Sermon on Luke 1:5-25, Philippians 4:1-13 delivered Dec. 16, the third Sunday of Advent, Year C at Penfield First Baptist Church, Penfield, N.Y.
If you will bear with me, I want to tell you why today's sermon is not the one I wrote on Thursday, but instead the one I wrote at 3:30 a.m. Saturday morning.
I wrote a sermon telling you about the beginning of the nativity story -- the one where Zechariah and Elizabeth become parents as senior citizens. You see, their son John is important to this beloved nativity story.
But Friday morning changed all that and I cannot stand here and pretend that 20 children and 6 teachers weren't killed in the place where children are supposed to be safe and teachers are supposed to teach those children to read, not die to protect them.
I cannot stand before you and pretend that a troubled young man didn't do this, as well as take the life of his own mother. And that he has left behind a hurting family as well. I cannot stand here and pretend this did not happen.
An editor of a preaching magazine sent e-mails out Friday night inviting us to not light the pink candle of Joy but instead to leave it unlit and light another candle, a candle of Remembrance.*
But as I looked at our worship bulletin and was reminded that the Junior Ringers would be playing the beautiful music they have practiced hard to bring us, I knew we had to light the candle of Joy. We are gathered here as believers and seekers of Jesus the Christ, who came to bring new light into the world. While I very much appreciate the words of that editor and understand what he meant, for us, with these children bringing us their music leaving the candle unlit means darkness wins and my friends, DARKNESS DOES NOT WIN. DARKNESS DOES NOT WIN. But sometimes it seems like it.
(You will notice that I don't use the word "evil." We don't know all the facts but it is possible that mental illness is a factor and "evil" is not helpful at all.)
In 1999 two students killed 13 in their own school in Columbine, Colo. Since then there have been 31 school shootings, but none like what happened Friday.
In the past 30 years, there have been 61 mass murders.
And now this tragedy. Parents, children and teachers woke up on Friday morning in Newtown, Conn., and had no idea that life as they knew it was over. One mother said to the news that her child's innocence was now over. We have heard stories of brave children and braver teachers. We have heard a lot of things that don't make any sense and we still aren't sure of all the facts.
But what I must say this morning is this: Darkness does not win. Jesus was born, lived and died so that DARKNESS DOES NOT WIN.
This lovely story between Zechariah and Elizabeth brings us John the Baptizer, a prophet. A man who will lead the way for the people to meet Jesus. But like many prophets, he had some harsh words for the people of his day, even calling them a brood of vipers. He said, "Repent and be baptized." And when Jesus came to him to be baptized he said that Jesus should be baptizing him, that he, John, wasn't worthy to untie his sandals. John knew that Jesus came to bring us light.
And Jesus does. Jesus brings us light. Claim the light. Allow the light to bring you warmth even in the cold. Allow the light to give you peace even in troubled time. Allow the light to challenge you and help you make sense of tragedies like this. Allow the light to help you find good in all situations.
The question is how will we carry that light into the world, into our families, into our own neighborhoods and schools?
That is our role, you know. Jesus is the light and we are carriers of the light. Darkness does not win because we carry the light of Jesus in us.
As the mother of a high school media specialist, I am grateful that my son is safe although I know he would have been one of the first in the hallway if he heard gunfire in his school.
As the grandmother of four (or eight depending on how you count in our family) I am deeply appreciative of teachers who not only help them to learn but protect them as well.
As the wife of a police and fire department chaplain I think of those first responders and how they are coping right now.
As a product of a small town I think of how that community has been devastated but also how they will rise up out of the ashes and care for one another.
On NPR I heard a mother talking about their story -- getting a phone call from her husband of a shooting, rushing to the school, finding their 10-year-old son at the fire station and getting him home. As she spoke he was watching a movie with friends, having enjoyed the day at home with mom and dad. Then she said something like this: "Tomorrow or the next day we will have to tell our son about what happened. About the principal he loved. About the teacher he adored. We are discovering that some of the children shot were in our own neighborhood and we will come together to heal."
Darkness doesn't win when we come together to heal. Darkness doesn't win when we have hope in our hearts. Darkness doesn't win when we can still love. Darkness doesn't win when we can still find joy.
On Friday morning Ken officiated at the memorial service of a 29 year old man who died of an overdose. Patrick had battled his addiction for some years, in and out of rehab. First Baptist Rochester was packed with more than 300 people in attendance. I didn't know the young man until people began to tell stories. Through the stories I got to know the crazy antics of a young kid, the compassion heart of a teenager, and the struggles of his young adult years. His mother and father spoke and moved us to tears -- and laughter -- telling stories I suspect Patrick would have been proud to have told. Even in their sorrow, they laughed.
Next week I will speak of the tale of two women and how important Elizabeth was to Mary, but today let's remember that while dark times come into our lives, DARKNESS DOES NOT WIN. Would you join me again in the candle-lighting litany? Somehow it seems the right thing to do.
One: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;
All: those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined.
One: Week by week, the light grows stronger and brighter, as we anticipate the coming Christ.
All: The candles of Hope and Preparation are already ablaze. Today, we light the candle of Joy.
One: We excitedly anticipate the coming of the Mighty One. The promise of healing, comfort, liberty, and freedom is good news that is meant to be shared!
All: Rejoicing in the mercy and justice of our Lord, we kindle this flame. Together, we lift our hearts and voices in songs of joy.
And the people said, Amen.
*Strangely enough the pink candle refused to stay lit. God's tears, perhaps?
Follow Rev. Peg Nowling Williams on Twitter: www.twitter.com/PegNWilliams