My sermon for the third Sunday of Advent was ready: “Anticipate the Presence.” The Old Testament reading from Zephaniah 3 was full of hope. “The Lord your God is with you, the Mighty Warrior who saves” (v. 17, NIV).
Then, on Friday, December 14, we were all stunned by the news of 20 children and 6 adults gunned down within the walls of their elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. All over the country, pastors scrambled to rewrite their sermons. How could we speak to the fear and grief generated by this tragedy while continuing to hold up the hope and promise of Advent?
I began by reminding our families that, though school shootings grab the headlines and make us feel very vulnerable, public schools are very safe places for our children. In the United States, we have over 98,000 public schools with 50 million students. Since 1999, there have been about 22 deaths per year by shootings or other violent incidents. That means the chances of a student losing his or her life while at school are one in over two million. I thanked our school administrators, police officers, and security personnel for doing an excellent job in protecting our children.
I then addressed the elephant in the room: how can we sing and preach about a God who is with us, a Mighty Warrior who saves, when innocent children were unprotected and unsaved when the gunman invaded their school? This is the question that is impossible to suppress at times like this.
How can a loving God allow such things? How can God stand for the extermination of the Jews in the Holocaust? How can he allow the attacks of 9/11? How can he watch school shootings in places like Columbine and Newtown?
Good questions. Hard questions. The mystery of evil is great. It can and does move people to despair and to doubt the existence of God.
But there’s another mystery. It’s the mystery of goodness and love. If there is no God, if the universe is meaningless and will end in nothingness, then how do we explain the heroic acts of love and sacrifice that light the world and bring meaning to our lives?
The mystery of terrorists flying planes into buildings is great, but the mystery of rescue teams running into those burning buildings is greater. The mystery of a 20-year-old man walking into an elementary school to shoot young children cries out for an explanation, but how do you explain the mystery of young teachers and administrators placing themselves in the path of the killer to save the lives of children?
Where does such goodness and love come from?
Yes, the mystery of a cruel king ordering the murder of innocent babies in Bethlehem is a test to our faith. Yet, the greatest mystery of all is the love that would lead the pure Son of God to offer himself on a cross as a sacrifice for the sins of the world.
How do you explain that?
At a time like this, we do not offer trite or superficial answers to hard questions. Instead, we open the Word of God and take courage from the gospel message that tells us that our great and loving God did not remain at a safe distance from the evil and suffering in this world. Rather, he came to us; he lived among us—he is Immanuel, God with us.
Because God has entered this broken world and suffered with us, he redeems that suffering and uses it for his eternal purposes. So, we join the mission of God in our world to push back the darkness. We don’t let the sadness win because, in the end, we believe the King will make all things new.
Rick Power serves as senior pastor of College Church of the Nazarene in Olathe, Kansas