If you were here on Sunday, then you know this sermon is sort of Part 2 to what I began that morning. But don’t worry – you don’t have to have heard Part 1 for Part 2 to make sense. Part 1 was about the question, How can we get ready to celebrate Christmas after the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut? Part 2 is about a harder question: Where is God this Christmas if something so awful can happen?
On Christmas Eve, we like to hear stories. I’ve often written stories for sermons on Christmas Eve. There’s something about this night, a chord of memory long-played from childhood, that makes us want to gather around the fire with a mug of hot chocolate (or something stronger), basking in the warmth of the love of family and the love of God. I can still see my family gathered around our living room on Christmas Eve when I was a child, and I can feel the warmth of the fire toasting my back as I sat on the hearth – the spot for the youngest in our household because the older people got the chairs. We talked, and sipped whatever our mugs held, and got ready to head off for midnight mass to welcome God’s love into the world once again.
That was my Christmas Eve from childhood. This Christmas Eve, things feel different. This isn’t a sipping-cocoa-‘round-the-fire sort of Christmas Eve – not with our nation and our own hearts still aching from the shooting in Newtown. This is a Christmas Eve when sentimentality feels even cheaper than usual. This is a Christmas Eve when we can only imagine how the people of Newtown must be reeling, trying to figure out how they’re supposed to celebrate the birth of the Christ child only 10 days after losing so many children of their own.
In fact, this is a Christmas Eve when some of us might have come to church trying to figure out a few things about God, too. If you’ve come here tonight with serious questions on your heart, know that you’re not alone. If you’ve come here tonight even with something of a chip on your shoulder, know that you’re in good company. I imagine there are many people, even folks of long-standing faith, who’d like to ask some serious questions of God tonight. At the top of the list might be, “Where were you in Newtown?” Or maybe, “How can such awful things happen to such innocent people?” Or maybe, “Why didn’t you do something?”
On a night when those questions hang in our hearts, I guess I do want to tell a couple of stories after all. First is the story of one of the victims at Sandy Hook Elementary. Of course, all the adults who died at the school that day are rightfully remembered as heroes, giving their lives for the children they served. But one woman’s story particularly strikes me this night – Anne Marie Murphy.
Ms. Murphy was a teacher’s aide at Sandy Hook, assigned to help special-needs kids in a first-grade class. Ms. Murphy was a wife and mother of four, a strong Christian who loved to paint and who was planning a big celebration with her extended family over Christmas. That morning, she was with working with Dylan Hockley, a 6-year-old who struggled with autism. When the gunman burst into the classroom, Dylan Hockley was hit, along with the teacher, Vicki Soto, and several other children in that class. What stands out to me about Ms. Murphy, the teacher’s aide, is where her body was found. She had apparently been nearby Dylan because she had pulled him close, using her own body to try to shield him from the gunfire. In that act, she lost her own life.1,2,3
Why do I tell you such a sad story on this holy night? Because, in a deep sense, it’s the Christmas story. It’s the Christian story.
In our culture, the Christmas story tends to come across like the images on our Christmas cards – a loving couple cast in soft light; cuddly lambs around a manger; a baby glowing in divine light, wrapped in blankets and resting comfortably on clean, warm straw.
Now, none of us has video from that night 2,000 years ago, but I think the scene probably didn’t look quite like that. Two thousand years ago, this child was born to impoverished, unmarried peasants. They’d been forced to travel on foot the 70 miles from their home in Nazareth to the father’s hometown of Bethlehem because government authorities commanded it. It wouldn’t have been easy in any case, but it was all the harder because the young woman was about to deliver their child. When they arrived, the only place they could find to stay was in a cave, sleeping with the animals that were kept there. And if you’ve ever mucked out a stall, you know how clean that cave most likely wasn’t. This couple’s situation wasn’t all that remarkable. Thousands of peasants would have been affected by the Roman government’s census, and most of them would have been enduring similar hardships.
