A sermon delivered by Wendell Griffen, Pastor, New Millennium Church, Little Rock, Ark., on December 16, 2012.
15 Thus says the Lord: A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.
8 Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’* And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. 9Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ 10And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? 11 Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.
19 But you, O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid!
Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck.
2 I sink in deep mire,
where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
and the flood sweeps over me.
3 I am weary with my crying;
my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim
with waiting for my God.
5 I wait for the Lord, my soul waits,
and in his word I hope;
6 my soul waits for the Lord
more than those who watch for the morning,
more than those who watch for the morning.
7 O Israel, hope in the Lord!
For with the Lord there is steadfast love,
and with him is great power to redeem.
8 It is he who will redeem Israel
from all its iniquities.
John 1:1-5, 14
1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,* full of grace and truth.
Twenty children and six adults were massacred Friday morning at Shady Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Each child was in the first grade. The oldest child was seven years old. Each adult killed at the school was an educator whose last acts were taken to protect and defend their school and its community from a gunman who had already killed his mother earlier Friday morning. After murdering his mother, twenty children, six adults, and wounding others, the killer took his own life.
The world may never know why this murderous rampage happened. Assumptions abound, but they are no more than guesswork.
Yet some things are quite clear. This was a massacre, a hateful and savage attack on defenseless people. The heinous massacre apparently committed by a single man has cast the shadow of gloom over Advent Season.
Grief has replaced Advent festivity for the parents and other family members of the slaughtered, for Shady Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut, the United States, and the world. When President Obama wept during his televised statement Friday afternoon, people everywhere shared his struggle. In the words of Jeremiah, “A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.“[Jeremiah 31:15]
It is also clear that the Shady Hook School massacre is the latest in a long line of hateful violence that people commit against other people. Cain was not armed with a handgun when he murdered his brother Abel. Brutus had no handgun when he killed Julius Caesar. The history of violence did not begin with guns and gunpowder.
But, we should have learned long ago to limit opportunities for troubled people to obtain and use firearms against others. People of faith should have joined that effort and helped lead it long before now. More people are killed or maimed from firearms in the United States than anywhere else in the world. Regulating gun ownership isn’t simply a political issue. It is a clear and present moral imperative for anyone whose morality has not been compromised by greed, self-centeredness, hate, and fear.
Pastors and other religious leaders, like everyone else, struggle to understand why people commit such hateful acts. We ask the same questions you ask. Why do these things happen? Where is God’s love and care when innocents are threatened and massacred? How do we trust God’s love and care after this? How can we live with hope and strength when so much grief and gloom overshadows us? These questions are as current as the Shady Hook massacre. Yet they are as timeless as the lesson of Cain and Abel in Scripture.
And Scripture teaches that people have wrestled with God about the problem of evil and innocent suffering. That problem is central to the story of Job. The book of Job concludes without Job ever being told or saying that he understood why he suffered. And the crucifixion of Jesus can never be fully considered without remembering his dying words, My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me? [Mark 15:34].
Like Job, Jesus, Shady Hook parents and families, and the rest of the world, we wonder if God has forgotten or abandoned us when innocents suffer. Holocaust survivors wondered. African slaves wondered. Native Americans wondered. Crime and violence victims everywhere wonder.
Scripture reflects that timeless anguish. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? [Psalm 22:1]. Those questions come from the experience of people who trust God. They are questions of honest faith in the face of inescapable pain.
But Scripture also presents us with something more. Even as honest faith drives us to question why innocents suffer, honest faith somehow also cries to God for help. At the same time that we wonder why God doesn’t prevent our pain we wonder when and how God will help us bear it. Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help. But you, O Lord, do not be far away! O my help, come quickly to my aid! [Psalm 22:11, 19].
And we cry for help to God from hearts that dare to hope despite the questions that rise out of our gloomy situation. Save me, O God,
for the waters have come up to my neck. 2 I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. 3 I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched. My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. 5 I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; 6 my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning. 7 O Israel, hope in the Lord! For with the Lord there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. [Ps. 69:1-7] Somehow, we still believe in God’s love even when we don’t understand why innocents suffer.
