The Slaughter of the Innocents

The following is a sermon I preached in the aftermath of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. I had meant to publish it at that time, but for some reason did not. Now, in light of the massacre in Las Vegas, it seems appropriate. Unfortunately.

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As is likely with many, many pastors across America and even around the world, yesterday I found myself faced with the need to prepare a new message for today. For after the tragic events in Newtown, CT, it is not possible to preach the Advent message I had planned. The general theme of our Advent series is “Worshipping the God Who Comes,” and as I will emphasize later, the fact of his coming is our ultimate hope and comfort. But we must not go there too soon.

I did not hear of the murders until late Friday night, and did not read about the details until Saturday morning, in a New York Times article entitled “Nation Reels After Gunman Massacres 20 Children at School In Connecticut”. Immediately after reading what horrific details were then available, I wrote two prayers in my journal. The first prayer was a lament and a plea for guidance:

O God. O God. How can we take it? How can you take it? I am trying to think clearly about what to say/do in tomorrow’s message. I cannot pass by it in silence, but should I devote my message to it? It seems so antithetical to the spirit of Christmas – to the joy, hope, festivity, happiness and good will that marks the season. Comfort ye, O comfort ye, your people! We wanted this day to be one of joy for our congregation, not a lament. Can it be both? My God, give me wisdom to decide.

And then followed this . . .

I am numb.
I want to go on as if nothing has happened.
I want to laugh, and tell jokes, and think positive thoughts.
I want to wrap Christmas presents.
I want to preach an inspiring sermon tomorrow, not recall the day the music died.
I want everyone to be healthy, happy and hopeful.
I want twenty-eight people to be alive who are not.
I want their families to be joyful, not mournful.
I want to edit out yesterday from history.
It was a mistake. Let’s do a re-take.
I want to re-play the last 20 years of Adam Lanza’s life.
From the day he was born to the day before yesterday.
I want him to know every day of his life how precious he is.
How loved he is.
How much goodness God wants to pour into and through his life.
I want to shield him from all evil.
I want his family to be intact.
Loving parents, living together, protecting and nurturing two precious sons.
I want him to live in a violence-free world.
I want it all to go away.

How long, O Lord, how long?
Christ have mercy.
Father, forgive us. We know not what we are doing.

By the time I finished with the second prayer, I felt fairly certain that my message must address the shootings in a way that is both honest and hopeful. Here are the words that came:

We must be honest. We must be free to speak the question. To say it out loud. To scream it out loud: ‘Where was God!?’

They say a picture is worth a thousand words.

Slaughter of the Innocents

Do you hear the question on this mans’ face? “God, where are you?! How could you let this happen . . . again? God, what are you doing?!”
I think I know the answer. At least part of the answer. It is captured in a song by an artist named Eli. The song is entitled, “God weeps too.”

So this is for the man who never learned to read or write.
He worked two jobs instead of going to school.
I know it hurt you as a child.
Please remember all the while
that God weeps too.

And this is for the widow who now must sleep alone
when the memory of a kiss will have to do.
Every night when she lays down
you can almost hear the sound
when God weeps too.

God weeps too.
God weeps too.
Though we question him for all that we go through,
still it helps me believe and my pain it does relieve when I think that
God weeps too.

And for every survivor of the wickedness of man
Whether you’re a black man or a Jew –
Some people kill in Jesus name;
He is not the one to blame
‘cause even God weeps too

God weeps too.
God weeps too.
Though we question him for all that we go through,
still it helps me believe and my pain it does relieve
when I think that God weeps too.
God weeps too.

And I never really thought about it,
not that much about it,
but God weeps too.
~ “God weeps too” by Eli. From the album Things I Prayed For (1998)

While these lyrics do not speak specifically of the kind of tragedy we have been confronted with in Newtown, they do speak an important truth. The seasons of Advent & Christmas are reminder that God is not a distant, uninvolved spectator of the human drama. Jesus—Emmanuel, God with us—wept, and there is no reason to think that God does not still weep.

