February 22, 2015

Mark 1:9-15


I really don’t like being alone. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a family of six – There were always other people around! When I was little, I shared a room with my older sister, and then I shared a room with my little brother, and then I shared a room with my little sister.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t love having to share a room. At one point, I remember that my little sister and I rearranged the furniture in our shared bedroom so that there was a barrier of dressers and desks down the middle to separate my space from hers. And it was probably my complaining about having to share that led my parents to eventually convert the den downstairs that we used to use as a family TV room into a bedroom for me when I started high school.

But I never did get used to being alone. When I went away to school and lived in a residence, I was quite happy to have a room mate again. And when I did have a room to myself, I tended to leave the door wide open when I was studying. Then I could be aware of friends talking down the hall, and I could welcome anyone who might want to pop in for a visit.

I know that not everyone is like me on that personality trait. Some of us love being around other people, and others get exhausted by the social interaction, and long for times of quiet and peace just to be by themselves.

But I think at a very deep level, we all need relationships and connections. As human beings, we are made for relationships. There is something in our DNA that makes us want to make friends, and find partners, and make commitments, and live in families and communities.

Biologically speaking, it makes sense… because if we are going to survive, we need to work together to find food and shelter and all the necessities of life. And if our species is going to survive, then we need to get together at least long enough to have children and nurture them into adulthood.

But theologically, it makes sense too… because as Christians we believe that we are made in the image and likeness of God. And God is not a solitary being. God is a God of relationship – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – and God is a God who is shown in the Scriptures to want a relationship with us human beings also.

In the Great Prayer of Thanksgiving that we pray as we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together, we always give thanks for the faithfulness of God in relationship to us. Even when we turn away from God, rejecting, ignoring, or betraying God’s love, we give thanks because God continues to reach out to us, forgiving and restoring us to relationship.

In church language, it’s a “covenant” that God has made with us – a promise not to destroy us, or abandon us, or stop trying to love us even when we have done nothing to deserve it. It’s the promise that God will always be there for us, God will always be here for us when we need God. Even if everyone else has left, or been taken, or died… God will never leave us or forsake us.

On this First Sunday in Lent, we always have the story of Jesus’ forty days out in the wilderness before he began his ministry. Mark’s version of the story doesn’t provide a lot of details, but one thing that is clear is that it was a difficult time for him: “At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.”

The Season of Lent this year may or may not be a particularly difficult time for you. If you do take on a spiritual discipline or decide to wrestle with spiritual questions about your life and its direction, then perhaps it will be. Or maybe you just happen to be in a season or stage of your life when you are struggling or feeling alone.

At the “Care for Caregivers” workshop last Sunday, Laura asked the group, “How many of you are caregivers right now? How many of you have been caregivers in the past? How many of you expect to be caregivers in the future? How many of you expect to need a caregiver in the future?” And by the end of her list, every hand in the room had been raised.

Well, I think the same is true for the experience of going through a wilderness time in our lives… when we struggle with direction, with temptations, with loneliness, or with despair. Some of us are in the midst of one of those times right now. Some of us have been through it in the past. Some of us will experience it some time in the future. Most of us will watch, worry, and try to be there for our friends, family, or fellow church members who are having wilderness times… hoping that something we say or do, or just our presence will make a difference.

As human beings who are made for relationship, who are made in the image of God and called to love one another, our attempts to be present for one another in the wilderness are good. We probably won’t be able to completely relieve the suffering and struggle of our friends, but we might be able to assist them in making it through. Perhaps we can be like the angels waiting on Jesus – not driving away the temptations and struggles – but helping with what is really needed to survive among the wild animals.

Most of all, we need to know and remember that God is present with us, and will never leave us or forsake us. I like the way that Jonathan Dent summarized the message of today’s readings on the back of this morning’s bulletin: “Today’s scriptures remind us that God makes promises and keeps them. God saved Noah and his family. God saves us from our sins as we trust Jesus Christ, and gives us grace through the storms of life.”

Sometimes, though, when we are right in the middle of a storm, or when we’ve been wandering in the wilderness for a little too long, it’s easy to start doubting the reality of God’s presence and love. If God really loves us, why does God allow these difficult times? If God really cares, why does God not intervene to make things right and put an end to our suffering?

During the Ash Wednesday service earlier this week, I mentioned that I am doing a Lenten discipline suggested by the United Methodist Church in the U.S. Each day during Lent, we are invited to take a photograph. Each day has a word assigned to it… a word for reflection, a word that might inspire a picture. Friday’s word was “alone.” On Friday afternoon, after all the busyness of the week, I walked around the empty church and thought about taking a picture of myself here alone with all the empty pews.

But as I thought about being “alone” some more, I realized that I didn’t really feel alone. Even in the empty church, there was the memory of so many people gathering here – singing, and laughing, and praying, and proclaiming God’s word together. I was aware not only of my own experiences of the community here, but of the generations that came before us, and those who will follow us in faith here at St. Andrew’s, in the Presbyterian Church, and in the church throughout all time and space.

I thought about the word “alone” some more, and I thought about Jesus. I thought about Jesus out in the wilderness, but even there the angels waited on him. I thought about Jesus in the midst of his ministry, so often misunderstood and challenged, eventually rejected, abandoned, and betrayed. I thought about Jesus on the cross… not only the horror of the physical anguish he must have felt, but the experience of being so alone. He also wondered where God was in the midst of his passion when he cried out like the psalmist: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

I took a picture of a crucifix on Friday evening. Not the empty cross of Easter, but Jesus hanging on the cross in agony, utterly alone.

Someone might want to have a theological debate about where the Father was while the Son hung abandoned on a cross. Was Jesus really forsaken? Or did it just feel that way?

I don’t know the answer to that. But there are a couple of things that I do know – a couple of things that I am quite sure of.

One is that Jesus knows what it’s like to be in the wilderness. Jesus knows what it’s like to be alone, lonely, abandoned, and afraid. Jesus knows what it’s like, and Jesus understands us when we find ourselves in that place too. When our friends with the best intentions try to listen and to understand our situation, but they never really get it completely?… Jesus knows. Jesus understands.

And the second thing that I am sure of is that the story is not over yet. Jesus on the cross is not the end of the story, and your present struggle or suffering is not the end of the story either.

God has made a covenant with us. God has promised not to abandon or destroy us because of our sin. And in Jesus Christ, God has made a new covenant – a new promise – to forgive us and raise us to new and eternal life.

As we share the Lord’s Supper this morning, we are invited to remember Jesus and the new covenant sealed in his blood. As we break bread and drink wine together, we believe that Christ is present in this world and among us. We are not alone.