Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson, Deacon
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The First Sunday of Lent – February 22, 2015
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
I stumbled across the room to turn off my alarm. It was 4:30 AM. As a college student, I was more accustomed to seeing this time at the end of the day than at its beginning. I had slept for only forty-five minutes and I was not ready to get up. Nonetheless, I hastily shoved clothes on, gathered everything I needed, and hurried down to the Quad where several other students were waiting. Five hours later, after a subway ride down the length of Manhattan and a ferry to Staten Island, I took my first step of the 2011 New York City marathon.
The way I typically summarize the events of that day makes them sound fairly reasonable. “It was not easy,” I usually tell people, “but running the New York City marathon was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It was thrilling to run through all five boroughs with so many other people, and I finished the race with a time that I was pleased with.” All of that is true. But what gets left out of that version of the story is the intense, constant pain that I experienced. Adrenaline may have fueled me through the first few miles of the race, but by halfway through, my muscles shuddered, my mouth ran dry and even my eyelids began to close. I wondered whether I would collapse out of exhaustion or even whether I would fall asleep as I ran—all while I had miles and miles left to go. The race may have turned out all right in the end, but I certainly didn’t know it would when I was in the middle of it. All I knew was that I was experiencing pain—and I couldn’t wait for it all to be over.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, Mark narrates Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness with characteristic brevity. What takes Luke thirteen verses to describe and Matthew eleven, Mark accomplishes in just two short verses. As a result, Mark does not provide us with many details: we know only that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness after his baptism and before he began preaching in Galilee; he stayed there for 40 days, and during that time Satan tempted him, he encountered wild beasts and angels waited on him. The rest of the story—what the temptations were, how Jesus handled them, and how Jesus felt—is left to our imagination. How did Jesus survive those forty days? Did he get hungry or thirsty? Was his life at risk from the wild beasts? Was there ever a chance he would succumb to temptation? The basic facts that we are presented with are important, but they can’t possibly capture the full meaning of Jesus’ struggles. By reducing Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness to a brief summary, Mark falls short of communicating what it was actually like—of relating just how painful and horrible it must have been.
The account of Noah’s Flood in Genesis similarly omits key parts of the story, de-emphasizing the pain and suffering that must have been involved in such a dramatic event. Genesis outlines in extensive detail how the ark was built and what animals were recruited in what numbers to comprise the ship’s passenger list. It also indulges in a long, grand presentation of how the Flood ends, complete with a dove and an olive branch and the covenant and the rainbow that we heard about this morning. But Genesis’ discussion of the flood itself is noticeably short. The complete destruction of all humans and animals is only mentioned in passing, and the claustrophobia and uncertainty of those stuffed onto the ark for weeks on end is not even discussed. Imagine just how violent and immense the death must have been on land, and how overwhelming and disconcerting weeks of the worst storm ever must have been at sea. In Genesis, all of this suffering and pain is so easily papered over and ignored.
The authors of Mark and Genesis may not have wanted us to linger over these details, but paying attention to the suffering and pain in these stories offers us the important reminder that suffering and pain exist. When we tell the stories of our own lives, we often stress the happy endings and forget about the terrible middles. Following the examples of Mark and Genesis, we prefer not to dwell on the horrors we once had to endure. But recalling instances of the suffering and pain of the past helps us put the situations of the present in better perspective. Remembering past trials and temptations allows us to see that what we are facing right now is not necessarily a catastrophe, that an end to our current suffering may in fact be possible. Jesus eventually returned from the wilderness in order to commence his ministry, leaving Satan and the wild beasts behind. When the waters finally receded, Noah and his family were able to step off the ark and into a new world. Peter’s letter tells us that even those that God destroyed in Noah’s Flood received a second chance when Jesus visited their imprisoned souls after his death. Perhaps, too, there will be an end to our troubles; perhaps, too, there will be a second chance for us.
The great American preacher Phillips Brooks once preached a sermon called “The Egyptians Dead Upon the Seashore,” in which he noted that the Israelites had been oppressed by the Egyptians for many years before they were finally able to overcome their enemies and escape from captivity. He used the example of the Israelites to show how even the most long-standing enemies can be defeated and how even seemingly interminable periods of suffering can come to an end. “When we are in the thick of an experience,” he explained, “we find it hard to believe or to imagine that the time will ever come, when that experience shall be wholly a thing of the past and we shall have gone out beyond it into other fields. When we open our eyes morning after morning and find the old struggle on which we closed our eyes last night awaiting us; when we open our door each day only to find our old enemy on the doorstep…it grows so hard as almost to appear impossible for us to anticipate that…we shall ever shake free our wings and leave behind the earth to which we have been chained for so long. On the long sea voyage the green earth becomes inconceivable. To the traveller in the mountains or the desert it becomes very difficult to believe that he shall one day reach the beach and sail upon the sea. But the day comes, nevertheless. Some morning we go out to meet the old struggle, and it is not there. Some day we listen for the old voice of our old tyrant, and the air is still. At last the day does come when our Egyptian, our old master, who has held our life in his hands, lies dead upon the seashore, and looking into his cold face we know that our life with him is over, and turn our eyes and our feet eastward to a journey in which he shall have no part. Things do get done.” Brooks’ exhortation masterfully speaks hope to the parts of our lives that seem most hopeless, that seem drowned in a suffering from which we are convinced we will never recover.
Yet we know, unfortunately, that what Brooks says does not always apply. Some things don’t get done: there are some vessels that never reach their destinations and there are some enemies that will never be overcome. I wish I could tell you that you will win the battle you are currently fighting; I wish I could promise that you will achieve the ending of which you dream; I wish I could say with any meaningful confidence that everything will turn out all right. I can’t. But I can assure you of this: you are not alone. Human beings have undergone dangerous, uncertain travel since at least the time of Noah, and Jesus himself wrestled with demons far away from any comfort or assurance of safety, ultimately suffering so much that he lost his life. The continual appearance of human suffering in our religious tradition reveals that our suffering is not a burden unique to ourselves but instead a reality shared by others. The first letter of Peter highlights that even God—in the form of Christ—knows what it is like to suffer. Hence, we have not been abandoned in our pain: our friends, our family, our community and our God have faced suffering themselves and can help us endure the trials that never seem to go away. So, whatever wilderness you are making your way through this morning and whatever storm continues to pour down upon your head, do not despair! Reach for the angels that waited on Jesus; huddle with your companions on the ark; send out a dove to search for dry land. And remember that God is with you—in the middle of everything.
 In making this point, I am informed and inspired by Frederick Buechner, “Adolescence and the Stewardship of Pain,” in Secrets in the Dark: A Life in Sermons, especially page 217.