On Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, we began the season of Lent. Lent has traditionally been a time of fasting and confession of sins. But there is more to it than that. This Sunday, the first Sunday in Lent, the readings give us a glimpse of Jesus in the wilderness. And we learn another lesson of Lent—that Jesus knows our sorrow and our pain. In Lent, we began our own 40 days in the wilderness with Jesus.
I was particularly struck by Psalm 91 in this season: Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways... Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name…with a long life I will satisfy them…
I can never read this Psalm without remembering the summer of 1997. I was in my early teens and we had just moved into Montesano and I was still getting used to being in a new place. Several months before, a dear friend of mine, just my age and still living in CA was diagnosed with brain cancer. And my grandfather, whom we had moved to be close to, was diagnosed with cancer as well. That summer, I spent a lot of time around oxygen tubes and hospital beds set up at home and spent just as much time writing letters and notes to the friend that I could not be with. I remember I read this Psalm over and over again, hoping that God would make good on his promises—“I will deliver them” “I will give them a long life”— and let these people I loved live.
But they didn’t. I stood at my grandfather’s bed as he died. Early one morning, I got a phone call from CA telling me that Ashley had died in her sleep, the long battle with chemo and radiation over. I felt cheated, like God didn’t make good on his promises.
These words puzzle us—they puzzle me. We watch people we love die, we watch a son or a daughter suffer from illness or disease. We turn on the news and find images of horror and terror and war. We see hundreds of thousands of people affected by the earthquake in Haiti, thousands dead and many thousands more without adequate food and shelter. We lose jobs and face an uncertain economy. Where is God? Where are his promises now?
We are in the wilderness. And in this wilderness of pain and doubt and aloneness, we find that we are broken people in a broken world.
In Luke this morning, it seems like Jesus was thinking a lot about this psalm too. The text doesn’t really tell us why Jesus stumbles off into the wilderness by himself, it just says “he was led by the Spirit.” Somehow, just like the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible, just like so many of the prophets, just like so many of us, Jesus finds himself away from all the people he loves, alone to face himself and his fears. He is hungry and tired. He is alone. He is discouraged.
He has just come from an amazing experience, baptized by John and hearing a voice from heaven telling him that God is pleased with him. But not now. There is no voice, no direction, no divine message telling him where to go. There is just the desert. And he is left with the questions.
Don’t we face those questions? Why did the person I loved die? Why am I alone? Why doesn’t God hear me? Why does he let this happen? Where is God? Where is our good ending?
In the text, the devil comes along to prey on Jesus’ fears. He reminds Jesus of all the promises that God made and asks; are they really being kept? You really think God is going to make good? Look, you are hungry, you are alone, and you know things are just going to get worse. Why don’t you just forget your mission? Forget this God and his promises!
Take matters into your own hands. You don’t need God. You can do this on our own. That’s what the devil tells Jesus—you want food, get food—you want power, get power—you want fame—get fame. Go for it. Take what you can get in this world, because if you don’t take it, you will be left with nothing. But Jesus ignores the devil’s logic.
How often do our minds run during times of sorrow and struggle? We see constant reminders of our loss. We worry about buying the groceries tomorrow. We hope that our children will make the right choices. And the more we think, the more we are confronted with our brokenness and the brokenness of our world. We wonder if God is really around in this crazy world. Does he even care? Maybe this is all a cruel joke. Jesus knows what this is like.
A story I always think about when we talk about this wilderness experience is an old monk who lived nearly 1000 years ago in the Middle Ages. His name was St John of the Cross. He was born very poor in Spain and as a young man, joined a monastery. He became a bit famous—he wrote books, he developed a new order, and he was respected by many people. Then things didn’t go so well for John. Religious officials became jealous of his success, had him arrested and jailed. He was tortured. Then he was left in a cold cell and nearly starved. He stayed there for nine months. He had always felt that God was with him, all through his life. Now he felt alone, abandoned. He later called this time “the dark night of the soul.” Yet, at one point, he realized that in this night of the soul, God was still there. I’m sure he was tempted to just give up. To forget God, to just walk away from religion. But, like Jesus, he didn’t walk away. He clung desperately to his faith, knowing that, somehow, God was in the darkness. He writes about this time… “Oh sweet darkness, o exquisite risk.”
I was overwhelmed by the television footage the Sunday after the earthquake in Haiti. We all saw the utter devastation and misery of that earthquake. The dead were piled in the streets, homes were gone, and people were thirsty and worn out with grief. And yet, even then, there were a group of people who stood out, in the rubble and the pain all around them, and sung hymns and prayed. It was a dark night for them and everything seemed lost. And yet, somehow, even amid the rubble, even when it seemed that God had forgotten all of his promises, they found God in the darkness.
So, in that brokenness, we begin Lent, we begin our walk in the wilderness with Jesus. But his story doesn’t end here in the wilderness. Our story doesn’t end in the wilderness. On this journey our brokenness will meet the cross at Good Friday and beyond the cross, we will find the hope of Easter. Jesus did not stop after his walk in the wilderness. He did not abandon God’s promises. He pressed on—to the cross and to the glory beyond.
You are broken, I am broken, everyone is broken
You are broken, I am broken, intimately broken
Stay, there is peace beyond anguish
life beyond death, love beyond fear
and we all have to suffer to enter our glory.
Let us remember, during Lent, that Jesus knows what it is like to ask questions, that Jesus knows what it is like to suffer, that Jesus knows what it is like to feel abandoned by God. And let’s remember too, that even in our brokenness, we look forward to Easter. Amen.