This is the third Sunday of Advent—Joy Sunday. And we are going to get to joy today, but before we do…before we can…we have to do something first. And I’m going to warn you, it won’t be easy or pleasant or comfortable. It won’t be anything you’d typically expect on a Sunday where we bask in the joy of Christmas.
But I implore you… stay with me. Resist the urge to check out, or be put-off, or even angry. Know it really isn’t lost on me when I take the obtuse or ill-advised or the maligned directions in that which I say. But sometimes, some things need to be said if we are going to faithfully get to where it is God wants us to go. Sometimes, to get to the heart of the joy Christ brings we must face that which we wish to forget.
Tuesday night a terrorist attacked a popular Christmas market in France.
Families are still displaced in places like California, and Texas, and Florida and Puerto Rico because their homes were destroyed by fire and storm.
Friday marked the sixth anniversary of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 26 dead—20 of whom were kindergarten students.
There are hundreds of thousands of people fleeing a war torn homeland, searching for safety and refuge.
These events, and countless others like them, are among the many events and memories we wish to forget—not to mention our own personal stories of trauma and brokenness.
I wish I could forget hearing, among the limited coverage I could bear to take in from the Sandy Hook atrocity, a first responder sharing his story of how he, and the others who would be tasked with going into the school following the shooting were told, “Today will be the worst day of your life.”
The words ring true as evidence of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is found in countless first responders who did their job during what would become the worst day of their life. And PTSD is deeply rooted in all who are forced to endure traumatic events.
Traumatic events are among the many memories we wish to forget—and there is no need to explain why.
But if we were to forget them we would be doing a great injustice to those impacted by such events, and we would be doing a great injustice to the faith we claim to have in the one who comes to make all things good, to bring us the joy we all so desperately need.
Choosing to forget is an injustice, and it dishonors.
Choosing joy, even when there are a million reasons not to, that is a life changing, world changing faith.
It is understandable to want to forget the difficult, the horrific, the painful, even the poor choices we have made in life—be it a hair style back in the day, money choices, the person we thought would love us forever, or even a truly life altering traumatic event.
So you can imagine if there were, in our pharmaceutically entrenched society, a pill available that could erase from our mind the memory of such incidents, while leaving our other memories intact, there might be a wee bit of a demand for it.
If there were, would you take it? It’s tempting, but do hold your answer for a few moments while we think about Paul’s words to the Philippian Christians.
“Rejoice in the Lord always,” Paul says, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”
Do this, Paul says, “and the peace of God… will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
Somewhere I saw a short synopsis of this lectionary Scripture reading, and the writer had summarized it as “Don’t worry, be happy,” obviously making a cheap and easy reference to the Bobby McFerrin song of the same name.
I doubt, however, Paul intended his words to be taken in such a carefree and simplified way. Paul wasn’t urging his readers to be mindlessly happy. He was telling them to be in relationship with the One from whom real peace and well-being flows—do that and joy will come.
When he spoke of letting our requests be known to God in prayer, he was not prescribing some kind of quick-fix/wish-fulfillment formula. Paul was pointing his readers toward the One who hears our prayers and is at work to make all things good.
And when Paul talked of the peace of God, he wasn’t referring to the state of being without concerns, but to the state of being in harmony with God and the order God has built into our world—and working on behalf of furthering that order.
This is why we should never diminish Paul’s words to a pithy synopsis because to shooting victims and families, to those who lost everything to fire and storm, to parents dealing with the unimaginable, to the refugee “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is a slap in the face. It’s an injustice. It dishonors.
But living into the faith that though we cannot always see how, but we believe God is at work to make all things good, that can be life changing and world changing.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a disease of memory. Meaning, while PTSD is rooted in one or more actually traumatic incidents, the problem is the memory of the trauma and the emotions associated with it stay fresh, repeatedly arising to impact the sufferer’s present and future.
So maybe a pill could help—a pill that would erase the painful memory.
While such a pill isn’t available yet, there’s a chance it will be someday. Work in this study is happening, and has revealed that remembering involves certain chemical changes in the brain. Recent tests show promising results where a drug can be given to erase specific targeted memories, leaving, as far as researchers can tell, the rest of the memory unaltered.
The promise of such a pill, however, wouldn’t be limited to PTSD sufferers. There’s hope it could cure addiction, which is driven by the memory of what it felt like to be high.
But beyond the initial possibilities, how many of us have something in our past that causes us to wince or feel a wave of shame or guilt whenever something happens to remind us of it? Might not we want to jettison such memories if we could by taking a pill?
Who could blame anyone for taking such a pill?
But the deeper question we must ask is… Are we better off remembering?
At present, no such forget-it-all pill exists. For now, we must still live with all our memories—the pleasant and the unpleasant. We can’t pick and choose—but even if we could, there are reasons why maybe we shouldn’t.
For one thing, emotional pain is often instructive, and we learn from our mistakes, our hurts, our misadventures, our good-intentions gone awry and even our wrongdoings. If we wipe out the memory of such things, we likely eliminate what we have learned from them. I spend many a day dreaming episode longing to do the past over knowing what I know now.
Secondly, painful memories motivate us.
How many charities, helping agencies and church missions have been started because someone was able to feel someone else’s pain and couldn’t forget it?
How many prayers for spiritual growth have been answered by God leading us through dark valleys?
How many of us have gained forgiveness because we could not forget the shame of our sins?
How many of us would still be putting ourselves in the place of God if we could not see where our selfishness got us?
How many of us would love our unlovely neighbor without the memory of how we felt when we chose not to be the Good Samaritan?
And thirdly, by holding onto the painful memories, by remembering the horrific, we are able to rejoice, now, today, because we have become more acutely aware that life is precious, it’s not to be taken for granted, it is a gift, and we have today.
We have today to do things differently before today is in the past.
We have today to work for justice.
We have today to do something or say something we have left undone.
We have today to do better for those who come after the atrocity.
We have today to do what we learned from yesterday—but only if we dare to face the pain, permit it to shape us, and motivate us to do today what can be done.
That is lived hope. That is peacemaking. And it creates life changing, world changing, joy.
Again, I get it. I get that in the midst of the Christmas season we don’t want to think about painful and horrific events. We want the Hallmark movie setting, where, as Pastor Jeff Gill explains, “The pain is strategically placed and resolved by the last act, often cleaned up off camera during the commercial break.”
But we know this is not real life. Real life is painful, and messy, and heartbreaking. Which is exactly why God sent Jesus.
When Jesus was born into the painful, messy, heartbreaking world he didn’t take a short cut to avoid it—he came right into the middle of it all. And he did so because he knew that would be where we would find him most profoundly. He knew that would be where we would need his hope, peace, joy, and love the most.
This is the third Sunday of Advent—Joy Sunday. But to get at the joy Christ brings we cannot forget the pain Jesus came to respond to.
We must face it. We must remember it. We even must embrace it. We must work, like Jesus, and respond to it.
We must because in doing so we discover there is still life, there is still hope, there is still love.
And that discovery can enable us to choose to rejoice always—it can move us, even when there are a million reasons not to, to choose joy. Amen.