Are you listening? Because here’s the biblical answer: God is always with us. God did not want this to happen. We did this. The reality of evil in this world can be traced to our freedom.
God’s greatest gamble was creating us in his image, making us free – which, as Rick Warren has said in the past week, is both a blessing and a curse. Because in order for us to be able to truly love, we have to have a choice, we have to be able to choose good over evil, to choose love over hate, peace over violence. Unfortunately, history tells a long story of our choice of the latter option. Every single evil act in the world can be traced back to the selfish choices of free beings, whether it’s us or Satan and his angels. I’m not denying that mental illness may have been a factor, only that it is bound up together in a thousand other choices that ended up adding one more chapter in the long, dark history of the human race.
Sometimes, you have to wonder if God ever regrets his decision. If God ever wishes he had made a bunch of robots that he could force to be good all the time. In Genesis, you get a picture of that, of God looking at the world Noah lives in and feeling sorry that he ever made us. Is our freedom worth all of the suffering in this world? Is it worth the murder of even one child?
You know, today’s story is about Mary.
About a mother. About a girl who had the freedom to say no, but who said “yes” to God even when she was probably scared out of her mind. No wonder Elizabeth said, “Hail Mary, full of grace, blessed art thou among women.” She represents the good in all of us. Our ability to choose love. But do you know what? Mary knows what it feels like to lose that same child of promise. To see him murdered. And so does God.
Sometimes we forget that, I think. That God knows what it feels like to lose a child, to feel the sting of tears and the heart break of loss. God knows the cost of freedom better than any of us. But listen…and I’ll tell you something true about God. Some good theology! God loves us in spite of ourselves. God loves us with a never-ending love. In spite of all that we have done, all our brokenness and bad choices, God refuses to give up on us. God refuses to let evil and violence and murder have the final word.
Where is God?
In the darkness, there shines a light. In the silence, there is a baby’s cry. God is in Jesus. And God is in us. God is whispering to all his children, even as gunshots ring out overhead, “I will never leave you or forsake you. Even though you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will be with you. I am with you always, even until the end of the world.”
You see, God is still at work in the world.
God was at Sandy Hook Elementary. God was in the teachers who stretched out their arms to protect the little students they loved so much. God was in principal and school psychiatrist who ran out into the hallway without a thought for themselves in order to confront the danger.
God is in the thousands of people across the country who are coming together, in the thousands of people who are flooding Newtown with love, prayers, and support, and in every family this Christmas that remembers to treasure each moment together.
And God is in heaven, where 20 little children were scooped up into the arms of Jesus and welcomed into the everlasting Kingdom.
Yes, there is evil in the world. God has not run from it. God does not cause it. But God does promise us this: that he will never leave us and that evil will not have the last word. Like Mary, we are called to cooperate with God; to submit our freedom to his will for us, to choose love, to overcome evil with good, to let peace begin with me.