John 1:5–“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”
Shortly after I arrived here yesterday afternoon, I went over to the Wal-Mart to join with those reflecting and praying at the memorial which was set up to honor the 22 victims who died last Sabbath morning. I went again this morning with Pastor Ledesma and youth of the El Paso East Spanish Church.
I walked up and down the memorial, looking at their names, their pictures, and the drawings, paintings, poems, letters, flowers, balloons and teddy bears laid out in memory.
Many pictures depicted the Franklin Mountains, and I thought of the Scripture, “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.”
I saw countless candles … the symbol of that light which still shines.
There were lots of pictures of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Not surprising, since most of the victims were Hispanic Catholics—but it is a symbol we Protestants overlook. Mary was called to give birth to the incarnate Son of God, and even in the moment of joy at his dedication Simeon warned her, “A sword will pierce your own soul, too.” And so we saw at Calvary, in a scene portrayed by Michelangelo in sculpture, when Mary, the grieving mother, held her son’s dead body in her arms after it was taken down from the cross. The figure of Mary can remind us that all in Scripture have suffered. We are not alone in our grief.
And amongst the balloons and the flowers I saw lots of depictions of Jesus, especially the picture of Jesus as the Divine Mercy, with rays of blue and red light streaming from his heart, like the blood and water that flowed from his side. And below it the words, Jesus, I trust in you.
Protestants tend not to have these pictures in our homes and in our churches, but they speak to the faith of this community, the faith of most of those who died. They speak to faith in the One who suffered and died for us, who pours his love and his mercy upon us, and whose light will always shine in our darkness.
We need such hope today. For we live in frightful times.
I never expected to see this resurgence in hate and racism. I thought we had grown beyond it. I live in a very diverse neighborhood in Houston. My children grew up playing with friends of every race and every religion. My daughter married last year a young man she met at Andrews whose parents came from Colombia.
But darkness still stalks our land. Each step forward in race relations always seems to provoke a backlash from those who feel their grip loosening on the reins of power and privilege.
Many of us have deployed to battlefields to face foreign foes only to find greater danger at home.
A couple years ago when I was a brigade chaplain in the Texas National Guard one of my infantry battalions had three suicides in a week. The commander and the sergeant major asked me, “Why?” They told me that battalion had three combat tours in recent years, and everyone came home with a Combat Infantryman’s Badge, and everyone came home alive. But now we lose them to the dangers at home: violence, vehicle accidents, and suicides. “Why?” asked that commander. And six months later he was dead from suicide.
That’s the tragedy facing the Soldier today—we leave home to go to foreign battlefields to protect our homeland, only to discover that the homeland can be a more dangerous place.
We expect harm to ourselves in battle — we don’t expect it to come to our children at Wal-Mart.
We Adventists turn to prophecy to understand the days in which we live.
We don’t expect the world to get better, we expect it to get worse.
Matthew chapter 24 is a passage we know well. We know the wars and rumors of wars. We know the signs in the sun moon and stars.
But then, verse 10
“And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. … (v 12) And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold.”
“The love of many shall wax cold.”
Oh, how many illustrations of this I could pull from the headlines that scream at us day after day after day: the walls we erect between one another, the indifference to human suffering, the cruel words, the suspicion, the hate, the fear. Even punishing people who act from compassion. I drove past the exit to Marfa yesterday and recalled how earlier this year the city attorney was arrested and thrown in jail for the crime of helping three young people on the side of the road who were dehydrated and ill. Even though all she did was put them in her car while she called for help.
But if I continue to give examples you may get discouraged. And I want to give you hope.
As does Jesus, who assures us in verse 14, “he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved.”
The road will not be easy. The suffering may be great. But victory is assured. He promises that he will be with us. He promises that he will overcome.
All the signs in this chapter speak to us today and remind us that the day is near. Our hope will be fulfilled.
But too often we Adventists stop at Matthew 24. Jesus didn’t. He has more to say in Matthew 25 about what we are to be doing while waiting for the end.
If you recall, back in the fall of 1844 while waiting for Jesus to come some believers stopped working. Some didn’t harvest their crops. They sat and prayed and studied the Bible and had prayer meetings, and just waited. They thought they knew the day and the hour, despite the fact that Jesus told them they couldn’t.
