December 16, 2012 – Advent 3 Can He Restore What the Darkness Has Taken?
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This week the darkness of the world around us has come particularly close to us. We know that we live in a world where innocent people suffer violence every day, even every moment. We know that right now there is warfare in Afghanistan and in Syria; that starvation and AIDS are taking lives in third-world countries even as we speak; that behind closed doors in our own country domestic violence is a reality, forcing women and children to live day and night under the shadow of death. We know these things. But this week darkness seemed to force itself into our very homes.
On Friday morning, just two days ago, a man entered an elementary school and killed 26 people, including 20 little children. It was broad daylight, 9:30 in the morning; the children were just beginning a new day of school. The school, Sandy Hook Elementary, was set in a white-collar Connecticut community that had been rated the 5th safest city in the United States, an ideal place to raise a family, a place where you would feel good sending your children off to school each morning. It was the last place you would expect evil to strike, and those 20 little children were the most tragic and horrifying victims we can imagine. It was evil we can’t push aside, evil we can’t explain away. And if the hope that we have been preaching throughout this Advent season has no answer for this evil, then it is evil that has overcome. If the hope of Advent has nothing to say to the people of Newtown Connecticut, then we are in the wrong place this morning, because our gospel is powerless, just the nice feelings and pretty traditions of sheltered people whose lives have not yet been touched by the real powers of this world – the powers of darkness and pain and fear and violence.
Over the past couple of weeks, we have been reading the prophets of the Old Testament, and hearing the immense promises that God made to his people, promises that began to break into the world when God became one of us and was born into our world. But we are still waiting for the fullness of those promises; we still have to live in hope, by faith looking forward to the time when we behold them perfectly and completely. The first promise was the promise of justice, the promise of a world where evil and unfairness and cruelty no longer exist. And the second promise was the promise of purification, the promise to us that our own sin and the evil and suffering that gives birth to the darkness of this world, will once and for ever be destroyed. These are huge and joyful promises; whether they acknowledge it or not, whether they know where to look for it, whether they have sunk into despair or built a shell of cynicism around themselves or tried to pacify their longings with pleasures or pursuits, every heart in this world is sick with the longing for these promises to be fulfilled. But this week even these wonderful promises don’t seem quite big enough. We can rejoice that a time will come when no little child will be in danger. We can rejoice that justice will be done, and the evil that brought this tragedy about will be punished. We can rejoice that there is comfort and forgiveness for everyone who is suffering as a result of these events. But what can we say to the parents who have lost the children they love?
The answer is not that the glory of God’s kingdom when it comes is so wonderful that it will outshine the sorrows of this world, so that all the terrible things that we have suffered won’t matter any more. Or at least, I certainly don’t believe that is the answer. I think that only holds out a false and hollow hope to the grieving. It also makes light of the truth of the Incarnation, which is the center of every hope we have. Because the meaning of the Incarnation is this: matter matters. The Son of God became part of his creation because he loves every atom of it, and he came to redeem it all. Jesus came to share our very DNA so that every cell of every person, from the shooter to the smallest victim, is loved, is precious, is worth saving because he makes it worth saving. So the answer to the horrors of this week is not that it will be eclipsed by the glory of God’s light; the answer is that because Jesus came to share our darkness, God’s light is able to heal and restore our every darkness.
Our reading from the prophet Zephaniah today said: “Rejoice and exult with all your heart…the Lord is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil…he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing…I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,” says the Lord. The thing is that the promises of our God aren’t just for the future, as if he were only human and the past was beyond his control. God promises us comfort and joy; he promises us a future of justice; he promises to cleanse and forgive us. But he also promises us restoration.
The best way we can understand what that means is by looking at the Resurrection, which was a sort of sneak peek of restoration. On the cross the evil of this world struck the Son of God with the very worst it could do, not only the physical suffering of a terrible death but when he took on the sins of the whole earth he also suffered separation from the Father, which was an even more terrible suffering. But evil could not be victorious over God, and the evil of death and pain and sorrow were transformed into abundant and unbreakable life and joy. That is restoration, taking the worst of evil and transforming it into unspeakable goodness.
When our children are little and they get hurt, or they lose something or someone they loved, or they do something for which they are intensely sorry, we want so much to comfort them and make it all better. We can tell them it’s OK, we can assure them that we still love them, we can distract them. But we can never really make it OK; we can never quite take away the shadow of that sorrow; we can’t give back a beloved pet that has died or make it so our child didn’t say that hurtful thing they wish they had never said. We’re just human beings, and we only work in one direction. What’s done is done. Love can do a lot, but human love can’t restore what is past. But our divine Father is able to do what we can never do. He can make it OK. He can bring joy out of sorrow and life out of death. He can make things more than OK, he can make them perfectly good in a way that they never were before.
It is beyond our imagining – at least it is beyond mine – how God will bring restoration to the grieving parents of Newtown Connecticut. But I know that he has promised it. And I know that he demonstrated his power of restoration in his own body when he suffered death on the cross and rose again victorious from the grave. I know that he became a tiny child – the infinite eternal God within a single cell in the womb of the Virgin Mary – because it was his purpose for each and every person in this creation to be born as beloved children of his Father. I know that his love is so great for his creation that not even one little sparrow falls to the ground without his knowledge. And I know that the children of Sandy Hook Elementary School are worth more to our Lord Jesus than many sparrows.
The prophet Joel spoke to Judah, the southern Kingdom of Israel when they had suffered a terrible plague of locusts. Through Joel, God comforted his people with the promise of restoration. “Be glad, O children of Zion, and rejoice in the Lord your God…I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten… You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied, and praise the name of the Lord your God, who has dealt wondrously with you. You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the Lord your God and there is none else.”
“I will restore to you the years that the swarming locust has eaten…” Or He might say today, “I will restore to you the years that the cancer stole from you. I will restore to you the love you destroyed by your cruel words. I will restore to you the childhood your abusive parent took away. I will restore to you the children the gunman took from you.” It is not giving something new and good to cover up or distract us from the evil we experienced. It is going back, undoing the evil itself, unraveling history and making it what it should have been. It is getting what we so often long for: “If only I could just go back and do it all over…” It is not possible for us; it is hardly possible to believe it is even in God’s power to do such a marvelous thing. But God does dare such a promise. Our God has the power to restore all things, to heal all things, and one of the great hopes of Advent is this: that all God’s creation will be restored, not just patched up, not just soothed, not even replaced: but restored, healed completely. And the joyful hope of Advent assures us that he little children of Newtown Connecticut and their parents, the people in war-torn countries of the world, the sick and the desperate of the world, and we too, are in the hands of a powerful and loving God who is able to do all that he has promised.
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