Advent 3B: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; I Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28
St. John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
Sunday, December 16, 2017
The Rev. Candice B. Frazer
I wonder if, for many of us, our life feels like a long time, on a crooked road. Sometimes that road ahead is smooth and clear and at other times it is bumpy and strewn with obstacles. Rarely does it seem to be straight. This past week was the fifth anniversary of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. Sandy Hook wasn’t the first school shooting, much less the first elementary school shooting. It wasn’t even the first mass killing of children—that event has happened again and again throughout history—tracing back to, at least, the Egyptian Pharaoh and his massacre of Jewish baby boys in the Bible. Sandy Hook is not unique in her experience nor is the suffering inspired by that tragedy any less real.
Parents of children who died that day at Sandy Hook found their paths taking a sharp turn and they continue to grieve. The residents of Newtown discovered that their town sat in a fork in the road, one that has led to sorrow and pain and away from the nice and quiet bedroom community they once were. I can only imagine that each year as they approach Christmas their journey is not marked by the joy that society typically associates with the season. Instead, I imagine that the themes of Advent—darkness and light, suffering and hopeful expectation—weigh heavy upon their hearts. I imagine that instead of merriment, they know melancholy; instead of joy, regret and a wish that this long crooked road had a few less sharp turns. Melancholy and regret in the face of circumstances of loss and grief are more than understandable and perfectly acceptable, even five years later, at this time of year.
There is no magic formula or prescribed amount of time for grief to be resolved and one to be released from its hold. We each grieve in our own way and at our own pace. It may take years for us to find joy and we might not know happiness again but that does not lessen us as a person nor does it mean we are less of a Christian. We don’t disappoint God when we grieve. Grief is an expression of love—it is a hole torn out of our heart that can never be filled again. It takes us down crooked paths and makes the journey seem longer and harder than it is supposed to be. As one widow said to me, “ The best one can hope for is that the hole in my heart might scab over so that I can move forward with my life.” But the problem with scabs is that we have a tendency to pick at them, causing them to bleed, and delaying their ability to heal.
Some of us find it difficult to embrace our losses—instead we try to ignore them, keep pushing on, rise above them, fake it ‘til we make it. We know that we need to face our loss and grief but we have either set too high an expectation for how we will heal, we don’t want others to know or be burdened by our deep sorrow, or we have labeled our loss as an enemy and refuse to come to terms with it—waging battle instead of seeking peace. Whatever our reasons, the problem remains our loss is real and the more we try to deny it or refuse to engage it the deeper the cavernous hole in out heart grows.
Others of us refuse to take any responsibility in our loss. Instead we blame another—personifying illness, “Cancer took him.” Or, putting the responsibility solely on God, “It was God’s will.” And when we come down to it, the deep struggle with our grief is what we believe about God. When we are standing on the precipice of loss, peering into the darkness ahead, desperate to find one small prick of light to guide us down this crooked way—we feel abandoned and afraid. We cannot move forward for the terror in our hearts and we cannot move backward as that way has been shut to us. We fear that our next step will send us over the cliff into a bottomless pit of agony or that we will wander so far off the path, we will get lost, alone in the wilderness of our despair. As Richard Rohr says, “We perceive death and loss as enemies and affliction. They appear to us to be the opposite of life.” We believe the path of life is straight and well lit and yet death and loss bring darkness and chaos.
For the majority of us who have never experienced any sort of blindness, darkness is uncomfortable for us and fills us with concern—for too long we have relied on light to order our world and thus find our security. When we are plunged into darkness, even spiritual darkness, we have lost any sign of order in the life that we once knew. Now we know only chaos, the way forward is shrouded in darkness, and the path behind is shut, we cannot see around the next turn in the road—it is no wonder that grief can become all consuming and that we are all but frozen in fear—afraid to move forward, afraid to let go of that which was, afraid that we will be in darkness forever. Maybe it is only when our vision has failed us that we can hear the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.
John calls to us as a witness to the light. He is not the light but he implores us that the light exists, that the darkness will fade. Isaiah calls to us to have hope that the good news will come to the oppressed, that the broken hearted will be bound up, that liberty and release will come to those who have been made captive by their grief, imprisoned in their hopelessness. Even in our burial liturgy, we hear the voice of Jesus that he is resurrection and life and that those who live and believe in him shall never die. These are the voices crying out in the wilderness; they are the voices bearing witness to the presence of God amongst us. They remind us that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.
We too are called to bear witness to the light even in our times of suffering, our darkest hours, and our most crooked paths. To bear witness to the light is to point to the presence of Jesus in our midst: Maybe it is the incarnational Jesus made humble and low in his birth, a gift to us to be treasured and nurtured; Maybe it is the resurrected Jesus filling us with the joyful hope of salvific expectation; or maybe it is the crucified Jesus suffering humiliation, rejection, and death on a cross. Bearing witness to Jesus is not about escaping pain but about owning it—embracing loss—because that is how transformation occurs. To avoid loss is to avoid transformation.
Paul tells the Thessalonians to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in ALL circumstances.
These three things are the will of God. Death and loss and suffering are not the will of God. God’s will is that of redemption and salvation and hope. To thank God at all times is to see God working in every situation to bring about divine will. Redemption and salvation require transformation—the transformation of the divine into human form, of crucifixion into resurrection, of death into life.
We do not believe in God as an escape mechanism regarding this world and the next; nor do we believe in God because we feel thwarted by adversity. We believe in God because we do not believe our present circumstances are all there is in this world. We place our hope in the light that comes into the world, in a path that is made straight. We may go out weeping, carrying the seed but we will come again with joy, shouldering our sheaves. Our situations of distress and suffering can be transformed through our belief in a God that came to walk this crooked path just as we do, so that we too might cry out in the wilderness “make straight the way of the Lord.”