December 6th, 2015
The Daily News’ point is pretty clear: these candidates keep saying they’re thinking and praying for the families of the people gunned down every day in our country, but they do nothing to prevent such things from happening over and over again. They keep praying and thinking about gun violence, but mention even the hint of background checks or banning semi-automatic rifles, and they say no. Thoughts and prayers, yes. Legislation and enforcement, no. Their answer, like their foreign policy, is that to quell violence, the powerful need to be more violent. One wonders what happens when their children misbehave. But the Daily News and the left say, God isn’t fixing this. God is leaving this up to us.
Here we are in Advent, the second week of it. There is a movement out there in the church world to make Advent as long as Lent—forty days and nights, plus Sundays. It makes Advent longer, so that our hunger for Christmas awakens sooner, and we think harder about waiting and longing and judgment—all the Advent themes that are often so obscured by our holiday preparations. In fact, we are committing a grave liturgical sin by having our Christmas tree all decorated and lit already—this would not fly in St. Peter’s downtown, and S. Anita Stauffer, author of the Altar Guild and Sacristy Handbook, would frown and shake her head. No Christmas signs till Christmas comes! Advent is about waiting and longing, not about fulfillment! But if we turn our gaze from this silly squabble over symbolism, we’d find, deep in our hearts, the truth of it all—that I’m tempted to preach the same sermon as last week, that I’ll be preaching the same sermon next week, and that we’ll all be keeping our thoughts and prayers going, but nothing will happen. The fear I feel is that we will all begin to believe that God isn’t fixing this, that God is leaving this up to us.
The Bible has actually a lot to say about this. I wish people who talked about religion in public would read the Bible more often. But that would be hard, because the Bible has a way of breaking our confidence in what we believe we know about God. Malachi does this. Malachi is a short book, only a few chapters long. But you might be curious to know that before our reading today that God says the people weary him by saying, “Where is the God of justice?”
And frankly, it’s a dangerous question to ask. That’s kind of the point of Malachi—the messenger of the covenant is coming, but who can endure the day of the LORD? The implication is that no one can endure it. Malachi didn’t know about Twitter, but he knew about meaningless platitudes. He accuses the people of God of cheating God. When God demanded the sacrifices of the best animals, the people gave him the sacrifices of the lame and blind. When God wanted faithful following of his commandments, the people said to one another, “It’s useless. God doesn’t care. Not only do evildoers prosper, when they put God to the test they escape.” It’s almost as if he read the headlines of today. God isn’t fixing this. God doesn’t care. The evil prosper, the good suffer. How long, Oh Lord, how long?
So the Bible tells us of this longing, this complaint against God—that God just sits in the heavens and just leaves us in the world to do our best with the problems we dream up. It is in the Psalms, it is in the Prophets. Maybe you’ve even heard the old line, “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down!” That’s from Isaiah. But I think it is a profound temptation to believe that God isn’t fixing anything. We celebrate Advent to remember that God’s promise to come down happened, that God’s promise to refine us like fire, is happening. God fulfilled his promise, and he fulfilled it in exceptionally silly way: what could a baby in a manger do to solve our nation’s problem of gun violence. How does a powerless baby solve anybody’s problems?
And yet there is a miraculous message today from Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. He was struck dumb because he questioned the angel Gabriel, who came to announce to him the birth of his son—and it wasn’t until his son was born and he wrote his name down was his mouth opened. And he gave us the Benedictus, his song at the birth of one the most helpless and needy of all creatures, a baby. His name was John, and he wasn’t “the Baptist” yet. And yet Zechariah knew, as he sang his song, that the redemption of God was coming, after centuries it was coming, that God remembers his covenant, and this little baby was going to prepare the way of the Lord, so that the people would know of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins, and that the light would come upon them in the darkness to show them the way of peace. This little baby came to prepare the way of the LORD. And he did go into his country and baptize, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
God does care. God does act. God will fix this—this whole mess. God will fix you. God hears the prayers of his people, and God can distinguish between prayers and sanctimonious tweets. But the God who fulfills promises over time and through human beings does not fix things in our lifetimes in sudden flashes of light. God fixes things through the forgiveness of sins and leading his people out of darkness into light. God fixes things in the lives of little babies, born into a world that does not make sense. God fixes things through the way of peace.
And so, we end up missing the way of peace because we long for a solution that God does not promise and does not provide. What is Jesus answer to violence? To put his trust in God’s power over death. How we long for God to come down in fire and end this whole world, and surely Christ will come. But we cannot forget that in this time between his appearances, God has given us an example of Jesus for our time: to meet people in their pain, to offer them hope, to heal, to believe and trust in the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness is the strongest weapon against hate that can be: it neutralizes its power and immediately makes the path to reconciliation possible. So God will ask us when we cry out—how have you opened your hearts? Have you prayed for my forgiveness? Have you prayed to forgive others? Have you walked into the straight road of pain that Jesus walked?
God is fixing this. God hears our prayers. There was a meme from the Pope that reads: First you pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how prayer works. But I would also say that we pray for forgiveness, and forgive, that we pray to trust our union with Christ’s death and resurrection, and see how God wants us to use our own lives to encounter those in pain. God wants the church to say to those people who believe only more guns will stop gun violence that the crooked will be made straight, and that God wants us to follow a different path. And I think God is pushing us to that path, holding out his hands to us, shining a light for us, guiding us to get up and have to courage to say, with Malachi, “These are platitudes, not prayers. Have the courage to follow God’s light to the way of peace, and write some laws.” Amen.
The Reverend John Z. Flack