Rejoice? How Can We?

I can imagine that in many Christian churches — particularly ones that follow the lectionary — a lot of lectors are going to be choking on words come Sunday morning. And a lot of people sitting in the pews are going to be shaking their heads in disbelief or reaching with extended fingers to plug their ears.

How will we read what we will read and say what we will say, knowing what we know?

From the prophet Zephaniah:

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!

From Paul in his letter to the Philippians:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.

To say the least, it feels out of character, even inappropriate, to encourage such joy-filled, upbeat celebrating when our hearts are so full of sadness at the unspeakable horror of the murder of so many innocents. How can we say what we will say, knowing what we know?

For most of Friday, I was in my home in silence, reading and going about a lot of mid-December tasks, oblivious to what was going on at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. Not until mid-afternoon did I turn on the radio to find that another unspeakable tragedy had taken place. In terms of the tragic and violent loss of life, it’s no different than the other mass shootings that have become all too frequent. Yet this one feels different because so many young children were the victims. It’s truly heart-wrenching for me.

How will we read what we will read and say what we will say, knowing what we know?

It’s probably a good time to remind ourselves that when the prophet spoke these words, he wasn’t speaking in a time when the Israelites were on top of the world. In fact, he spoke the words in a time of national humiliation. The people of God had been carried off into exile. Their homeland was gone and their Temple — the visible sign of God’s presence and blessing — had been destroyed. And don’t think for a minute that when the Babylonians took over, property wasn’t plundered, homes and businesses burned, and people killed, including innocent children.

Need I remind you that Paul was not writing from his lakeside cabin in idyllic retreat? He was writing from prison, with the full expectation that he would not get out. This is where he would die, so he thought.

Yet they both have the audacity to speak not only of rejoicing, but of living in any circumstance with confident hope in a loving and gracious God who is still present even in the midst of the pain, suffering, and tragedy that is part of human community.

If I had to speculate, I’d guess that neither the prophet nor the apostle would find anything untoward about reading these texts in a time of national shock and mourning. In fact, these might very well be precisely the words they’d want us to read, because when we allow our faith to speak in the midst of tragedy, we hear of living in confident hope.

When we read these ancient texts on Sunday, we will stand in a long line of proclaimers who have spoken jarring words that bring hope in the midst of despair, rejoicing in the midst of sorrow, and life in the midst of death. We will have the audacity to proclaim what is at the center not only of these texts, but at the center of the Christian faith. That God’s love is not negated or overshadowed by tragedy, senseless violence, or the inexplicable horror that one human being might inflict on another. At the center of our faith is the truth that God is especially in these times and these places. These are the times and places when the comfort and hope of God’s coming speaks so forcefully.

God did not offer God’s love from the distance of a heavenly throne, but came to dwell among us, born of a baby. God’s love was demonstrated most forcefully in the midst of the unspeakable violence and cruelty of a crucifixion. And God’s penchant for life was demonstrated most profoundly in Christ’s resurrection, reminding us that while death is real and often horrible, it is never the last word.

So, we will read and we will sing. We will pray and we may even shed tears. And because we know what we know, we will rejoice.

21 thoughts on “Rejoice? How Can We?

  1. Quentin Chin

    Thank you for writing this rich post and framing it within tomorrow’s lectionary reading. I believe that our pulpits tomorrow need to address the shooting from the deep theological perspective as a counterweight to the raging rhetoric which will has already begun in the secular media.

  2. Bob Burke

    As usual, Jim, you have found just the right words to help in the process of healing that will be going on for a long time. God’s blessings on your homily tomorrow.

  3. Pj Jayne Thompson

    Greetings, James – thanks for your thoughtful words. I, too, was home all day on Friday thinking about this. In our campus ministry congregation, we always commemorate Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday with the Magnificat as the gospel text and focus on the women of the Nativity (often the 3rd Sunday falls on or around Dec. 12 – Our Lady of Gaudalupe and Dec. 13 – St. Lucia days). Akin to the Sunday after the earthquake in Haiti, we need to come together and to sing in the midst of great sorrow and if there is to be any rejoicing in its muted, dusty rose colored hues, it will be in the tenacious, everlasting love of our Mothering God who holds us fast in our great sorrow and rocks us humming lullabies when words pale in the face of the horrific slaughter of the school children and their dedicated teachers.

  4. Cheryl Colby Hayes

    Helpful words; thoughtfully written. It is helpful to remember that God’s heart breaks along with ours. My thoughts and prayers go out to this community and also to Ryan Lanza who lost his mother and brother …

  5. Carolyn Heider

    Grateful for your words, Jim, and for your generosity in sharing them. Peace to you as you minister to your people.

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  9. kathleen Johnson

    Pastor…..still struggling with these happenings and even though Pastor Pam Smith started the healing process using these scriptures…your thoughts shared have truly touched me and I am grateful to have found them.

    Kathleen Johnson (Pastor Johnson’s daughter-in-law)


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