Evil is real. It is as real as the massacre of innocent children and adults at Shady Hook. Evil is as real as the slaughter of Jews during the Holocaust. Evil is as real as the suffering and massacre of African men, women, and children during the Middle Passage and across centuries of religiously sanctioned, commercially-licensed, and legally regulated slavery. Evil is as real as the lynching of Jesus at Calvary and the lynching and other hateful murders of vulnerable people in our society.
Evil is real. Hate is real. Suffering is real. Grief is real. Injustice is real. Evil, hate, suffering, grief, and injustice are realities we must never deny. Faith in God doesn’t mean we don’t live with these realities and aren’t affected by them.
Moral freedom is real! Evil, hate, suffering, grief, and injustice are real because moral freedom is real. People are morally free to be mean, hateful, and even viciously murderous. Yes, people are created with moral capacity to be kind or mean, loving or hateful, compassionate or vicious.
So while I question God concerning the Shady Hook massacre, I will not blame God for it. Mendacity, hatefulness, viciousness, and murders are choices humans make in the same way we are morally free to be kind, loving, and compassionate.
God’s Love is More Real than Evil and our Gloom! Our cries and hope to God for help are built on another, and deeper, reality that is more real than evil, hate, suffering, grief, and injustice is another reality that is deeper and more powerful. It is God’s love! The writer of the Fourth Gospel understood God’s love to be a Person that he called “the Word.” The “Word” of God’s love is more real than every other reality.
- From the beginning God’s love has been real in the Word.
- Before the first murder, God’s love was real in this divine Somebody called “the Word.”
- Before anyone thought about guns and gunpowder, God’s love was real in that Somebody called “the Word.”
- God’s love through “the Word” is the source of life.
- God’s love through “the Word” is our light, our inspiration, and our hope.
- God’s love is “more real” than evil, hate, suffering, and injustice.
Scripture declares that God’s “more real” love is not vanquished or extinguished by the dark forces of evil, hate, suffering, and injustice. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. [John 1:5]. Hate cannot turn out the light of God’s love. Evil cannot snuff out God’s love. Suffering cannot overcome God’s love. Grief and gloom cannot keep God’s love from us. Injustice is real, but all the oppressive forces in Creation can never separate us from God’s love.
Why do we say this?
We say it because the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,* full of grace and truth. [John 1:14]. God’s love has entered into our experience in the Word we have come to know as Jesus.
- In the Word we know as Jesus, God’s love shared our suffering, endured human hate, and went hand to hand with evil.
- In the Word named Jesus, God’s love has known our grief, and been the victim of human injustice.
- In the Word called Jesus, God’s love was assaulted, seized, vilified, tortured, and murdered.
- In the Word known as Jesus, God’s love suffered what we suffer, cried as we cry, questioned as we question, and shared our bitter cup.
- In the Word, God’s love has experienced all the darkness we face as Jesus lived among us and died before us.
But the darkness did not overcome God’s love! The darkness of evil, hate, suffering, grief, and injustice cast its gloom over God’s love at Calvary. But we live with Easter hope because God’s love was not overcome by that darkness. The Word of God’s love called Jesus rose from the darkness! Hallelujah!
So we live with Easter hope, and dare to wait for God’s help as we cope with our grief, gloom, and suffering, because God’s love is shining through the darkness. We live with Easter hope because even though we see it dimly, as through tinted glass, the resurrection of Jesus has given us a glimpse of glory that outshines our gloom. We live with Easter hope because now we live by faith and hope and love, and faith, hope, and love last forever. We live with Easter hope because God’s love is more real than all the evil, grief, gloom, suffering, and injustice of darkness.
So let us mourn with Easter hope because God’s love is more real than the gloom. Let us cry out to God from wounded hearts that affirm Easter hope because God’s love in Jesus is more powerful than death despite our every gloom-filled experience. Let us pray for Shady Hook families, Newtown, and our grieving world in the spirit of Easter hope because God’s love is able to do exceedingly abundantly more than we can imagine to comfort, strengthen, sustain, and help us endure.
And in the power of Easter hope built on the wonderful reality of God’s love, let us confront and change the practices, policies, and systems that empower evil, hate, fear, suffering, grief, and injustice. In doing these things, we will be agents of God’s light and love, like Jesus, shining through and beyond the gloom. Amen.
Pastor at New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a state court trial judge, a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, author of one book and three blogs, and a consultant on cultural competency and inclusion.