Lent 3 March 24, 2019
This vocation of being a priest involves really hard discussions sometimes. The discussions that are hardest are those where someone’s pain is rippling off the surface of their skin, and there is absolutely nothing I can do to relieve what they are experiencing. I was speaking to a friend this week whose partner is in stage four pancreatic cancer. A mutual Instagram friend messaged me to ask what had happened to our friend’s profile as it seemed to have disappeared. I checked and sure enough it was gone. So I started hunting around, knowing only my friend’s name, what city he lives in and what he does for a living. I messaged him through facebook and through Instagram and grew increasingly worried as I wasn’t getting a response.
Finally, the next morning, I received a response and my friend said to me, I just had to get off Instagram for a while, I had to turn away from everything. I’ve just experienced something that is just not of this world. I am dazed. I took the conversation slowly, giving him space to explain in his own time, meanwhile extremely anxious about his well-being. Eventually, he told me that when he had driven home that night, he got out of his car and heard his partner, who was inside the house, scream with a kind of guttural agony that would chill anyone to the bone. He said that he went into the house and could see things not of this world near her. He got in to the house just in time for her to fall limply into his arms. He said to me, I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t take on her pain and her suffering, I couldn’t take on the physical and mental agony, the desire to let go and be taken by death. And I felt gouged out, as if something had simply ripped my soul knitted to hers out of my body and left me a hollow shell, unsure who I was, what I was, or how to go on as if there was still meaning rather than mere routine.
I know I’ve been in a situation like this. I know that at least several of you have as well. I know some of you or those you love have been diagnosed with cancer, or Alzheimer’s, with arthritis or wicked back or stomach pain. I know some of you have lost children and or partner’s yourselves, sometimes to long term sickness, sometimes it happened very suddenly. I know some of you have grappled with a struggle to figure out personal relationships, not just at a surface level, but deep below, struggling with insecurity, loss, fear of getting close, fear of being vulnerable, lack of self-worth, or a kind of indifference that sometimes grows out of the pain of failed or complicated relationships from the past. We have likely all gone through some sort of struggle and wondered: why me, why this. And we’ve wondered, how can I deal with this? How can I go on? What will I do with …?
I remember once talking about things I was struggling with with someone whom I respected very much and he said to me our very words from 1st Corinthians today: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone.” At first this made me pretty angry. I thought, you’re diminishing my own suffering. You’re not taking me seriously. You’re giving me no space to feel anything. You want me to just get over it, as if ‘everyone struggles so suck it up, be stoic, and get on with things. And yet part of my anger had to do with the fact that what this person said to me was true: and I called to mind the stories of friends who had been sexually abused or physically abused as children, friends who live in a corrupt nation where they can barely scrape together what is necessary to feed themselves, friends who lost children, friends who lost parents, friends who died, in their 20s, of cancer. I had friends who lost jobs, who felt squashed by their workloads, not sufficient for their families, who worry endlessly about how their kids will turn out. While my generation might curate their live to look perfect on social media – while under the surface trouble is all around them – your generation curated your lives by not talking about your pain, your suffering, your fears and anxieties. Particularly the men of your generation; told not to share, not to feel, because to do so would be weakness. So we have all in some way spent time covering up, hiding, masking, and distracting, from our own struggles.
Into this God says something very key to us that we too often forget living in a world where we have spent so much time and effort curating our lives and distracting ourselves from real struggle. ‘Testing is common to everyone.’ In the passage from Corinthians, Paul had been telling of Israel’s test in the desert. Having been freed from slavery in Egypt, just as we are freed from the slavery to sin, Israel is taken out into the desert and there find themselves all tested by elements common to all of them: the need for food, for water, the danger of their physical environment, the difficulty of dealing with sick, ailing people in the desert, the danger of temptation to turn away from the freedom they’d received and the new life they had in the desert, to slavery in Egypt.
Likewise Paul is saying the danger is always present to us, that having been freed from slavery to sin, the things that we encounter in this world that test us – need for food, for shelter, for water, for community, for safety, for treatment for conditions, for basic love and relationship – can become a snare for us where instead of trusting in God when things fall apart with family, with friends, with our health, with our loved one’s health, with our careers, with our personal lives, with our sex lives, with our retirements, we imagine these things to have power over us instead. We can end up placing our hope in the figurative golden calves of so many things: possessions, a sense of personal justice, vengeance, our self-righteous anger, our ability to control, scold or mold another in our likeness. We can in fact turn away from God in despair – just as the Israelites did in the desert – God why the hell would you free us from Egypt, from sin, only to lead us out into the desert where we hunger, thirst, get sick, where our relationships go bad and we hurt and maim each other, each one of us bitten by figuratively poisonous serpents, who are in fact, us.
I’m in the desert each one of us have said. I have nothing left. Why should I turn to you God? If you loved me, why would you allow this to happen? Why wouldn’t you stop this from happening? Why would you let us have to walk through this land, through this life, without bread, without water. There is no testing that is not common to all. Why? Because every single human being who lives, must walk through the desert that is in fact, life. We spend our lives constantly tested through so many means for we are the Israelites, we enter into their very desert, their very reality as we struggle through our own particular lives. And like my friend, we sometimes wonder, why Lord, would you leave me helplessly here; why would you leave me helpless to cure or take away this other person’s pain whom I love so much?
This is what Paul says to us in the midst of our darkest moments of this life where we are all tested: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” We know from our reading from Corinthians that God provided both bread and water for the Israelites: the bread of heaven, manna; water from a rock, that rock being the foundation of all life, Jesus Christ himself.
From where did that water and bread come to the Israelites, and where does it come for us? For both, it comes of course through Jesus’s own incarnate life, where he takes on our humanity, where he takes on the death due to us for our sin, where he rises from death and reconciles us to life with the Father through his Spirit. We know this is where life and so our hope to endure come from because this of course is precisely what we hear echoed again and again. What more could water from the rock in the desert mean than the water that poured out of Christ’s own side when he was stabbed upon the Cross. This is the water, the Christ, the bodily substance, by whom we have life. God is faithful, he will not let us be tested beyond our own strength. He provided a way out in the desert by remaining ever faithful to his promises to reconcile us to himself. He provided a way out by not leaving us to death, but reconciling us to eternal life in himself. He provides a way out by showing, in the desert – remember our reading from Lent 1 – that he has overcome Satan, sin and the temptation to turn away from God in the greatest trials of life. Jesus opens the way for you and for me as we walk in the desert that is life. We are often parched, hungry, fearful about our capacity to survive, confused about our meaning and purpose, saddened by losses, by our decline, by changes and disappointments we couldn’t have anticipated, or that we knew and always dreaded.
Every single one of us is or will be tested. That is what it means to live. We all enter into the desert where we will all face a myriad of things that will constantly tempt us to turn from God. I don’t know what these temptations will be for you. But here’s the thing: you are not alone in facing temptation. God himself in Jesus Christ faced into temptation and overcame it. In doing this, he didn’t just come along side you in your struggle to comfort you – as any person could – he literally took on your suffering, your decline, your sadness, your death, your loved one’s death. He took this on when he took on our humanity, and so he inhabits us, draws us, kneads us, shapes us, forms us, sustains us in the worst of times, in the worst of circumstances, in the most utter anguish and despair and sense of loss, he is within us, holding on to us, securing us, breathing life into us, or raising up our spiritual bodies. Testing will happen to all of us, but God in Christ through his Spirit has given us a way out, so that in Jesus Christ, as he is in our bodies and minds, we have the assurance, the love, the physical presence, and therefore the hope to endure and persevere in our respective deserts of life. AMEN.