Between Loneliness & God’s Presence
Matthew 27:45-46; Luke 23:44-46
April 2, 2017
In 2000, the famous Southern Writer John Grisham made a dramatic departure from his normal style and format when he released the book A Painted House. I am sure that a number of you read the novel and so you may remember that it was the fictional story of a struggling family of Arkansas Cotton farmers in the 1950s and was told from the perspective of the family’s son Luke. Again, it was different from other Grisham projects and this was true for at least two reasons.
First, up until that time, Grisham had almost exclusively written stories that were classified as legal thrillers. They revolved around some type of crime that had been or was being committed and generally speaking a lawyer, for good or for evil, was at the center of the story.
But second, A Painted House was also different in that it was first released in a serial format rather than as a completed novel. What I mean by this is that with the book, Grisham chose to hearken back to an early time when books were sometimes released in sections through a magazine before they were published in a complete form. For John Grisham, this choice was a way of killing two birds with one stone. At the time, Grisham was part owner of a struggling magazine called the Oxford American. As a way to give his new story a different spin and as a way to attempt to revive the magazine, A Painted House first came to the American public in six consecutive issues of the magazine. Finally, a year later in 2001, it was published as a completed story that one could purchase and read in one volume.
For this reason, A Painted House, I think, serves as a good illustration of something that we regularly encounter with the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke & John. Like those six issues of the Oxford American that contained a portion of A Painted House, each gospel is part of the story of Jesus but not the whole story. It is only when we have them together that we have a semblance of the larger and more well rounded story of who Jesus was and what his life was about.
This is true as it relates to the last days of Jesus’ life as well. All of the gospels tell us about Jesus’ last days but none of them tell us the full story. For instance, our two passages for today focus on two of Jesus’ seven last statements that he made while hanging on the cross. No single gospel writer among the four records all seven of these statements. Instead, three of the statements are found in Luke, three are found in John while Matthew and Mark contain two. When we put the four writers together, we have all seven. That is why, today, we read both from Matthew and from Luke for both writers share a statement from Jesus on the cross that the other does not offer and it is only when we hold them together that we have a more complete picture. In these two statements, as we put them side by side and consider them as the opposite sides of the same coin, we find that on the cross, Jesus moved between feeling lonely and being aware of God’s presence. And, the truth is, we too, so often, move between these two very different but very connected emotions.
On the one hand, Matthew is very clear to us that there was point as his death neared when Jesus felt all alone and that feeling is summed up in one of the statements of Jesus that Matthew remembers when he said, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me…” which is to say, why have you left me alone, abandoned and by myself in this moment of my greatest need.
This statement is profound on two levels. First it is profound because Jesus of course was not alone. There were two others who were being executed with him at the exact same time and there was a crowd there watching what was unfolding. There were Roman soldiers, curiosity seekers, folks who felt Jesus deserved what he was getting and at least a few of his supporters and followers on hand. Yet, in the midst of the crowd, Jesus felt alone.
This same is true for us too. Feeling alone doesn’t necessarily mean that we are all alone. Sometimes, our greatest sense of aloneness comes when we are in the midst of a crowd. Aloneness comes when we sense that no one understands what we are going through or that no one is attentive to our needs or to where we find ourselves. Aloneness is that feeling that no one has been where we are and sometimes is even more palpable when others are physically near us than when they are not.
At the same time, this statement in Matthew is also profound for the obvious reason that Jesus was God’s son. It may shock us that Jesus would have felt abandoned, alone or by himself. Yet, the gospels are very clear that Jesus experienced every emotion that we experience. And, all of us know clearly what it is like at some time or another in our lives to feel alone.
Hal Warlick is the retired Minister to the University at High Point in North Carolina. Over the course of his life Warlick also wrote a number of books including one in 1979 called Conquering Loneliness. Warlick says that when he wrote that book, he began to receive the typical letters from people who had read the book and who had found it to be beneficial to them. At the same time, Warlick said that what he was not prepared for was who the first two letters of appreciation came from. The first letter that he received was from Ruth Bell Graham. Mrs. Graham, who is now deceased, was of course the wife of Billy Graham. The second letter that Warlick received was from John Anderson. Now, you have to dig back into the recesses of your mind to remember that Anderson at that time in 1979 was the Independent Party’s candidate for President. As he crisscrossed the country in the race against Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter for the White House, he admitted that he had carried Warlick’s book with him, had read it and found great consolation therein. Warlick’s point was that Ruth Graham and John Anderson were successful, well connected people yet they too felt alone. They understood what it was like to bump up against those moments in life where they sensed that no one understood, was listening or cared. These were their experiences, this was Jesus’ experience and at times it is ours too. (Harold Warlick in The Human Condition in Biblical Perspective, CSS, Lima, Oh: 1998, page 184)
Yet, in the course of the same day, Jesus moved from lingering over the statement “My God, my God why have you forsaken me” to moving toward Luke’s statement, “into thy hands I commend my Spirit”. Jesus’ loneliness was real. But, what was also real was that deep down inside, he found peace in the reminder that he was not alone but that God was there, with open arms, and ready to welcome him into His presence.
What drives this home even further is in knowing that here Jesus was quoting Psalm 31 and there the Hebrew word for hand is the word yad. That word gave the picture of a specific type of hand. Yad indicated a hand that was open not clinched or closed. It was a hand of invitation and welcome.
Yad also indicated power and direction. In turn, Jesus moved from the aloneness of Matthew to the affirmation of Luke that God’s hands were open to him in his moment of need to not only care for him but to empower him and to direct him.
This is the place that we are invited to reach as well. Our sense of loneliness is real and we will likely never overcome those occasional or sometimes ongoing feelings in our lives. Yet, when they come and they surely will, our call is to remember exactly what Jesus did. God is not absent God is there. God’s hands are open and they are open to give us comfort but also power and direction.
In the 1930s, Tommy A. Dorsey, who was a gospel singer and not to be confused with Tommy Dorsey the big band leader, was singing for a service in St. Louis when he received word that his was Nettie had died in childbirth. By the time he returned home to the Southside of Chicago where they lived, not only had Nettie died but the child she had just give birth to had passed as well. Without question, it was a dark time for Dorsey and for several weeks, by his own admission, he thought about leaving the world of gospel music and returning to be a Jazz musician. He felt abandoned by God and could not shake his sense of aloneness.
One night, Dorsey found himself at a neighborhood music school. There, as the sun began to go down, Dorsey sat down at the piano and felt a peace come over him which was a profound reminder in his real aloneness of God’s equally real presence. As the peace came so did these words that Dorsey began to put to music….
Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand, I am weak, I am tired, I am worn. Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light, take my hand, precious Lord, Lead me home…Amen. (From umcdiscipleship.org, “History of Hymn: Precious Lord, Take My Hand”, by Michael Hawn)