Sunday’s Sermon: Joy in Times of Grief

Here is the sermon from today’s worship services. These are my heartfelt words of hope in a time of grief as we wrestle with what took place on Friday in Newtown, Conn. As well, my particular community is dealing with a lot of grief which comes out in the message from Isaiah 12:2-6.

When I sat down to prepare this week’s sermon, I was intending to preach on joy as transformed living. We were going to look at John the Baptist’s sermon from Luke 3 and how he called people to repent and take on new ways of living.

It would’ve been an appropriate Advent message, but not today. Our hearts are not yearning for a message about how John prepared the people for Christ’s coming by calling them to follow the Father’s desires. We need that message, but our hearts could not begin to hear it today.

This morning, we entered the sanctuary with heavy hearts. The events of the past 48 to 72 hours have shaken us as individuals, as a community, and as a nation. Our hearts are grieving because of what took place Friday morning.

Our hearts are elsewhere today. We can empathize with those who are hurting today. Our hearts are with the twenty families in Newtown, Conn., who have lost their children, all between the ages of 6 and 7, during Friday’s tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary. Our hearts are with the families of six teachers and school officials who gave their lives to protect the innocence of children. Our hearts are with the shooter’s family who must not only mourn the lives of two family members, but must wrestle with why someone would commit such a senseless act of violence.

We are grieving today. As we grieve and think about those places of loss today, I pray we also join our hearts with our brothers and sisters in Christ at Newtown United Methodist and other churches who are caring for the deep spiritual and emotional needs of the people of Newtown, Conn.

At the same time, we have an additional element of grief. We are grieving the loss of a fellow pastor, leader, and friend in Charles Knecht. He was a humble spirit and a gracious follower of Christ. His presence in our community will be missed. Our hearts are with Beverly and their children and grandchildren as they mourn his passing. Our hearts are with the Mackville Church of Christ as they grieve the loss of their pastor. Our hearts are with the entire community as we grieve the loss of a friend, a leader, and a colleague in ministry.

Grief is all around us and it makes us ache. We ache at the senselessness of 20 children who were killed in a place of learning. We ache for a world and culture that continues to be defined by violence and pain. We ache because of the loss of loved ones both near and far.

The emotions and feelings we have today, perhaps even some we have not mentioned, are acceptable and holy. We cannot ignore the various emotions we are experiencing. But, how can we respond to what we are feeling? What message of hope can we hold on to in these times?

I think the focus of the third Sunday of Advent gives us a hope. Traditionally, this is the week we focus on the joy of the Lord. Joy is the feeling of deep elation and inner praise for what the Lord has done throughout time and in our own lives. In times of grief and sadness, joy is often not on our hearts and minds. In fact, joy and grief seem to be two emotions that are in tension with one another. I’m not sure if that is the case.

Our passage from Isaiah 12 helps to shine light on this. Isaiah writes, “I will trust [in the Lord] and not be afraid.” Those are profound words for us. What might Isaiah be saying to us? I think, most importantly, Isaiah is reminding us that our joy in the Lord is our anchor in all circumstances. This anchor is the joyful confidence that Emmanuel, God with us, meets us where we are and brings us into the Father’s care.

Isaiah’s words are appropriate. He wrote in a time of national crisis. When Isaiah wrote these words, the Assyrian Empire was approaching Judah. Jerusalem was living in fear. Through these words of thanksgiving and praise, Isaiah is giving the people of Israel, and us today, a word of hope. Isaiah says that our joy is our trust in God’s word and promises.

When we think of trust we mean our faith in the Lord. Isaiah tells us that even when things seem lost, even when things are hurtful, and even when we cannot stand the loss of our friends, we can trust in the Lord because of God’s holy name and what the Lord has done throughout time. We worship the God of compassion who is wonderful and holy. We worship the One who is mighty and powerful. We worship the God who is the essence of true love.

