This past Tuesday when I walked into my mom’s room at Monte Vista Grove Health Center in Pasadena, she reached out to me as if she had been alone for weeks. Despite the fact that there have been a committed group of caregivers around her daily she had felt lonely, at times alone. At one point she said to me: “Bob, no one knows me here.” And referring to her injury and the pain she said: “I’ve never been through anything like this.”
In light of our Second lesson this morning about Jesus in the wilderness, my Mom is in a sort of wilderness now as a result of her recent fall. She daily faces the temptation to give up, to despair. She faces a long journey back to health. One of the things I helped Mom to realize as we talked this past Tuesday and Wednesday was that her will to get better is vitally important to improving the quality of her life. And that while my love and the love of her family and friends will be ever-present—she, herself, has got to rediscover and nurture the will within her to endure, to heal. Yes, her will, her determination, is vital in getting out of this wilderness she is in. Mom has to allow her faith, the faith she has nurtured all her life, to sustain her, to lift her up, especially at those times she feels alone. Last night as I was going over my sermon my brother called and said that an old friend of our family dropped by to see mom and that it really lifted her spirits—her will to heal was strengthened by their visit.
For some of you here this morning my mom’s situation is similar to one you have experienced. A time you felt a sense of exile in a wilderness, a dark place, in which you weren’t completely sure you would ever find your way out. There are some challenges we face in life that no one else can face or solve for us. As people of faith, we have to look into our hearts and find the courage to live, to love, to endure, to triumph. We have to trust God’s steadfast love.
In my mentor from my college years, the Rev. Charles Orr’s new book he writes: “Alfred [North] Whitehead, that great philosopher of the 20th century, who helped to foster a whole new relationship between science and religion, once declared that ‘religion is what the individual does with his [or her] own aloneness.’ And there is truth in that statement, of course. In the sense that just as no one else can breathe for you, or fall in love for you, so no one else can believe for you.There are some things—some very basic things—that must be done by each of us, alone.And we have it from spiritual authorities as diverse as the 14th century monk, Thomas a Kempis to 20th century Swedish diplomat and economist, Dag Hammarskjold: that there is a loneliness, which is woven into the very fabric of religious experience. The attempt to come to grips with the mystery and meaning of who you are is always solitary work.”
Friends, in our passage from Luke this morning Jesus finds himself in the wilderness, alone, and to use Charles Orr’s words, “attempting to come to grips with the mystery and meaning of who he is--and it is solitary work.” Yet, though by himself—Jesus is not alone. For Luke says Jesus, as he enters the wilderness, is “full of the Holy Spirit.” And because he is full of the Spirit, the devil’s attempt to get him to turn his back on God completely fails.
There is a very important lesson for us here in Luke and that is—when, like Jesus, we are “full of the spirit” we too will do the right thing. Our trust in and our allegiance to God will be solid and unshakeable. Yes, full of the spirit, we will endure suffering, we will grow, we will find the courage to love, we will journey in the faith that in life and in death we belong to God.
And, as my mentor Charles writes in his book, the fact that sometimes we have to go it alone in life is only half of the truth. Says Charles, “The other half is that for those of us nurtured in the Judaic-Christian tradition, religion isn’t so much ultimately what you do with your aloneness. It’s what you do with your neighbors, yourself and your God…We Christians have a special vocation: to bear witness to the love of God for all people. [Yes] as disciples of Jesus Christ, [we individually, and as the church, are] to embody that love and try to show it to the world. Which means, of course, engaging the world using the best resources that God has given us—our minds, our talents, our money, our energy, [our experience] and our technology.”
Friends, nothing can prevent you from being a disciple of Jesus Christ who embodies God’s love and shares it with the world—Not a broken body, not old age or youth, not a lack of money, not disease, not where you were born or where you live now.
