In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
For years I have kept a journal or series of journals. I think I started my first one when I was nine or ten years old. And I’ve just kept them going. One drawer in my desk is filled with this variety of different volumes representing the various times in my life. The earliest ones as I look back on them are written in my childish yet honest cursive that they don’t even teach anymore. The most recent incarnation of my journal is a word file on my computer, which I print out from time to time. Now, these journals are not diaries in the sense that they don’t necessarily record daily events. Rather they were written for no other purpose than to give me a place where I could feel safe to vent heart and soul. They are in truth conversations with myself and ultimately prayers to God. It has been said that with age comes wisdom. Well, I don’t necessarily think so. I don’t think that simply living through the passage of time makes you wise, anymore than wading in the waves at the beach makes you a fish.
Now much depends on what you do with that living. How you process it, how you assimilate life’s experiences. Wisdom comes not just from living through the events of our lives, but living into them. Our experiences need to be more than just pieces of our history. Their lessons need to become part of ourselves. To this end, my journals have given me the greatest of gifts. As records of my struggles, my highs, my lows, my doubts, they provide me a wonderful platform from which to learn the lessons of my life. Now, my point in sharing all of this today is that the lesson that echoes over and over again, page after page, the wisdom that makes itself evident every time I look at one of my journals, every time I reflect back is the truth that through it all, God has always been with me. I may not have known it at the time. Most of the time, I didn’t know it. I may have felt quite alone and abandoned. The hard times were indeed very hard. But nevertheless, in retrospect, with the clarity of distance, I can look back and read those pages and see that God’s grace was unfolding all around me.
Whether I was 27 and living through my father’s illness and death, or 32 and struggling with my own debilitating illness, or basking in the wonder of my love for Melissa when we were newlyweds, whenever I look back, whenever I read those pages from long ago, I see God everywhere. In our gospel for today, Jesus goes off into the desert to get some things straight with himself. He goes off for 40 days to discover what it means to be the beloved son of God. In the wilderness, He wrestles with evil. He wrestles with the worst parts of human nature. He wrestles with temptations that could possibly destroy him in his ministry. During those 40 days, Jesus proves who he is. He faces three temptations and he conquers each of them. However, he is not alone in the desert. Luke says that it is the Holy Spirit that takes him by the hand and leads him there. Literally God pulls him into the wilderness. And at the end of those 40 days and 40 nights, Jesus is well prepared to begin his ministry.
For many of us, the past 720 days of pandemic have been one long journey in the desert. One long time in the wilderness. Our lives were turned upside down. We spent long months separated from those we love, our jobs dramatically changed, or we lost them all together. We weathered tense and dangerous political turmoil and witnessed a national uprising against the ongoing reality of racism in our nation. Not to mention that over those 720 days, more than 930,000 Americans died because of COVID 19. Many of them died without the comfort of family gathered around them. And many of them never received the funerals or the memorial services that they deserved. Now, the desert continues for millions as war breaks out in Europe and the people of Ukraine face terrible suffering and injustice because of one egomaniacal madman.
Being in the wilderness is not something we relish. Being alone, struggling, hurting, being in a time of crisis, being in doubt about life or how we are to live it. All of these wilderness experiences are not something we go looking for. We would much prefer to live between the glory of the mountaintop experience and the easy living of the fertile valley. Yet even without a pandemic or a war, all of us have times when life drives us far from a place of contentment and leads us into a strange and harsh land.
Scripture is full of stories of God’s faithful people, leaving places of comfort and struggling in the wilderness. It’s interesting to note that the desert or the wilderness is mentioned more than 350 times in the Bible. The desert as a state of being is a recurring theme throughout Jewish scripture. In each of these stories, the struggle is real and the desert is difficult and frightening. But in every case, as the faithful struggle and the wilderness, they not only learn much about themselves, but they always find that God is with them in that process. Moses ventured out into the wilderness after killing an Egyptian. And he discovered God and his calling when he encountered a burning bush. Jacob, while trying to flee from his brother, Esau, wrestled with an angel of God in the desert and discovered his identity, his new name, Israel. Elijah, the great prophet literally ran from God who demanded too much of him, to hide in the desert only to have God find him and comfort him in the still small voice of silence.
The lesson in these stories, the lesson in our gospel for today and the lesson I have learned from my meager journals, is that whether we know it or not, God’s grace unfolds in every part, and in every moment of our lives. We see it when we read about Moses and Jacob and Elijah. We see it when we read the story of Jesus temptation, as we did this morning. I see it When I look back at all the great joys and all the horrible struggles of my life.
I know some of you out there this morning are struggling right at this moment. You lug around large amounts of stress and worry. Perhaps you are grieving and in pain. You carry burdens that you think are too heavy to bear. You sometimes wonder how life got this way. How life ended up so differently from what you had planned. I know you are in the desert and wherever you look, the landscape seems barren and the way difficult. I won’t insult you with any platitudes about how it’s all going to be okay. Because for many of you, I know there are no quick or easy answers to the desert that has you trapped at the moment. All I can tell you is that you are not alone. God is with you and God’s grace surrounds you. If you look back on your life, the way I look back in my journals, you will see God’s grace in your past.
Therefore you can count on it for your future. Look for that grace. And just keep moving ahead one step at a time. Hold tight to your faith. Keep reaching out to God in prayer and know that there is always grace. Some things in life just can’t be avoided. Sometimes we can’t go around the desert. We can’t avoid the wilderness. We just have to grit our teeth and go through it. But I know that God will bless you on your journey and walk with you every step of your way. Just remember all deserts have borders, all deserts have beginnings and endings. And on the other side of that border, there lies a much more green and pleasant land. In closing, many years ago, Henry Francis Light penned some of the most beautiful words of hymnody:
“Abide with me, fast falls the eventide,
The darkness deepens, Lord, with me abide
When other helpers fail, and comforts flee
Help of the helpless, O abide with me”.
Always remember that we are never really alone, even during the loneliest of moments. Even when we feel trapped by that wilderness, our Lord is ever there, watching and waiting and working to redeem that which we think is irredeemable. God’s presence may only be detected in hindsight, but God is there, nonetheless. During this season of Lent, when we are asked to reflect on the state of our souls, may we all be given the grace to see God at work in our lives, bringing about in us that which is well and pleasing in God’s sight. But more importantly, may God always give us the grace to survive the wilderness and the insight to see its blessings. Amen.