II Lent, Year A
II Lent, Year A
Journeys, pilgrimages… In the season of Lent, we often refer to our focus on the suffering and death of Jesus as a pilgrimage or journey. We are invited to travel with Christ as he makes his way to Jerusalem to be placed on trial, sentenced, and face a cruel, excruciatingly painful death by crucifixion. In today’s first lesson and psalm, we also discover that God’s people are called to be pilgrims, travellers, journeyers. The first lesson from Genesis reminds us how God called Abraham and Sarah to take a huge step of faith by leaving their homeland and making a risky pilgrimage to a distant, strange land that God would show them. In Psalm 121, which is one of fourteen pilgrimage psalms, bearing the title: “A Song of Ascents,” we are given a wonderful example of the psalmist’s deep confidence and faith in God while going to and coming back home from the important festivals in the Jerusalem temple.
The psalmist, begins in verse one, perhaps just before starting a journey by looking out at the hills and wonders what dangers lay ahead; who would protect and help; who would give the psalmist strength and help to make the long, dangerous pilgrimage? The answer follows in verses two through eight. Here the psalmist confidently, faithfully depends upon the LORD. Here the psalmist tells us that if the LORD created heaven and earth; then surely the same LORD will protect, help and keep the psalmist safe on the journey. God would guard the psalmist against physical harm and prevent the pilgrims from being beaten and robbed while travelling through the hills.
The psalmist sees God here as the perfect keeper, guard and protector. Over against all human keepers, guards and protectors—who cannot be relied upon completely; who grow tired and fall asleep while on duty; who falter and weaken—God is dependable, reliable, trustworthy. The psalmist didn’t have to travel in fear since God’s protecting presence; God’s “maximum security” would ensure a safe trip.
Is this also not the case for us as we make pilgrimages and journeys in our lives? Sometimes perhaps we feel like the psalmist did at first—afraid of what dangers might lie in store for us as we embark on our journey. Do we perhaps fear getting beaten and robbed too as we begin our life pilgrimages? We too, like the psalmist, like Abraham and Sarah and countless others in every age; can place our trust and confidence in God our keeper, guard and protector. God is completely trustworthy. Instead of dreading and fearing life’s journeys, pilgrimages and trips; we can enjoy them precisely because we are in good hands and in good company. Our LORD is with us.
William Sloane Coffin, Jr., talked about the time he almost died of a combination of pleurisy and pneumonia. For days he was barely conscious. Every day his father quietly entered the room, pulled up a chair, and said, “Don’t say a word, son. I’m just going to sit here with you.” About that silent presence of his father in the room, Coffin said, “It was consolation itself… (and) That’s the way it is with Emmanuel, God with us.”
It is rare indeed to have the power to mirror the presence of God Almighty in a lifetime relationship. This is the power a father has with his children. And you don’t have to know what to do—the thing is being there. Staying there, constant through it all. That’s a lot, but it may be the ultimate blessing. 1
God’s presence in our life journeys is like that too. As we, on occasion sink into the depths of pain and suffering, and ask: “Where is God now, in my pain and suffering?” the answer comes: “God is present precisely in my pain and suffering.” Our life journeys, pilgrimages, and travels are full of surprises: we never know what’s around the next corner. Rabbi Harold Kushner was correct to say that bad things do happen to good people. The psalmist says that the LORD protects the pilgrim from sunstroke by day and the moon by night. In the pagan world at that time, it was believed—albeit superstitiously—the sun and moon were deities and had the power to make people ill and inflict them with evil. Today, the age-old questions still linger: why doesn’t God prevent suffering or eliminate it altogether? If God is all-powerful and all-loving, then why does God seem to play favourites and protect only some from danger, harm and illness; while afflicting and punishing others? What is the over-all meaning and purpose of pain and suffering anyways?
All of these questions, I believe, ought to be respected and maybe even regarded as holy, because—contrary to what many believe—they draw us closer to God, rather than alienating us from God. Some of our Lutheran theologians, like for example, Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, often make distinctions between the penultimate and the ultimate; the temporal and the eternal. In this life, we shall be very smug and live rather superficial lives if we accept pat, easy answers to such deep, soul wrenching questions. In this life, there are no complete answers to such questions—only an invitation by God and all people of deep faith to view pain and suffering as a journey with God. It is a testing of our faith, to trust God on the journey, even though our questions shall remain unanswered in this life. However, when we speak of the ultimate and the eternal in relation to suffering; we are drawn into God’s own suffering in the person of Christ. God as Emmanuel, is the God who does not remain in some remote netherworld away from the messiness and scandal of pain and suffering of being human and mortal; rather God chooses willingly and lovingly to suffer with us. In so doing, God redeems us in and through our journeys of pain and suffering.
Suffering and pain, it has been observed by many, does one of two things to human beings: it either makes us bitter or better. Some are driven into utter despair, and live as if their whole being were paralysed; without any self-esteem; without joy, hope and love; without meaning. Others grow—often through time—to accept their suffering and may even come to thank God for it because it has deepened and strengthened their faith; built their character; made them more confident in God; increased their self-esteem; enriched them with joy, hope, love and profound meaning. One such person was Robert Louis Stevenson.
Robert Louis Stevenson has delighted many with his stirring adventure stories and yet they were written in the face of ill-health which dogged him from early childhood. He had to abandon the career he had hoped for in engineering and he endured great pain and approaching blindness.
Yet, at the height of his suffering, a friend was able to write, “In silence and the dark, he is still cheery and undaunted.”
Until the end of his life, Stevenson was able to rise above his pain and to maintain the cheerful courage which his faith had given him.2
This Lenten season, Jesus invites each one of us to journey with him on his way to the cross; to discover ever anew the riches of his love and grace through his painful and scandalous death by crucifixion. A pilgrimage, which is never easy, always difficult—yet full of meaning. A trip that takes us through many twists and turns; which may rob us of all our false pretences of our self-sufficiency or holiness. An invitation to travel by taking risks for the sake of love; which may very well involve getting beaten by the powers of sin and evil. However, rest assured that such powers shall never win; such a journey ultimately shall never defeat us; for, as was the case with Jesus and the psalmist: “The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore.” Our LORD is with us always. So enjoy your journey, learn and grow and be enriched and blessed in it.