Note: I determined early on that this web journal would not be a depository for my sermons, so this is a first. This is slightly revised from a sermon I preached last Sunday, December 16, in response to the tragedy in Connecticut. The Philippians passage was one of the regularly assigned lectionary texts for the day.
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will 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 with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. ~Paul, to the Philippians, 4:4-7
The Gospel of John, speaking of Jesus, says, "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overpower it." This light is not a supernova or a sunburst, but the tiniest pin-point of light in a sea of darkness. The darkness cannot put it out. That's not to say it isn't trying awfully hard. ~adapted from Douglas John Hall, "Lighten Our Darkness."
Earlier this week I began to prepare a sermon based on this part of Paul’s letter to the Philippians from our lectionary for today -- a letter he wrote from prison: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” Double rejoicing! And then the tragic events of Friday in Connecticut happened, and my hand moved to toss the sermon – and Paul’s text – into the recycling bin. But I hesitated, and thought, and… we’ll come back to that letter in a moment, but first I want to take a detour, a detour through the path of suffering and sorrow that is found in our scriptures and winds through the heart of our faith.
In a few days we will celebrate Christmas – perhaps a more subdued celebration this year, as we see Mary and Joseph huddle protectively around a little one born into darkness, doubt, and danger. And a few days after that, our calendar will commemorate a day that the church for centuries has called, “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” A day and title that has a sadly recent familiar sound to it. It is a remembrance of the time when a threatened King Herod arranged for the killing of all boy babies under a certain age. The gospel writer Matthew, quoting Jeremiah, says,
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.
“She refused to be consoled because they are no more.” The scriptures simply do not whitewash or deny the pain of life. Rather they give voice to it. Scripture is not a dispenser of easy answers, it is place of questions – our questions-- a treasury of words, and the Word, to express the expressionless. In fact, so-called “holy scripture” is not holy because of some religious decree or because it’s so beautiful, but because – down through the centuries – it rings true to the human experience. It turns out that life is, in fact, a walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
Where have we gotten the idea that our faith teaches “every day in every way things are getting better and better,” or, “God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.”?
C.S. Lewis writes that “In every age there have been civilized people, and in every age they have been surrounded by barbarism.” And theologian Douglas John Hall asserts that “the Bible writers will give up on the glory of God before they’ll deny the reality of human suffering.” The central sign of our faith is that in the cross God is with us in our suffering. The cross, from which Jesus, echoing the despair of the unconsoled Rachel, cries, “My God, my God! Why have you abandoned me?” Do you not suppose that there are parents in Connecticut this very morning, who may not even know they are quoting scripture, who are crying out with that same lament? “God, why have you abandoned me?”
Jesus’ questions are our questions; the answer that faith offers does not deny death but takes it on and takes it in and defeats it with love. But there’s no getting around that cross.
Perhaps it is we preachers, or the way we build our Sunday School lessons, that have caused many to adopt the notion that if we simply have enough faith (or enough “religion”) we will prosper and all will go well for us; suffering will be averted. Jesus promises – promises – the opposite: “In this world you will have trouble.” It’s a promise. Paul makes a similar case: “We are afflicted in every way.” Get used to it. We are afflicted in every way, “but not crushed.” And Jesus adds, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world.” I would not be in this pulpit this morning if I did not believe both parts of that promise. How does Jesus overcome the world? The cross. The cross on which Jesus is with us in our suffering. From which he laments and forgives. On which he dies. The executioner’s cross – not a valentine heart – is the real sign of love.
When the late William Sloan Coffin lost a young son to another kind of tragedy (death by drowning in an alcohol-related auto accident) he was appalled at the number of his fellow preachers who observed that this must have been God’s will. To which Coffin replied, “I think it was God’s will that my son would have had one or two fewer beers that night!” And he went on to say, “We have to get it out of our heads that God goes around with his hands on the steering wheels of cars or his finger on the triggers of guns. When the waters closed over the top of my son’s car, the first of our hearts to break was God’s.”
God is with us. It’s what “Emmanuel” means. With us. In our suffering. In our despair.
Here is Psalm 88. (In the church service we read it together.) There is something distinctive about it:
O LORD, God of my salvation,
when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry.
For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the Pit;
I am like those who have no help,
like those forsaken among the dead,
like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more,
for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the Pit,
in the regions dark and deep.
Your wrath lies heavy upon me,
and you overwhelm me with all your waves.
You have caused my companions to shun me;
you have made me a thing of horror to them.
I am shut in so that I cannot escape;
my eye grows dim through sorrow.
Every day I call on you, O LORD;
I spread out my hands to you.
Do you work wonders for the dead?
Do the shades rise up to praise you?
Is your steadfast love declared in the grave,
or your faithfulness in Abaddon?
Are your wonders known in the darkness,
or your saving help in the land of forgetfulness?
But I, O LORD, cry out to you;
in the morning my prayer comes before you.
O LORD, why do you cast me off?
Why do you hide your face from me?
Wretched and close to death from my youth up,
I suffer your terrors; I am desperate.
Your wrath has swept over me;
your dread assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
from all sides they close in on me.
You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me;
my companions are in darkness.
What sets this Psalm apart from the other one hundred and forty-nine is this: It is the only psalm that begins in despair and ends in despair and, in the middle – more despair. What the heck is this doing in the Bible?! A number of years ago a friend, another pastor, told me of a time in which he was lost in depression and sorrow – almost paralyzed. He said that he was leafing idly through the Bible, and his eyes landed on this psalm. “There is where my healing began!” he told me. “Here was someone who knew what I was feeling.”
Does this psalm also, perhaps, speak for some in Connecticut? From despair to despair to despair? We pray for the beginning of a deep healing that matches a deep sorrow.
And so we come back to Paul, sitting in that prison cell in Rome, writing to his beloved congregation in Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord….” What restrained my hand from tossing his letter into the recycling bin is that picture – that thought: That Paul – who also sat in darkness and danger in the prison cell that would lead to his murder by a madman; the same threatened, mad emperor who had killed his friend Peter – could write, “Rejoice in the Lord….” In the Lord.
Rejoice in the Lord – who is with us in our suffering. Who walks with us into a darkness so deep that we cannot see the light. Who leads us to green pastures. Still waters. Peace.