Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Sermon for March 22, Lent IV

The Longest Night
Mark 14:32-51

It is late at night in the city. The twisting streets are deserted. The households, for the most part, are silent. The city sleeps. The moonlight illumines a small band of men as they move into a space between two houses, then they are lost to sight as they walk into the shadow of another building. They are the closest followers of Jesus. Jerusalem has an ominous air. It’s a night of passion and betrayal, of armed guards and treachery. It’s a night that they will remember for the rest of their lives. They leave Jerusalem, circling below the walls of the ancient city, until they reach the Jericho road. From there, they turn up the steep slope leading to the Mount of Olives, until they come to the Garden of Gethsemane. Gethsemane means “olive press.” It’s a peaceful garden among a grove of ancient olive trees. The walls of the Temple are within view, but tonight, the Garden feels like a place of safety.

At the garden wall, Jesus leaves eight of his disciples behind. Only Peter, James and John are allowed to go with him into the recesses of Gethsemane. Here the trees are closer, and here, in the sanctuary of the lovely garden, Jesus wrestles with his destiny.

Jesus plunges into a sinkhole of dreadful agony. He tells his closest friends, “My soul is crushed with grief to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Jesus disappears into the deepest glade of the Garden, falls upon his knees, and prays aloud to God. In the garden, only we the listener hear the desperate agony of a son talking to his daddy. “Abba Father, everything is possible with you. Takes this cup from me.” As Jesus continues to pray, the large storm begins to show the first signs of its impending arrival. Clouds begin to obscure the brilliant moon, and the branches of the olive trees begin to shift in the wind. Jesus is in deep prayer to God, “Abba Father, not what I will, but what you will.”

Even though Jesus prayed alone, I believe he also craved human companionship during his time of spiritual agony. The three disciples are within earshot to keep vigil with Jesus. But the strain of the past week takes its toll. The bone-weary disciples close their eyes for a few seconds of rest. Jesus returns an hour later to find his closest friends sound asleep. He gazes down at the huddled, sleeping forms. Jesus is utterly alone. The disappointment in his heart breaks through as his voice breaking the silence. “Simon, are you asleep?” And to the three, “Could you not keep watch for one hour?”

Have you ever felt that kind of deep loneliness?

I remember reading the soul-anguished comments of an anonymous mother and housewife. Her remarks could express the cry of many of us here She wrote:
I am so tired from trying to keep going. Sometimes I feel that I could get sick and die, then God would have to take care of these kids and I wouldn’t have to worry anymore. I cry every night and pray myself to sleep. I have always tried to be a good person and cannot understand why this is happening. Oh, God, I just need a reason to go on. It’s getting dark, God, I’m afraid. I hurt; inside I am screaming. I do not want this. One by one, You have taken away the people I depended on. Now only you are left. I do not want to trust you-- you who have taken away all that mattered. But I am too tired to fight you anymore. Would you hold my hand, please, Lord? It’s getting darker. It’s hard to accept this blackness for that long. But I guess You’re not asking me to. Only to accept it for now, this present minute. It’s just that these minutes run together ‘til I can hardly remember a time before them . .

Loneliness is defined as a state of unhappiness that results from being without the companionship of others. I think this is part of what Jesus felt in the garden, as he looked at his sleeping disciples during his time of immense trial. Isolated. Afraid. Alone. Yet, Jesus didn’t react to his loneliness like we do. We will see how Jesus handled it in a moment. But let’s take some time to examine ourselves. We are lonely people, too. Loneliness is a horrible, and it is far more pervasive than we can imagine. When we are lonely we always think we're the only ones. But loneliness is not confined to those who live alone. Loneliness plagues married and partnered people, families with and without children, people with lots of friends. Young, old, middle-aged -- loneliness runs the gamut. Loneliness saps our vitality. It makes us feel scared and insecure, vulnerable and unloved. Or worse, unlovable.

Being alone for any length of time inevitably brings us face to face with the void. With that series of questions and fears that we don't want to entertain. The fear that we are unloved. The fear that we are alone. The fear of that great loneliness called death. The suspicion that we secretly harbor but rarely utter, that there may be no real rhyme or reason to our life. No purpose or meaning to our being here. In short, loneliness can be terrifying. Many people desperately spend their lives in a drawn-out pursuit of company and companionship, and in the accumulation of too much food, sex, and physical pleasure, to fill their painful sense of emptiness and isolation. Studies say that Baby Boomers are headed toward a crisis of loneliness.

