As we begin our Lenten journey together, as a community of faith, let us pause for a moment in recognition and thanksgiving for God’s constant and faithful presence in our lives. And so we pray…
God of the journey,
You have called us to be a people with a purpose;
travelling without a map,
travelling to where we are led,
sustained by your Spirit,
committed to the gospel for the hope of the world.
Lead us on our journey
from who we are to who you want us to be;
so that patience is built into us,
kindness is assumed in us,
gentleness is part of us,
truth is second nature to us,
and the commitment of love is part of us.
Let us go gladly on the Lenten journey towards Easter –
the journey towards death and resurrection.
Let us journey in the peace and power of the Spirit.
(Eggs and Ashes, pgs. 109-110, by Ruth Harvey, adapted)
The scripture passage for today, from the Gospel of Luke, tells the story of Jesus’ time in the wilderness just before he begins his public ministry. Luke begins by telling us that Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit when he returned from the Jordan, where he had been baptized, and that he was led by the Holy Spirit during his wilderness experience.
There has been much study and analysis of this particular story by scholars in the nearly 2,000 years since it was first recorded in writing. Some have focussed on the tempter and the temptations that Jesus encountered. Some have focussed on the testing of Jesus’ faith and his responses. Still others on the scripture references that Jesus cites in defense of his loyalty to God. These are all interesting things to consider but for me the most powerfully motivating aspect of this story is not the specifics of the story itself. The most powerfully motivating aspect of this story is how keenly I identify with the struggles and challenges of recognizing and keeping faithful to God’s presence in the midst of my own wilderness experiences.
The key to this story, for me, is that God’s Spirit was within, and surrounding Jesus, guiding and sustaining him and that Jesus drew strength and courage from God’s constant presence. Jesus turned to God alone in faith, trust and commitment.
I’m not going to analyze Jesus’ wilderness experience or tell you a parallel story that follows the points in Jesus’ story. We may all have our own interpretations of the meaning of this story and why it is or is not important to us as people of faith. I’m simply going to tell you what I’ve been remembering and reflecting on this week which has been prompted by my reading of this week’s gospel lesson.
Just prior to my 50th birthday I received the news that my father had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. Prostate cancer is very often slow growing so I was told there was reason for optimism. Testing was underway to learn more about the cancer and to discern what the best option for treatment would be. Very quickly it was discovered that the type of cancer Dad had was very aggressive and fast growing. On my birthday we got the news that the cancer had already spread to Dad’s bones and that the only treatment option for him was palliative care.
My father had always been a robust person with a zest for living, a keen sense of social justice and the need for kindness and fairness, and a positive outlook on life and a sense of awe and wonder with respect to God’s creation. His diagnosis was a blow to all those who knew and loved him and we, his family, rallied around him and planned for the best way we could support him in his living and in his dying. For his part, Dad, faced this challenge with courage and a desire to live as fully as possible for the rest of his life. He didn’t want to die but very quickly he accepted that he didn’t have long to live (six months was his trusted doctor’s estimate). Dad wasn’t afraid to die but he did have a very great fear of being in the hospital. He dearly wanted to live at home and to die at home surrounded by his family.
The last six months of my father’s life was a time in the wilderness. There were so many challenges and hard experiences to deal with that I would not have chosen and did not want to have to face. But, when you love someone you do whatever you need to do to care for them especially when they need you the most. We were resolved as a family, to make sure that Dad could be at home as much as possible and particularly that he be able to die at home. The physical challenges were great, and we had no one in our family who had medical training, so the obstacles seemed great. However, with determination and wonderful support from Dad’s doctor and other medical personnel we made it through the rocky terrain of the palliative care of a loved one.
Fear was the greatest challenge for me during that difficult time. There were times during the last six months of my father’s life when he had to be hospitalized for short periods of time for various reasons. Those were the times when I leaned into God’s presence the most and depended on God’s grounding and guidance to stay calm for Dad’s sake as much as my own. On one occasion, when I was preparing to see Dad in the hospital, I had a visit from a friend whom I’ve known since I was three years old. I told my friend how difficult it was to visit Dad in the hospital because of his fear and that I never knew what would I would encounter when I entered his room. My friend thought for a moment and then said, “Remember that every time you walk into the room that Christ is walking in ahead of you. You don’t need to be afraid – you are not alone.” I was surprised at how immensely comforting that was to me and how much it helped me in those very difficult circumstances.
Throughout Dad’s illness there were many times that were sacred moments of sharing and intimacy where I was keenly aware of God’s presence. I had the precious gift of time with my father in which we shared things that were often too deep for words. We lived very much in the present and didn’t waste any opportunity for meaningful time and conversation. And yet, it was the presence of fear – my father’s and my own – during those hospital stays that was the most difficult challenge to face. And, it was intentionally remembering God’s presence and calling on God for strength and comfort that made it possible to push fear away and be grateful for the grace-filled moments whenever and wherever they were experienced.
The beauty of wilderness experiences is often the clarity that emerges of what is truly important. I learned that if I set my sights on Christ and remembered, as he did, that the Holy Spirit is within me and surrounding me in every moment that I could walk through any wilderness and come out the other side.
Something I read this week, makes the connection of trusting in God’s presence with the journey through the season of Lent:
“Lent is a time to acknowledge and respond to God’s offer to dwell in our hearts. it is a time to pour energy into increasing our awareness of God’s presence with us, no matter what the circumstances of our lives. Our prayer during Lent could be to ask God to let divine love open our hearts and increase our awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit.
We might furthermore ask God to increase our courage as we respond to God’s love by loving and protecting others. …Our response to God’s continual invitation to relationship is really our lifetime spiritual journey.”
(Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 2, Westminster John Knox Press, 2009)
The future is a mystery to us. We can plan for the future and that is a good thing. We also need to be responsive to God’s call and leading and set aside our fears, trusting that God is always with us. Keeping this in mind, I’ll close with a traditional prayer that I’ve turned to many times in the past:
you call us to ventures
of which we cannot see the ending,
by paths as yet untrodden,
through perils unknown.
Give us faith to go out with courage,
not knowing where we go,
but only that your hand is leading us,
and your love supporting us,
through Jesus Christ,
our companion and guide.
(Eric Milner-White, Voices United, 915)