But the difference, of course, was the child. This wasn’t just another peasant baby, as likely to die as to live in its first few hours and days. This peasant baby was the Son of God. Now, you’ve heard that said so many times before that it may not mean much to hear it again tonight. But let me say it again: That was the Son of God lying in the muck of that stable.
Messengers from heaven came to other peasants that night, sheep herders outside town, and told them a Savior had been born – the anointed ruler, the Lord, the true king who would reveal the Roman Emperor as the imposter he was. But this divine king was lying in a feed trough, and his parents were just hoping they’d find something to eat that night.
To the sheep herders, the message must have been literally unbelievable. It didn’t make sense. How could it be “glad tidings of great joy” (Luke 1:10) that another peasant baby had come into a dark, uncaring world? He certainly couldn’t have seemed like a savior. He looked like he was the one who needed saving.
Thirty years or so later, he’d look very much to be in need of saving once again. He’d be beaten and killed by the worldly authorities he’d come to challenge. And on that dark Friday, people gathered around would ask, where was God? Why didn’t God come to save this young man who who’d worked miracles and who called out to his Father from the cross?
On the floor in Newtown, Connecticut, a teacher’s aide lay shot and killed by a madman. And again we ask, Where was God? Why didn’t God come and save the children at Sandy Hook Elementary and the teachers and staff who protected them?
This is the mystery of Christmas: In Jesus, God was lying there in the dirty straw. In Jesus, God was being beaten by the Romans. In Jesus, God was dying on the cross. And at Sandy Hook Elementary, Jesus was shielding a 6-year-old, trying to save a beloved child from the power of sin and death.
The mystery of Christmas is that God saves us from sin and death by stepping directly into the line of fire. God loves us, and all of creation, so deeply that God saves the world from the inside out. As a baby, vulnerable to everything, God chose to enter into our experience and make it God’s own. The pain we know, God knows. The fear we face, God faced. The death we seek to avoid at all costs, God chose. Like the teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary, God saw us in need and decided to act, no matter the cost.
But what transforms this from simply a story of noble suffering to the story of salvation is the fact that for this baby born in the dirty straw, death was not the end. Jesus’ death toppled death from its throne. Enduring it, he defeated it – and gave to us that victory, as well.
Anne Marie Murphy knew that truth. She staked her life on it. For Christians, death is not the end because God chose to defeat sin and death from the inside out, stepping directly into it to lift us out of it.
In our own small ways, we, too, know that we’re called to walk the path of Anne Marie Murphy. We probably won’t find ourselves called to shield a child from a bullet. But we most certainly will find ourselves called to love people extravagantly in a thousand smaller ways. We may not lay down our lives, but we can hold out our hands. We can give when the world might take. We can cry with someone who mourns. We can offer a coat to someone shivering in the cold. We can commit ourselves to honor this truth: that all children deserve the chance to learn free from violence, free from hunger, free from systems that bind them in despair. As Anne Marie Murphy chose to act as Christ, so must we. God loves us enough to defeat sin and death from the inside out. Now, Jesus asks us to return the favor.
At the end of the order of service, you’ll find a poem.4 It wasn’t written in the aftermath of Sandy Hook, but it might as well have been. On this holy night, let me leave you with this:
When the song of the angels is still,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their sheep,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoners,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among people,
To make music in the heart.
– Howard Thurman
2. Feldman, Emily. “Newtown Teacher’s Aide Died Cradling Dying Student: Family.” Available at: http://www.nbcwashington.com/news/national-international/NATL-Newtown-Teacher-Died-Cradling-Dying-Student-Family-184007371.html. Accessed Dec. 20, 2012.
3. Liu, Betty Ming, and Shelley Acoca. “Connecticut shooting: Sandy Hook victim Anne Marie Murphy mourned by Katonah parents.” Available at: http://newyork.newsday.com/news/nation/connecticut-shooting-sandy-hook-victim-anne-marie-murphy-mourned-by-katonah-parents-1.4336910. Accessed Dec. 20, 2012.
4. Thurman, Howard. “The Work of Christmas.” In: Thurman, Howard. The Mood of Christmas and other Celebrations. Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1973. 23.