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“Lent and Loneliness”
Sermon on Mark 1: 9-15
First Sunday in Lent, Year B
In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, as soon as Jesus is baptized the Spirit leads him into the wilderness to be tempted, but in Mark the Spirit drives him there. In fact, the Greek is even stronger than that: the Spirit hurls him into the wilderness, like a bouncer throwing a drunk from a bar, to a place of howling winds and ferocious animals. It is a violent beginning for a ministry that will end even more violently on a cross in Jerusalem.
Mark tells us so very little about what happened to Jesus in the wilderness. Matthew and Luke make a whole story from what Mark reveals in one verse, that Jesus was tempted (or tested; the same Greek word has both meanings). It is Matthew and Luke who tell us that Jesus was tempted to misuse his divine power, to put God to the test, and to seek the adulation of the crowds – but Mark leaves us to wonder about what went on out there in the desert, where and when Jesus was most vulnerable, what might have almost caused him to lose his nerve as he was preparing for his public ministry. I have been in that Judean wilderness, and it is a beautiful but desolate chunk of planet Earth. The wind itself seems to whisper taunting things to you as it whooshes its way around those sandy canyons.
It’s possible that the strongest temptation of all, stronger even than hunger or thirst, was the desire to get back to civilization, to have some ordinary human contact: the pleasant electricity of human conversation, the balm of human affection, the touch of human hands. Even the angels who waited on Jesus couldn’t supply these comforts. There is a suggestion in Mark’s language that Jesus was not threatened by the wild animals, but they certainly couldn’t have been much company for him.
So the temptations Jesus faced, whatever they were, came to him in his loneliness. The loneliness of those forty days in the desert may have been the hardest thing to bear.
In the Bible the wilderness is a place not only of physical danger, but also, and especially, spiritual danger. The faith of the Israelites was “tested” in the wilderness and, like most of us when faith is tested, they usually failed. Elijah, running from persecution into the wilderness, was tempted to give up his prophetic mission. The exiles of Judah, force-marched through the wilderness to Babylon, were tempted to stop believing in a God who could save them. The “wilderness,” in the Bible, is often a kind of shorthand for the devil’s realm, the place where hunger and doubt and fear and loneliness can undo a person, and shatter his faith. The wilderness is a place of exile and isolation, a place you just want to get out of as fast as you can.
But the wilderness is also, biblically speaking, a place of spiritual growth. In the wilderness the Israelites finally learned to trust in God to protect and provide for them. In the wilderness God gave Elijah the courage to go back to the city and resume his prophetic mission. And in the wilderness of exile the people of Israel found their hope restored, in the knowledge of a God powerful enough to return them to their homes and merciful enough to forgive them. Always in the Bible, this process of spiritual growth requires a period – sometimes a prolonged period – of loneliness: some experience of being cut off from the usual sources of comfort, those places and situations where connection, vitality, and meaning have been found. The loneliness makes a space for God to move in.
My favorite contemporary writer is Marilynne Robinson, who is one of our most American and most Calvinist of writers. In my reading of her fiction, I have noticed that all her main characters have a quality of loneliness about them, an “essential” loneliness that has nothing to do with whether or not they are in the company of other people. As different as Robinson’s main characters are – the elderly Congregationalist minister and his young wife who came from a childhood of abuse, a “prodigal son” figure returning to his hometown after years spent in prison, and his younger sister, who has been disappointed in love – they share this trait. I thought Robinson was saying something about the spiritual life in creating these lonely characters, and in fact Robinson has spoken about this. An interviewer once asked her to talk about “loneliness and personal isolation as it relates” to religion in our culture. In a nutshell, the question was “What can you say about people whose religion doesn’t assuage their loneliness? Robinson’s response was characteristically tart: “I am not sure religion is meant to assuage loneliness. Who was ever lonelier than Jesus?” She then went on to say that “loneliness is the encounter with oneself – who can be great or terrible company, but who does ask all the essential questions. There is a tendency to think of loneliness as a symptom, a sign that life has gone wrong. But it is never only that. I sometimes think that [loneliness] is the one great prerequisite for depth, and for truthfulness.”[i]
In other words, loneliness is a prerequisite for spiritual growth. Robinson notes in one of her essays that when she was growing up in northern Idaho the very word “lonesomeness” had a positive value: people spoke of it “in tones that let [her] know the privilege attached to it.”[ii]
This goes against the grain of most Americans’ way of thinking about loneliness. If we enter into a period of loneliness, we want to get it fixed as soon as possible. I’ve noticed that people often counsel recently widowed people to stay busy, usually with social activities. But social activities when you have lost the most important person in your life may not offer much comfort, and may make some people feel even worse. I think many people just need to be alone with their sadness for a while, to get to know themselves again in the absence of the one who, more than any other person, has reflected back to them an image of who they are.
All of us are likely to feel especially lonely after some catastrophic life event: the loss of a job, the onset of a serious illness or disability, a divorce or a breakup. Such events may propel us into a spiritual and emotional wilderness, some desert place of the soul where we feel cut off from other people because no one we know is going through what we are going through, and we believe no one can understand what we are enduring. The feeling of loneliness may be especially painful during those seasons and holidays that celebrate togetherness: Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day.
Some amount of loneliness, whether brief or prolonged, is an inescapable part of the human condition. If we are lonely, it does not mean there is something wrong with us or that something is wrong with the world. Loneliness may not be something that can be fixed, and where it cannot be fixed maybe we can begin to discover some positive value in it. Loneliness creates the conditions in us for a healthy kind of inwardness that is not the same thing as self-centeredness, but a greater self-awareness, and greater sensitivity to the pain of the world. Loneliness may make us more compassionate. Seen in these terms, loneliness is essential for drawing near to God.
Let’s consider the loneliness of Jesus again. His loneliness is uniquely the loneliness of someone who is not entirely at home in the world. In his earthly life, Jesus was the ultimate outsider, the one who was in the world but not of the world, who lived an earthly life with all its beauty and joy but also its pain and death, so that we could participate in his heavenly life. Our Christian hope is based on the belief that because of our destiny with Jesus Christ, we are not entirely at home in this world, either. Maybe our essential loneliness is a reflection of this knowledge.
Lent is the quintessential season of loneliness. The traditional Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting and Scripture study call us out of the “busyness” of the world and into the more inward space of our souls, the place where God knows us. As we observed on Ash Wednesday, Lent is the season in which we acknowledge our human condition of frailty, insufficiency and mortality. The reason for Lent is to teach us to entrust our weakness to God’s strength, our insufficiency to God’s sufficiency, our loneliness to God’s company, and our mortality to God’s power to raise from the dead.
Who was ever lonelier than Jesus? Like Jesus, we too have an origin and destiny with God. If we are going to talk about walking with Jesus in the way of the cross (as we do in Lent), then we may also learn to see our loneliness, whenever and however it comes, as a gift rather than a burden.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
February 18, 2018
[i] Quoted in Jennifer L. Holberg, “The Courage to See It: Toward an Understanding of Glory,” Christianity and Literature 59:2, Winter 2010, p. 295.
[ii] Marilynne Robinson, “When I Was a Child,” When I Was a Child I Read Books (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012), p. 89.