At the same time, we can trust the Lord because of what God has done in our lives. Isaiah makes note that in God is salvation. In this Advent season, we are looking forward to the celebration of Christmas when we proclaim that God came to the earth, in the person of Jesus, to rescue humanity from sin and to usher in a deeper life with the Lord. Though we are looking forward to Christmas, the truth of the Resurrection is present for us today. Christ is alive and is always with us through the presence of the Holy Spirit. There is never a moment where we are absent from God. God is with always with us, especially in times of grief.

This gives me the opportunity to say this: God was at Sandy Hook Elementary. He was there with the teachers and students. His presence comforted and shielded those who mourn. We can cling to that truth today.

Joy is our response to God’s actions and is our comfort in times of grief. The truth of God’s action and presence brings joy to our soul and strengthens us in difficult times. It anchors us by helping to put our lives into perspective when we face moments beyond our understanding. This doesn’t mean we cannot grieve. Nothing could be further than the truth. We must allow ourselves to grieve and mourn. What joy reminds us is that in our grief we have something we can hold onto that gives us strength and hope.

Our joy in the Lord helps us focus on “that wonderful day” to come. For Isaiah, he was looking forward to the First Advent. The time when the Messiah, Jesus Christ, would come into the world. It was a day of judgement when salvation would come to the world through the presence of a child, who would grow to teach others the way to the Father, and would offer himself as a sacrifice to atone for our sin. Joy helps us to maintain our confidence in the Second Advent, which is the promise of Christ’s return. This is the time when the promises of God will come to completion. It is the day of when Revelation 21 will be realized.

We know those words of a  promise when the Lord will “wipe every tear from [our] eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things will be gone forever.” Those are joyous words of hope that can be contextualize to what we are feeling this day. Our trust in the Lord is our joy that gives us hope for a day when we will no longer mourn the death of innocent children, when violence is not a part of our existence, when sickness no longer takes our loved ones from us.

We have joy in our grief, because our joy “comes from the Lord who made the heavens and the Earth.” Our joy comes in our hope in the promises of God. Our joy comes in the fact that the presence of Christ is with us and has always been with us. As so many pastors and leaders have said in these past few days, nothing – not violence, not death, not the sting of losing loved ones – can take our joy away. It is what we cling to in the good times and the difficult.

But, how? Those words of promise might be well intended, but what sustains our joy in these difficult moments? Right now, it feels as though our joy is empty. Yes, we trust in God’s promises, but we are hurting. How is joy sustained when we hear the news of the loss of innocence or the death of loved ones? It is sustained by “drinking deeply from the fountain of salvation.”

The image of water is prevalent in Scripture, especially in the Old Testament when discussing the story of the Exodus. Water brings to mind God’s provisions and our need of the Lord. This is the image that is bringing to mind with these words. As we live in a world that is torn apart by sin, death, and violence, it challenges us to be a people of joy. We cannot be a people defined by joy on our own. We need God to daily fulfill and sustain us as we embrace our grief, frustrations, anger, hurt, resentment, bitterness, and all the other emotions that this world can cause. This sustaining is by allowing the presence of Christ to be realized in the midst of what we feel and to be guided daily by our faith in God’s promises

As we are sustained by the Living Water of Christ, it helps us to be the people of joy that our communities and world need so desperately today. It is by being a people of joy that we can “tell the nations what [the Lord] has done.” John Oswalt says that this means living “out the implications of that salvation in obedience and witness.” There are so many ways we can be people of joy today. We can do so by praying for those who are hurting today, both in Newtown, Conn., and here in our community. We can be a people of joy who breathes in the presence of Christ and allow the Lord’s presence to sustain us in difficult times. We can be a people of joy being used by Christ in ways that offer comfort and hope to those who grieve and need to hear that Christ loves them and so do we. Sometimes, being a people of joy means that sometimes all we can says is that “our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”

We have a joy today in our grief. Our grief does not take away our ability to have joy. Indeed, joy gives us a place where we can take our grief and be comforted in these difficult times. Joy does not mean we have to be always happy. It simply means we have a reality that sustains us through difficult moments. Our joy in the Lord is our Love of God that is present in the good and the bad.

My prayer for all of us is that the “joy of our Lord is our strength” today. It is a prayer that joyfully allows me to pray the Advent prayer that, I believe, we all need today: Come, Lord Jesus, come.

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