“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:4-7
We heard those words a few minutes ago, but they bear hearing again.
“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, Rejoice.”
With the news that came on Friday, it’s hard to Rejoice. 26 innocents were killed at that school, including the unimaginable heartache that accompanies the deaths of 20 little children. That would never be easy, but it seems somehow especially harsh here in the final days before Christmas.
How are we to prepare our hearts for Christ in our midst, when they are already so heavy with this?
How are we to Rejoice in the midst of such sadness and despair?
|"John the Baptist" by Auguste Rodin|
The lessons we read today seem just as out of balance as the world into which they’ve been read. Earlier this week, before this tragedy shaped my thinking, while I was reading these lessons and beginning to imagine how I would preach, I kept laughing to myself as I hummed, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas…” But not if John the Baptist has anything to say about it!
Talk of “broods of vipers” and “the wrath to come”, don’t exactly engender the Christmas spirit.
But neither do school shootings.
The truth of the matter is, every day, for someone, is the best day there ever was. Every day someone gets engaged, or has a baby, or falls in love, or gets a better job... Every day something more wonderful happens.
And every day is a tragedy for someone: a loved one dies, a heart is broken, or a terrifying diagnosis is given... Every day someone despairs.
It doesn’t matter if it’s Christmas, or Hanukkah, or any other day of the year. Every day is a triumph and every day brings tragedy. And sometimes life gets in the way of the Rejoicing.
It’s in that spirit that many churches, in recent years, have begun offering what they call “Blue Christmas” services - services of prayer and healing for the many people for whom this isn’t “the most wonderful time of the year”. For many people, the Rejoicing all throughout the wider culture at this time of year, rings hollow. And in the face of “Joy to the World” everywhere one turns, grief and sadness can seem to cut all the deeper. Pain can seem all the more isolating.
So there are two things we would be wise to remember this holiday season: First, no matter how spirited our joyful singing may be, it always rings out in the midst of someone’s despair. This year we’re experiencing that truth on a national level. This year we know that someone’s celebration will be muted at best, but more likely it will be heart wrenching. Some children will be missing from the Christmas pageants at their churches. Some presents under some trees will go unopened. That’s always true, but this year we see it a little more clearly.
But the other thing we would be wise to remember this holiday season is that, no matter how deep our despair, no matter how numbing our grief, no matter how isolated we feel in whatever sadnesses we face - in the midst of all of that, there still is joy.
Several years ago, Fred Rogers, of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” fame, was giving parents advice on how to help their children cope with disasters. He said, “