When I heard of the shootings and thought about the fact that they occurred less than two weeks before Christmas, my mind went to the events recorded in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, when Herod, incensed that the wise men had tricked him and left without revealing the whereabouts of the baby Jesus, responded in what can only be called cold-blooded insanity, in what is called the slaughter of the innocents:

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18)

And now there has been wailing and loud lamentation in Newton, CT, where another slaughter of innocents has taken place, and where there are many who today and possibly for a long time, possibly for a lifetime, are not going to be consoled.

And so God weeps.

But the God who weeps does not only weep. He acts. He comes. And He comforts.
And he ultimately overcomes all the darkness, all the grief and pain, and wipes away all tears.

We associate Christmas with Handel’s Messiah. Handel drew heavily, of course, from the prophet Isaiah. Hear these words from the 40th chapter:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem . . . A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 40:1-2a, 3-5)

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm [23] rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; [And listen to these last words of verse 11:] he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isaiah 40:9-11)

There is healing in God’s arms, I believe that God has gathered 20 lambs into his arms, and is even now gently comforting both their mother and father sheep.
A day coming when all will be made well. It is the day that the first coming of Christ inaugurated, and whose second coming will complete.

That day has not yet come. It will come, but it has not come. And so, as the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us,

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.
A time to weep, and a time to laugh.
A time to mourn, and a time to dance. (Ecclesiastes 3:1, 4)

Now is such a time when we are called to mourn with those who mourn.

But mourning is not the last word. Mourning is not the last word.
Robbie Parker, father of 6 year-old Emilie Parker, who died in the attack, after tearfully describing Emilie as “bright, creative, and very loving,” added this: “as we move on from what happened here, what happened to so many people, let us not let it turn into something that defines us.”

No, this tragedy born of human sin and frailty, need not define us. For even in the midst of our mourning there is comfort from the God who not only weeps but comes. The God who came in Jesus Christ is the same God who now comes to comfort the families of the innocents, the family of the not-nearly-so-innocent, our nation and of the world.

It is a comfort born of hope . . .

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:1-5)

Now, may the God who comes, the God who is trustworthy and true, be our comfort, and even our joy.

a novel idea: seek the truth

These thoughts were stimulated by a January 7, 2014 column by Thomas Sowell, which is linked below.

What if everyone–right, left, center, off-the-page–committed themselves to doing the best they can (I am sure my pronoun use here is incorrect) to 1) finding the truth and 2) speaking only the truth, regardless of the personal, social, or political repercussions of doing so? This would apply to all subjects – political, economic, religious, moral, etc. Actually, I am not sure it is possible for politicians to do this, as Thomas Sowell points out below, but for the rest of us, we owe it to ourselves, to our children and grandchildren, to our world, to our God, to lift high the banner of the quest for truth. This translates into serious self-discipline whereby we do not, in the words of Dallas Willard, “speak in tones that do not encourage doubt” on matters we merely have opinions about. Ask yourself questions like, “Why do I believe this?” “Do I have any good reason for doing so?” “Who are my authorities on this matter, and what are their qualifications?” “How certain am I on this matter?” “Why do those who disagree on this subject disagree?” “What’s at issue here?” And what’s at issue here, in what I am talking about, is the fact that if we give up on truth, then our only alternative is a politics of raw power, wherein ‘truth’ is what those with the most coercive influence say it is. Hello Nietzsche.

Some honesty and humility would help. Let’s admit that we are all inclined at times to take cheap shots at the “enemy,” shots that consist of the thoughtless repetition of slogans and unfounded accusations and character assassinations. Some are more inclined than others, but we all know the temptation, and what it means to give in to it. Here the ancient wisdom of the book of James is pertinent: “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”  My tendencies lie in the opposite direction.

As I said above, I have my doubts about the capacity of the political class to actually care about the truth. This seems to be the case with New York’s new mayor, Bill de Blasio, as Sowell points out in this column on the “trickle-down” bogey man . . .