I imagine that many if not most evangelical church congregations at least paused a moment last Sunday and prayed for the families of the victims of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. My wife, Julie, and I noted that so many FaceBook messages called us to “weep with those who weep.” Like President Obama, pastors initially responded as parents, trying to grasp the horror at the loss of 20 little children’s and six teachers’ lives, as well as the lives of the killer and his mother. The Governor of Connecticut, Dannel Malloy, wasted no words, “Evil visited this community today….” That evil splashed across our TV screens, laptops and tablets in the incessant reporting that follows an American tragedy like this. Traumatized parents and surviving children needing help, crime scene work being done, motives needing to be discerned, and making comparison to other school shootings—all this was compressed and flooded our nation and world. My friends in Ukraine were shocked into prayer for the families of Newtown, CT. Seeing the recent pictures of the young victims intensified our national grief.
All kinds of advice and comments smothered FaceBook pages on how and how not to respond. For example, one of the worst was “we kicked God out of the public schools so why do we expect God to stop something this evil?” That is so comforting, isn’t it? Can’t you just hear Jesus himself saying that to a grieving parent? Or, “This is really bad, but the children are in a ‘better place.’” Those children belong in their parents’ arms. Everyone is trying to make sense of the senseless, to bring reason to the irrational, to put pretty make-up on the face of despicable evil. Our culture’s knee-jerk response to find someone or something to blame in the face of tragedies like this prompted finger-pointing at school security systems, gun-control laws, violent video games, inept psychologists or doctors who “didn’t see this coming,” or powerful government laws that deny God’s compassionate omnipresence access to schools. No one seems to have a story that will fit an evil against children on the Newtown, CT scale.
Contemporary pastors have a memory shaped by Scripture. The Newtown, CT massacre of innocents triped a switch in our heads. We have read something like this that happened a long time ago. At the edict of the twistedly evil King Herod, innocent boys two years of age and under living in the environs of Bethlehem were massacred by Herod’s soldiers. Matthew’s quote of Jeremiah 31:15 hovers today over Newtown: “A voice is heard in Newtown, weeping and great mourning, parents weeping for their children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.” The malicious evil threat that King Herod felt by the Magi seeking the newborn “king of the Jews” sparked an insane response. We must pay attention to the details.
The new “king of the Jews” had some compelling names—one name, Jesus, communicated by the angel of the Lord and the other name, Immanuel, embedded in an ancient word of Isaiah. Names signal intent. Jesus, “Yahweh saves,” tells us God’s intent to deal once and for all with human sin: “He will save his people from their sins.” If we place blame on anything as the root cause other than human sin in the Sandy Hook shootings, we forfeit our only hope for a remedy, for a way out of this mess. I am not trying to make light of the tragedy; I am urging us to take sin more seriously. Blood-shedding sin surrounded the earliest years of Jesus’ life. It is part of our story.
Immanuel means “God with us.” Once sin is dealt with, we enter into an amazing miracle: God’s original intent for human beings. We were made for God’s palpable, good presence. We may experience, as F. Dale Bruner writes, the “with-us-God.” The Newtown parents weeping for their children who “are no more” may know the “with us God” who identifies with stunned experiences of terror and evil. The ultimate Innocent One, too, was snatched from human life in a horrendous manner. Because the Word made flesh bore names like Jesus and Immanuel, we have a story in which we can mourn and hope at the same time.
Lord, have mercy. Christ, have mercy.