The third Sunday of Advent, today, like all the other Sundays in Advent, has a traditional theme. The first week we focused on hope, the second on peace, and next week on love. But the focus today, just as it has been for generation after generation on the third Sunday of Advent, is supposed to be joy.
But how are we supposed to feel joyful today?
Friday morning started out joyful in our house. Heidi and I were stocking up on Christmas groceries, and getting ready to bake cookies. I was thinking about the sermon this morning, and what I would say about joy, and I was feeling so joyful and festive and free. And then, leaving the store, right there in the grocery store parking lot, I looked down at my phone and saw a text from my mom about the latest school shooting. And in a split second joy turned to despair.
Maybe you felt the same way on Friday. When you heard that there had been another school shooting, an event that has become all too commonplace in our culture, did the rush of the holiday season stop for a minute? Did you say a quick prayer for the families, or pray that the news, already bad enough, didn't get worse? And then, when the details started to come in, did you feel absolutely crushed by them?
Joy was the furthest thing from my mind on Friday. Because how can you feel any joy when someone decides to take their anger or pain or whatever else it was out on six- and seven-year-olds and the people who had dedicated their life to them? How do you even start to reconcile that with what you believe about the goodness of the world, or the basic humanity of people?
It is incomprehensible, and unimaginable, and it shocks us and takes our breath away.
And it should. The fact that things feel so hard, so wrong, and so painful right now is a good reminder that this is not okay, and this is not normal and this is not acceptable. It's a reminder that parents shouldn't send their children to school worrying about whether they will come home.
This morning's Scripture reading, one of the traditional readings for this day, is from the letter to the Philippians. Paul was writing to the people in Philippi. And both the congregation and Paul are facing major challenges. A member of the congregation had been very sick, and it had shaken them. And Paul himself is facing official persecution for his beliefs, and even thinking ahead to what he realizes might be his upcoming death.
But one of the main themes of the letter is joy. And again and again Paul tells them to rejoice or be joyful. And in this passage he says "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near."
And even though Paul wrote it 2000 years ago, and he didn't know what would be happening in Newtown, CT all these centuries later, you want to say "what are you talking about. I will not rejoice. I refuse to rejoice in a world where children know so much pain."
How can we?
Some of you have connections to Newtown. You grew up near there. You have family and loved ones who live there. You were teachers near there. And others of you feel this in different ways. You know what it's like to lose someone close to you suddenly and traumatically and without explanation.
How do we rejoice? How do we feel anything other than confusion and pain and anger and hurt? And how do we reconcile what happened with the loving God in whose name we are supposed to be rejoicing?
We want to know "why." Let's be honest. At some level we want to know why a God who is all-loving and all-powerful lets this happen. It's the classic question of theology. If God is all powerful, why doesn't God stop tragedies? I've never believed that God wills or wants bad things to happen, and I come from the school of thought that believes that we humans make our own choices, and they are sometimes very bad ones, and in those moments no one hurts more than God. But today, that "why" sits with us, and no explanation seems anywhere near good enough.
Maybe you're even feeling a little angry at God. I think that's natural. And I think God can take it.
One of the last things Christ said before he died, in his hour of greatest suffering, was "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" And really, the shorter version of what he was saying was, "God, why?" And if Christ himself demanded to know why, what makes us think that we are any different?
And here we are in Advent, preparing for the birth of the child who would someday be called the Prince of Peace. And this world needs peace more than anything.
And we are being asked to prepare our hearts for the coming of the child who would later ask "My God, why?" And that's why I truly believe that in this Advent season it is possible to both prepare your hearts for God's incarnate love and to ask "why." In fact, maybe it's even imperative. Advent is about building a relationship with God, and you can't have a good and real relationship with anyone if it is not first an honest one. Our questions, our pain, our anger, all have a place in the life of faith. Belief does not preclude bewilderment.
As we ask them, whether we realize it or not, we are doing Advent preparation. Because with every question asked, we are opening our hearts up to God, and asking for a deeper relationship. We aren't walking away from the tough questions. We aren't giving glib answers about this being the "will of God" or trying to explain away the devastating pain. We aren't wading into the war of words and saying destructive things. Instead we are staying present with God, and present with the world, and mourning with both.
In times like this "God, why?" can be the most powerful and honest prayer you can utter.
As we ask that question this morning we remember the words that Paul sent to the Philippians long ago: in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Paul had never heard of a place called Newtown, Conn., but I think his words have meaning this morning. He's not telling us to forget what happened. He's not telling us that it's all okay. He's telling us to pray. And he's telling us that in these prayers, we might find something unexplainable in the midst of the unimaginable. We might find Christ's love just enough that we will find peace. And in the midst of tragedy, finding that peace does indeed, as Paul says, "surpass all understanding."
And so today, we come to church, and we ask that question, even on the same morning when we light the Advent candle for joy. You may notice that today's candle isn't purple like the other three. It's pink.
Purple is the color of penitence. It's one that calls our hearts to reflect on what needs to change both in ourselves, and in the world. And as people and as a society, we need to do some of that today.
But the story goes that in the midst of the dark winters and more reflective Advents of years past, churches thought that about now people needed a little glimpse of what was coming. And so they made the third candle pink, which is supposed to be sort of a mix between the purple of Advent and the white of the Christ candle that we light on Christmas eve.
And they called this Sunday "Gaudete Sunday" which means "rejoice." And so, we light the candle this morning, not because we are rejoicing, but because just as the white mixes with the purple and transforms it, we are waiting for Christ's light to break into the pain and violence of our world and bring the joy that feels so elusive.
We stand here at the junction of where pain and hope meet, and we look for something better. We long for joy. And we sing, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel", o come God, and be with us. We know you are not done with us yet. You can't be if we are still doing this to each other.
This morning we hold our pain and we look for something better. And maybe, just maybe, we see glimpses of the joy that not even the greatest violence can totally destroy. We follow a man whose life proves that. The world did its worst to him, and yet he still overcame it. And that's why this time of year, we remember his birth with joy, and we ask that Christ's joy would fill us all the more. And if you look closely all around you, you'll see that the joy cannot be contained.
Yesterday at sundown, we rang the bells of this church once for each life that was lost on Friday. The idea was that as the light went out of the world, we would sound a reminder that God's love never does.
When I let people know that we were going to do it, I didn't realize that the kids would be here rehearsing their Christmas pageant at the same time. But the parents decided it was appropriate to do it anyway, and even better, to let the kids help. And so yesterday a group of shepherds in bathrobes and angels with homemade wings filed out into the narthex here, and took turns holding onto the rope of a bell heavy enough to pull them off the ground every time we pulled. Again and again they held on and flew up and down.
I'm not sure how many times the bell actually was rung yesterday. Once we got started, the kids kept wanting another turn. And they were so filled with joy, and so filled with life, that as long as the kids wanted to do it, it felt right to let them. For the first time in many hours yesterday, I saw joy. And it was, most fittingly, on the faces of children. It was a reminder to me that the world can do its worst, but in the end joy can never be destroyed. It always finds a way to return. Amen.
Follow Rev. Emily C. Heath on Twitter: www.twitter.com/emilycheath