This is the Sunday of joy, marked by lighting the rose colored candle, a brief respite of joy in a season of darkness and longing, and in the events that began at about 9:35 am Eastern Standard Time and unfolded over the next several hours, it was just plain impossible to find any joy.
And while it is the freshest tragedy in our minds, it's not the only one. Many of us have worries or grief or heartache in our own lives that don't get as much press. Our town has experienced several suicides and unexpected deaths in recent months. We have lost beloved church members, too. We know of too many parents who have had to bury children, which just isn't how it's supposed to be. How are we supposed to find joy in this midst of this darkness?
I thought to myself on Friday that nothing I had planned to say made any sense anymore. That is until I went back to the Scripture.
Listen now for a word from God:
1 The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion ---
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
5 Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
6 but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
you shall be named ministers of our God;
you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.
7 Because their shame was double,
and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;
everlasting joy shall be theirs.
8 For I the Lord love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
to spring up before all the nations.
Did you hear it? Did you hear God's longing? Did you hear God's deepest desire for people who are living in exile, whose lives have been torn apart, whose homeland and family and, yes, even children have been ripped from them? Did you hear it?
"The Lord has sent me to bring good news,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners...
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn." (Isa. 61:1-3 NRSV)
Did you hear God's desire to build where there has been destruction, to plant where there has been devastation? Did you hear God's longing for new life, not for death, for hope, not despair? Did you hear how God longs for the restoration of joy, not the repetition of exile? And did you hear not just God's longing, but God's promise to work toward these things?
I will admit that I have NOT watched a whole lot of news coverage since early Friday evening, but I have checked in daily with written news reports. Even just in my quick check-ins I have already heard that there are people saying that God made this happen; that God has been shut out of the schools, government buildings and courthouses of this country because there is no organized prayer in them, no Ten Commandments on the walls, no mention of God, our God, Yahweh in any official capacity - - as if our walls, our locks, and our rules could keep God out of anywhere. Listen up, because I'm going to do something I don't often do. I'm going to speak with a certainty that I don't often muster when commenting on another's theology, but... That is WRONG. It's that simple. It is WRONG. There is no way our God, God who longs for the restoration of what is broken, God who desires healing and wholeness, God who chases after us even in the exiles of our lives, God who hears the cry of Rachel weeping for her lost children, of the children of Israel weeping by the waters of Babylon... There is no way that God left the children in Sandy Hook Elementary School classrooms, Nancy Lanza in her home, and even Adam Lanza as he carried out this horrific attack. There is no way that God abandoned them in the moments of their deepest heartbreak. There is no way. That is not our God.
God doesn't want the world to be like this. God HATES wrongdoing. That's what Isaiah said; God HATES wrongdoing. God's saving work is all about getting rid of these conditions, of restoring peace, and joy and love in creation. God does NOT will for people to kill one another. That's worth repeating. God does not want tragedies like happened in Newtown on Friday, or at a school China where 22 students were stabbed this week, or at a mall in Clackamas, Oregon where gunfire ended lives a few days before, or among our own families and friends in Kansas City, or Denver or here in Hudson. God does not will any of it. God does not ignore any of it.
There's that word again. Joy. We've got the joy candle on the wreath this Sunday. The choir sang of dulci jubilo, "sweet rejoicing," of the joy the Christ child will be. But how can we possibly even think of being joyful at a time like this? It's hard. It's a struggle. It... it even feels RUDE and callous to just think that we might look for joy, talk about joy, strive for lives of joy when so many people, when we are shrouded in darkness today.
So maybe we need to think a little bit about what we mean by joy. Isaiah's prophecy doesn't deny the horrible realities of life that his hearers are facing. He isn't oblivious to their experiences of loss, of broken hearts, of mourning and grief and captivity. But even in the midst of their dreadful situations, even in the midst of our collective or individual sadness, Isaiah can find room for rejoicing in the Lord, because joy isn't all about a happy feeling. Joy isn't about giddiness and excitement and glee, not real joy. Not biblical joy.
Instead an experience of joy is the realization that we are a part of what is going right in the world. Joy is knowing that even in the midst of tragedy we are partnering with God to set the world right. Joy is felt when in any moment, a moment of the world's deepest sadness or the heights of our own happiness, we realize that we are doing or being exactly what God created us to do or be in that exact moment. That's joy. That's the joy that we need to find right now more than ever.
We are signs of joy when we turn off the news coverage for a while and are present to our children, our grandchildren, our spouses, our neighbors, and our friends. We live in joy when we offer our prayers for what has happened, but we don't become paralyzed by it, because God has a daily call on our lives to be students and builders and volunteers and listeners and singers and friends and teachers and lab technicians and IT specialists and parents and Bible study leaders and knitter and woodworkers and dancers. We live in joy when we do exactly what God has gifted us to do even in the midst of a broken world. We live in joy when we realize that we are named ministers of God, ordained in our baptisms and set right here in the world to serve in the name of a loving God.
So we did light the candle of joy, and we will give thanks for the people who lived joyfully even in the middle of horror and sadness. We will pray that we all have the courage to live joyfully right here, right now, fully present in the lives we live, being who God created us to be, joining God in longing for and making real the restoration of the world.
On Friday I was sure I'd have to change everything.
But by Saturday morning when, I kid you not, I was awakened by the sound of my own kindergartener getting sick at the foot of my bed, when I was called to the task of doing exactly what God wanted me to do, needed me to do in that very moment, care for the ones in my midst, I figured out absolutely nothing needed to change.
With God's longing for restoration and joy on our hearts sitting right next to the sadness, let us turn to God in silent prayer.