As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.
— Luke 3
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” So writes St. Paul in Philippians. I do know about you, but I can hardly read those words aloud much less feel them.
How do you rejoice when our nation is in mourning over the senseless deaths of children in a place which should have been the safest, their classroom at school? How do you rejoice when we live in a society where death by gunshot is not just greater than other nations in the world, but greater on an order of magnitude that is astonishing? How do you rejoice when this is not the first time we've been here?
John the Baptist and Jesus himself lived in a violent society just like we do. It wasn't gun violence, but it was violence they encountered on a regular basis. Not only was there violence between people, but there was government-sponsored violence. Jesus in Luke 13 spoke about Galileans who came to worship whose blood Pilate had been mingled with their sacrifices. Folks who simply came to worship at the temple murdered their by their own government. The same government that would execute John, and later, our Lord. And John's answer to that in today's Gospel was that there was a Messiah coming who was going to gather up wheat and burn chaff. There was a Messiah who was coming in power to conquer and defeat this kind of thing. John was so caught up in his vision of Holy Spirit fire, later even he had a hard time recognizing the gentle Messiah Jesus.
We too are caught in a culture of violence, where every action movie we see proclaims the solution is more violence. The hero is always able to find a better way, a bigger gun, to nail the bad guy. It's the myth of redemptive violence that so many people have bought into. But Jesus’ answer to the violence of his own time wasn't to tell everyone to start packin' a sword. Jesus' answer was love. His answer was to seek peace. His answer was forgiveness. His answer was kindness.
Unlike the children we've lost, we're no longer young and innocent as a nation. We've been here again and again. And I'm having a different reaction to it this time. In the past, there was just this overwhelming sadness… and I do feel sad. But mostly, I feel angry. I'm angry that it's happening again. I'm angry that this has become a normal thing in our society. And I'm angry with people who tell us it is okay to mourn with the parents and the families and the friends who have lost children, but it's not okay to talk about how to prevent this from ever happening again. We are better than this as a nation. We are better than this as Christians.
The only thing I know for sure is the hand of God was not behind the trigger, but the hand of God was behind those who shielded the innocent, cared for the wounded, and who, even today, grieve alongside and hold one another. It's natural for folks to try and find a way to feel safe again after events like this. Unfortunately, complete security is a fantasy for human beings — an illusion we seek because we are mortal. We know we get sick. Life can be cut short by any number of dangers, including completely senseless violence. We seek security when, as Isaiah tells us, the only true security is in trusting God: "Surely, it is God who saves me; I will trust in him and not be afraid."
There is the temptation to withdraw from the world in the face of such violence and loss. But Jesus's answer in Matthew 5 is to tell us that we "are the light of the world… The salt of the earth." We are the very people Jesus is looking to help change this nation and this world. I don't know that there are any simple solutions to this kind of violence. I may not be completely sure of the how but I am very sure of the who. I do know who is going to help solve this problem: The people who are going to help solve this problem are you. I know you thought Christianity was all about little stuff like not cussing, and loving orphaned kitties, and not being cranky with your wife, but Jesus tells us your faith is custom-made to take on immense national and global life changing issues.
As we practice love, as we practice compassion, as we practice forgiveness, we hold in our hands immense power that doesn't just change our own individual lives. God places in our hands a raw, molten power that can change a nation and change our world. We are not, however, promised that God will keep us from ever having to experience sorrow or loss, because loss is part of the human journey, but we are promised a God who will walk alongside us; A God who grieves with us. A weeping God. A God who is weeping over our children this very moment. A God who will give us the strength to keep walking, to keep being the salt of the earth, to keep being the light.
Jesus came down at Christmas, God incarnate, so he could live a life that was fully human. To be fully human is to experience loss. To be fully human is to grieve. Jesus invites us to embrace and live courageously and creatively in the face of our human anxiety, not to withdraw, but to embrace more of what it means to be fully human. You see, faith is not believing a laundry list of all the right things, but rather faith is — in the face of danger, and anxiety, and fear, and loss, and the unknown — to keep living and walking alongside one another, to keep forgiving one another, to keep trusting. Faith is recognizing in the face of such tragedy how precious each and every one of us is, and to love each other all the more.