Jesus doesn’t let us sit around and wait for the signs to unfold. He tell us, verse 45, to be a good and faithful steward, looking after the master’s possessions. He tells us in the first part of Matthew 25, to be like the wise virgins, and not to run out of oil. He tells us, Matthew 25:14 and following, to be like the good steward who invested his master’s wealth and doubled it.
And then, in Matthew 25:31ff, he tells a parable about the king separating the sheep and the goats.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
What do we do in the face of a tragedy like that which confronts our community? This is it.
We continue to love and to serve as Jesus did.
We heal who are hurting, comfort those who are scared, feed those who are hungry, give water to those who are thirsting, visit those who are in prison or detention, and welcome those who are strangers — the Greek word is Xenos, it means stranger or foreigner; from it we get the word, xenophobia. Fear of the foreigner.
I was a foreigner, and you took me in.
We are at a critical time in our nation’s history. We struggle with our past, a past of yearning for freedom while struggling with slavery and segregation and injustice. We have caught glimpses of a brighter future—but it seems shadows from the past have caught up with us.
Our NAD leadership issued a statement the other day.
Hatred. Bigotry. Racism. These utterly deplorable words and actions are on the hearts and minds of many people today. Acts of violence are becoming a regular occurrence, and the shock at these increasing catastrophes tragically starts to wear thin with each new event. People are hurting. People are scared.
And they reminded us of who we are as a church, and what we stand for:
As a church, we remind all that we should love equally and resolve to serve no matter race, gender, or cultural background. And we call on each person of this land to do the same. We also pray that our elected leaders will fulfill their sworn duty to protect the citizens of this country.
We celebrate the diversity of this world and, despite our sinful human nature, we embrace every person as a son or daughter of God. We long for the day when all will feel loved. When all will feel safe. When all sin will be gone, and no more tears will be shed, and no more pain will be felt (see Rev. 21:4). When all will reflect the nature of Jesus in a new earth. When all will be equal and free.
Yes, we long for that day. And in preparation for it we have a message to preach. The message of the everlasting Gospel. And it is to go “to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people,” without exception. For the Father seeks to draw all into his kingdom, inviting all to his table at the “Marriage Supper of the Lamb.”
And we are to announce to the rich and the powerful, the weak and the oppressed, “Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come.” And in that hour he shall deliver the captive, and he shall give rest to the weary and he will throw down the mighty and cast down the powerful. And he will reign for ever and ever.
That is what gives us hope. That is the hope that burns within our hearts. That is what gives us the courage and the strength to face the present dangers with confidence.
We have work to do.
We have work to do here in this community.
We have people to love. We have people to embrace.
We can hold high the light that shines in the darkness, for we know the darkness will not overcome it.
Now, let me give you some brief teaching before I end.
The churches in this community are called to be part of the healing. But you are also part of the community that is hurting.
You have grieving to do.
You have been impacted by the tragedy. And you may be bearing signs and symptoms of the stress that comes with that. They may last a few days, they may last a few weeks. You may see them in your family or friends.
You may be effected physically: tired, dizzy, weak, blurred vision, grinding your teeth, headaches, rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing.
You might find your thinking affected: you might feel confused, or have nightmares, you might jump at a balloon popping or a car backfiring.
You might experience powerful emotions: fear, guilt, grief, panic, anxiety, anger, depression, or you might feel numb.
You might find yourself acting strangely—withdrawing from friends and family, pacing back and forth, not eating, or eating too much, hyper-vigilant. You might run around the house checking the locks on the doors, or look nervously at people in the store.
These are normal reactions. Be patient with one another. Be generous with your smile. Be patient with yourself. Rest. Eat right. Exercise. Talk about your feelings. Listen patiently to others. Let others have space.
Give yourself time to grieve. Join in the community in grieving.
I gave the pastor a handout with that information in English and Spanish. Remind him to make copies for you all.
Most important, remember you are not alone. This community is in this together. And you are supported by the love of the entire Seventh-day Adventist Church.
May the peace of God that passes all understanding, comfort your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.