Therapists confirm that it is the most frequently cited reason that people seek professional counseling. Psychologists even talk about new categories of loneliness. One that interested me the most is called LTL or Living Together Loneliness. The typical LTL sufferer is a woman between the ages of 33 and 46, married and living a comfortable life. She may have children. She blames her husband or live-in partner for her loneliness. Often he’s critical, demanding and uncommunicative. The typical LTL woman realizes she is becoming obsessed with her bitterness and is often in counseling for depression or anxiety. She is frequently isolated and feels some estrangement from other people, even close friends. Sometimes she will have a fantasy about her partner dying, believing that her loneliness will end if that man is out of her life.

This is not to mention male loneliness, crowded loneliness, and the good old-fashioned loneliness of single shy people with no friends. Today loneliness is seen as an epidemic social problem that sets a chilling scene for the future of our relationships. Think of your lonely times. . . the times you sat next to your spouse or partner and you wanted to talk about your inner feelings, but you couldn’t. . .the painful loneliness of partners who keep secrets from each other for years. . .the feelings you have when you are separated from the comfort of your loved ones. . .the cruel loneliness of a family that sits for hours in front of the television without speaking a word among themselves. We live in a difficult time. Like Jesus, we go to our Gesthemenes, waiting for God to speak to us in our lonely anguish.

Let’s go back to the garden where Jesus prays. After waking up his three disciples, Jesus returns to the still shadows of the sheltering trees. When he’s done, he rises and returns to the clearing where the disciples have fallen asleep, for the THIRD TIME. As Jesus stands watching his sleeping friends, he can also see the slopes of Jerusalem before him. Then suddenly the darkness of the night is broken. As Jesus continues to survey the scene, looking out through a crude arch created by the huge twisted trunks of the olive trees, he sees torches moving slowly through the gateway in the wall. The temple guard is approaching to arrest him. They advance down the slope from the city, across the valley, coming toward the Mount of Olives. The doom that Jesus had been dreading is at hand.

Remember that Jesus Himself suffered the pain of loneliness. He ran up against the traditions of his own people and felt rejected. Others insisted on bringing up his illegitimate birth and throwing it in his face. People put him down because of where he was born. He was mistreated and made fun of because of his parent’s lowly status and his lack of education. They questioned his motives. In the Garden of Gethsemane, he suffered the intense pain of loneliness. His closest friends deserted him. Falsely accused he died a death de didn’t deserve. Jesus knows our loneliness and understands us when we go through dark valley. We may feel lonely, unloved, weak, rejected, and even abandoned, but God understands our situation intimately.

Jesus demonstrated a different reaction to his loneliness than we might. He didn’t complain. He didn’t escape. He didn’t blame anyone else. He didn’t run off and have an affair, or try to ease his pain by going to the market and shopping for needless toys. He could have, but he didn’t. Instead, Jesus showed humble obedience. “God, not what I will, but what you will.” Jesus allowed his loneliness to focus him on his relationship with God.

A lot of our modern loneliness is about excessive self-love and self-protection. We worry about the future. We worry about what others think. We protect our reputations, even at the cost of alienating others. We desire to be with God, yet at the last minute we find an escape route and run away. God never tires of seeking us out, reminding us of the divine presence in our sufferings and in our joys, in our mistakes and in our victories.

In our loneliness, we can learn to hear what is most important. In our loneliness, we can find direction to where God leads us. The way of the Lord is narrow, uphill, demanding, lonely, but it is also the way of salvation, as Christ himself showed us.

Where is God when I feel alone? God is there. God promises never to leave us or forsake us. The trick is getting past or fears, our feelings of betrayal, or hurt feelings and wounded pride, in order to know God’s presence with us. We call that faith. We also call it obedience. “God, not what I will, but what you will.” When we can seek God in loneliness, the loneliness transforms us. We may just gain a healthy focus on the One who calls us, saves us, and presses us onward to our destiny.


Kerby Anderson, “Loneliness,” http://www.probe.org/docs/lonely.html

Monk Moses, “The Community of the Desert and the Loneliness of the Cities,”

Henry Ernst, “The Drama of the Passion: The Garden of Gethsemane,” http://www.bbumc.org/sermon_01 03 18.html

Kelley Kelsey, “The Gift of Loneliness,” http ://quicksitemaker.com/members/prayer/lonely.html

Robert Hardies, “From Loneliness to Solitude,” http://languageisavirus.com/may-sarton/writing_from_loneliness_to_solitude_unitarian_sermon.php

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