Indeed, my mom, from her bed, as I gently reminded her this past week, has the ability to share the life-transforming love of God with every person that enters her room—be they a family member, a friend, a doctor, a nurse, a care worker or a janitor. As long as you have breath you can share God’s love—for nothing, no suffering, not even death, can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Remember, Jesus himself, as he was suffering and dying on the cross, comforted a criminal who was dying on a cross of his own, saying to him:“Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
Now it’s tempting when we are faced with a great challenge or loss to retreat from people. The late Episcopal pastor of Boston, Theodore Parker Ferris once preached: “We all have, some more than others, a tendency to go off in a corner by ourselves. There are times when we want to be alone, we want to be left alone, we need to be alone. If we are in trouble, we want to shed our tears in private, nurse our own wounds by ourselves. Be bitter if we want to be, be stony-faced against the world…” Rev. Ferris continues: “But you don’t get very far alone…[ultimately]You must join hands with the ones who can help you—a doctor, a nurse, a friend. And [no matter your circumstances] you can join hands with God, in prayer.”
Friends, Luke says that Jesus, having endured the temptations in the wilderness—the temptation to self-aggrandizement, to the worship of power and pleasure—the temptation to give up his faith and trust in God-- returned to Galilee in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Yes, Jesus, forty days earlier, had entered the wilderness full of the Holy Spirit and he left it, forty days later, in the Spirit as well.
Jesus knew that, we too, his followers, would endure wilderness times, seasons of temptation. And so during the Last Supper—Jesus gave us the gift of this bread and cup, a spiritual meal to help us endure, to help us find peace, to help us to hold on to the will to fight, to help us forgive as we have been forgiven, and to love as we have been loved.
With that life-giving gift in mind--I close with a brief true story about a young man and a young woman who, filled with the Holy Spirit, felt God’s healing presence even in what you could call a Lenten wilderness of deep sorrow and earth-shaking loss literally and spiritually. A story to help us walk in faith as we journey alone, yet together, in the season of Lent—the season of anticipation and reflection.
Renee Larson of Bismarck, North Dakota writes: “My husband and I were seminary students visiting Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in January 2010 when the earthquake happened.” Friends, after an agonizing 45 seconds, Renee realized she was alone. Safe, yet alone. Said Renee:
“Buried beneath the concrete, [my husband] Ben sang: ‘O Lamb of God, you bear the sin of all the world away; Eternal peace with God you made: God’s peace to us we pray.’”
Renee continued: “I listened for more. ‘Ben!’ I called out. ‘Ben!’ O please, God, don’t let him die. ‘Ben, keep singing, sweetheart, and we will find you.’ There was no more song. There was only one thing left to say: ‘I love you, Ben!’”
Renee continues: “A team of ordinary yet extraordinary Haitians, who lived in the neighborhood in which Ben died, dug him out of his tomb of concrete.‘What would it look like,’ they said, ‘if we left a guest in our country buried in the rubble? What kind of hospitality is that?’For three days they dug, with nothing more than hammers, chisels, and their will to return their guest to his family. It was night when they unearthed Ben’s body. They carried him down from the collapsed building, the way lit by candlelight.’
Renee continues: “We buried Ben in the rocky hills of Decorah, Iowa. Tens of thousands of other people who died in the earthquake were in mass graves.” Said Renee: “In 45 seconds, I became a widow at 27 years old. I didn’t want to return to our apartment. I stood with my hand on the doorknob and gathered my courage. With one deep breath I opened the door and stepped across the threshold. I moved methodically through our space, taking in my new reality. How strange to know that Ben was dead yet smell him [in our apartment.]His scent was strongest in our bedroom. His side of the bed still held his imprint, as if he had awakened there that morning."
“The last room I entered was our office and music room. The hymnal was open on the piano [to the hymn] ‘Where Charity and Love Prevail.’ The tune of this hymn played over and over again in my head the night of the earthquake. Ben died singing the melody of this song, witnessing to the Lamb of God." Said Renee: “If I could have piled up rocks to make an alter at that piano like Jacob did at Bethel, I would have. Surely, the Lord was in this place.”