We were driving home from Florida Tuesday when word came to us over the STL prayer chain. It took a little while for us to understand it was “our Oxford” – not somewhere in another state. Then yesterday and today I read the Free Press articles and became a participant / listener in many conversations, both in person and online. The shock tremors will not quickly pass from our community.
I have heard some say something like this should be preventable … while others suggest limitations are the best we can hope for. I certainly do not know the answer, except that the ultimate answer most likely is counterintuitive. Our human reaction generally is to solve problems through the law, yet it is my experience that for every problem the law fixes it creates a new one. The Gospel, rather than forcing external change, is an alien force that transforms from the inside out, providing treasures that “neither moth nor rust can destroy, nor thieves (or murderers) steal.” (Matthew 6.20)
Christmas – with its emphasis upon family time and celebration – will be very difficult this year for many. CHRISTmas, however, will have the same vital story as always. This is the story of God entering into our messy, violent, gut-wrenching world to be one of us … to share our pain … to give us comfort, peace, and hope – even in the midst of our pain. It is the very Christ-child of the manger who says to us, “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the afflicted; he sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion – to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planning of the Lord.” (Isaiah 61.1-3)
Yesterday, in the midst of my prayers for the people of Oxford, I also had dealings with multiple families in a more personal way. One is a family planning a funeral for their 92-year-old matriarch. Another is a girl in her 20’s whose father died yesterday. Then a family called and asked me to come pray with someone on his deathbed who has not had anything to do with God in many-a year. About four hours later I heard he had been called home. And this is just a small taste of our messy, gut-wrenching world.
On the first Christmas God immersed himself into this sticky, ugly mess that we might receive the comfort, peace, and hope that this mess will never provide. This is why every year we read these words: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” (Isaiah 9.6-7)
We have a hard time with these words because we naturally think of power through laws and external pressure. However the Gospel – that “power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Romans 1.16) – is counterintuitive. Rather than immediately trying to change the evil around us, it works on the fear, shame, and isolation within us. Jesus said it this way, “The kingdom of God is not coming in ways that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold the kingdom of God is within you.” (Luke 17.20-21)
With the one whose name is “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” at work in us through Word and Sacrament producing “the increase of his government” in our hearts, something grows within us – the kind of “peace of which there will be no end.” And that kind of peace can be contagious – in a good way. As it spreads from one heart to the next, it “establishes and upholds justice and righteousness” in the hearts of people. In other words, it grows a kind of peace that, though challenged over and over again, messy, violent, gut-wrenching scenes like Oxford cannot take away.
The child of Christmas seeks to assure us all with these words, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.” (John 16.33)