Advent 3c, December 16, 2012

December 17, 2012

God Help Us

Isaiah 12:2-6


2 Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 3 With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. 4 And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. 5 Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. 6 Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.


I had another sermon ready for today, but I just didn’t feel like it was what I wanted to say after watching the tragic story of the gunman in Connecticut unfold. I actually feel more dumbstruck than anything else. Words can hardly touch the depth of this tragedy. And what I had to say about John the Baptist sparring with various groups as he sought to proclaim the coming of Christ just didn’t seem to fit the circumstance we find ourselves in today. But I found some comfort in these words from Isaiah, and I thought it would be good for us to be reminded how salvation does come from God, and it comes to people who are in the midst of great suffering.


The fact that this horrible shooting took place in the season of Advent heightens the tragedy of the situation. We are in the mode of preparing to celebrate the birth of Christ in the world, and here we are faced with an explosion of death – the death of innocents. I think I heard the Governor of Connecticut say they had been visited by evil, and I think that’s an accurate portrayal of what happened. Evil has arrived, but Christ is here as well. We talk about the coming of Christ, and our hope is always to receive Him in new ways in our hearts and lives, but the truth is that Christ is already here. We aren’t having to face this without his redeeming love.


Few of us have stood anywhere near the place where the family members of those who have lost their children and loved ones are now standing. I do know people who have experienced comparable loss, and I stand in awe of the courage and fortitude that it takes to go on. I also believe that God has a hand in helping people find their way out of devastating situations. And it is to that God that I want to turn today – the God who offers deliverance and salvation to people who have had their lives torn to shreds.


I’ve actually had the good fortune of getting to be around such a person this very week. I heard from a friend last Wednesday night that Jason Baldwin was in town.


As I’m sure you know, Jason is one of the so-called West Memphis 3. He is what you might call a secondary victim of another unfathomably horrible case where children were murdered. Jason got caught up in a community’s need for someone to pay for that horrible crime and at the age of 16 he was convicted and sent to prison for 18 years. Through tremendous effort, diligence, luck, patience, and the grace of God – Jason, Damien, and Jessie were released from prison in August of 2011. Their release didn’t include exoneration, which is what he is currently working to obtain, but they are getting to work on the case from the outside – which is wonderful.


You may or may not know much about that whole case, but I want you to trust me when I say that these men are innocent of that crime. You may not think I know what I’m talking about, but I can tell you I have done my homework on this case, and I have no doubt about their innocence – none.


So I was in the check-out line at Target last Thursday afternoon when I saw someone talking to a guy who I knew to be an advocate for the West Memphis 3, and as I looked at them I suddenly realized I was looking at Jason Baldwin, and I was like a kid who had just spotted the real Santa Claus.


As soon as I got checked out I went in pursuit of Jason – who was with his girlfriend Holly and his friend Michael, and I’m sure I startled them as I came up behind them and asked if I could interrupt their conversation. I introduced myself, and I can tell you – I’ve never been more excited to meet anyone in my whole life. Jason is one of the spiritual giants of our time. I mean at the age of 16 he was labeled a child murderer, he was sent to prison where he had bones broken by actual criminals, but his heart and spirit survived – perhaps even thrived!


I heard Jason speak at the Clinton Library the other night. He and Mara Leveritt were talking about the value of having cameras in court, and Lindsay Miller, the Editor of the Arkansas Times and moderator of the event asked Jason a good question. The question was in response to Jason talking about how happy he was to give blood and hair and saliva samples when he was arrested because he thought they would provide evidence of his innocence, and how he believed throughout the trial that he would be found innocent. And what Lindsay asked him was when he became jaded about the legal system, and Jason replied by saying that really he had never become jaded about it.


He said he prayed to God every day that he would be released, and he always believed that the truth was going to prevail. He said he was always able to believe that the next round of appeals or whatever was going to work. Jason isn’t a jaded person, and that is about all the evidence I need to believe that God can heal any wound.


These words from Isaiah written for people who’s lives were in shreds. Isaiah had told them that because they had fallen away from God, they were about to lose the good land they had been given by God. Their country was in the midst of an invasion and they were about to be carried off in to exile. They were about to find themselves living in a foreign land and cut-off from home and family. There are Psalms of lament that come from this period of their history and they are heartfelt words of loss and sadness. But Isaiah could see a day when they would experience salvation, and he provided this word of hope for them. They were devastated, but they would one day drink again from the well of salvation.


Bad things happen in this world. We lose the things and the people who are most precious to us. People find themselves in situations where going on seems unimaginable – and yet deliverance, salvation, and restoration happens.


I didn’t just get to meet and gawk at Jason in Target and hear him speak at the Clinton Library. Sharla and I got to have dinner with he and Holly and a bunch of other wonderful people and I heard Jason make a reference to the Biblical figure, Joseph – the favorite son of Jacob. That really struck a chord with me and I came to have this feeling that I was having dinner with Joseph. In fact I was calling him Joseph Baldwin before the night was over. Because if you remember the story, Joseph spent time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but he made good use of that time, and he came out of prison and in to the favor of Pharoah. Jason hasn’t been recognized by any Pharoah’s yet, but he has come out of this terrible ordeal in a beautiful way, and he serves as a testimony to the redeeming grace of God.


The families of the victims of the terrible situation in Connecticut are a long way from any kind of deliverance from the pain of their loss. I don’t think any of us can even imagine how that is going to happen. The intentionally violent nature of that act has stunned the nation. It’s hard to believe that one of our neighbors could act in such a way toward children and teachers. This is a devastating moment for our country. There’s not any good news to that situation.


But there are good ways to respond to bad stories. And one good thing to do is to turn our hearts to God. We do live in a world that is frequently visited by evil, and we need to stay near to God so that we will not repay evil with evil. We need to be near to God so that we can see the light of grace when darkness sets in. Hatred, violence, and horror are never far from any of us and we need for God to protect our hearts regardless of what happens to ourselves and our loved ones.


We also need to be as kind as we can to one another. We know what happened in Connecticut last Friday, but we don’t know the various ways in which our neighbors have been injured by cruel blows. We are surrounded by painful stories, and we need to make sure we treat each other with more compassion than judgment. It may be that your job supervisor or whoever actually is wanting to make your life miserable, but even that is probably not really about you. People don’t deal with the pain of life very well, and people who have a lot of pain can behave very badly, but Jesus was clear about the way we should respond to each other and it is with love. This doesn’t mean we don’t need to exercise good sense in how we respond to the misbehavior of others, but kindness goes a long way toward relieving the pain of others.


The Season of Advent continues and we need to become even more diligent in our effort to prepare for the coming of Christ. This world can be a very dark place, and we are in terrible need for the light of Christ to shine brightly in new ways. Our beloved retired Bishop Kenneth Hicks, who is probably seeing his 90th Christmas this year, likes to remind people that the church is called to be the incarnation of Christ. We each carry the light of Christ in our hearts, and we need to let that light shine. This world is in need of Christ to be born again in each of us, and for that light to shine in new ways.


We have an abundance of terrible stories of how evil visits our world, but there are even more beautiful stories of the ways in which the love of God prevails in people’s lives regardless of the darkness that is foisted upon them. And this is the good news.


Prepare for Christ to be born in you.

Watch for how Christ is alive in your neighbor.

And trust that God can restore any broken heart in this injured world.

Thanks be to God.




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