Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?”
I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.”
Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
-Revelation 7:13-17 (NRSV)
It’s been a week since Newtown. I’m not sure if all the funerals have been held yet or not.
Yesterday there was news from my hometown, literally a couple of miles from my Mom’s house, that a man shot three people and wounded three police before he was shot to death. One of the killings happened in a church. One of the victims was a classmate of mine. I remember playing football against him in the fifth grade. His wife, another of my classmates, lost not only her husband but also her father in the violence. Our class is supposed to have its 20th reunion tonight. At that very same hour, there will be a candlelight vigil at a local church.
One thing some people will say after a tragedy like this is, “we don’t understand it, but it must be part of God’s plan.” That sounds like a good and pious thing to say. The only problem is, I don’t believe it. I don’t believe God’s plan ever involves the murder of anyone, especially children. And if there were such a god who had such a plan, I certainly wouldn’t be his minister.
What happened at Sandy Hook Elementary or in Frankstown Township, PA, is about as far from God’s plan as anything I can imagine. But we human beings want our world to make sense, so we observe the good that comes in the wake of a tragedy and say, “that must have been God’s purpose here.” I can’t help believing that God would much rather see evidence of human kindness prior to a disaster rather than as a response to it.
So the only true part of that statement is “we don’t understand it.” We don’t understand how anyone could have so much anger and hate to even contemplate killing 20 children. But we do understand sin. We know that we abuse daily the freedom God gave us to make loving choices.
The question that people always ask, when they get the details of the lives that were lost and begin to grasp the enormity of a disaster, is always the same: “where was God?” That’s humanity at our most honest moment, and it’s a question asked even by the faithful. In it we reveal our hurt, and our anger, and our distress over the world as it is.
Where was God when Adam Lanza walked into Sandy Hook Elementary? I believe God was right there. In the teachers’ selfless courage. In the friends who held each other’s little hands. In the children who grabbed classmates and led them to safety. In the principal’s quick, life-saving decision to turn on the PA system.
And even in the tears, the screams, the blood, and shell casings rattling on the floor. God was there.
And God will be there, in the wakes and the funerals and the tearful burials. God does not abandon us in our hour of need. That’s the message of Christmas. We are never alone. God is always with us.
Pray for the families of Newtown and Frankstown. Remember the children whose presents will go unopened. Pray for God to wipe away every tear from their eyes, trusting that the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd.
To all my classmates: I’ll miss you this evening. God bless you all. Hold on to hope. Hold on to faith.