In the darkness of despair

“When we’re in the darkness of despair, however far away God may feel, Jesus is there in the darkness with us.”
Dad, our goat, and his Church in Norwich, pictured in the mid-1980s.

It is Maundy Thursday today — the day when Jesus had the last supper with his disciples.

In 2014, just before Easter, my dad gave a sermon at his local church. I’ve listened to it a lot recently, partly because it took ages to play and rewind and play and rewind as I typed it up, but mainly because it’s the only recording I have of his voice.

It is based on a reading about Jesus’ time in the garden of Gethsemane and is about prayer in times of darkness and despair. If you’d prefer to listen to it, head here.

Matthew 26:36–45

Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”

Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with met for one hour?” he asked Peter. “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.” When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing. Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners.

Good morning. Let’s pray.

May my words and all our thoughts be in the name of the living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

I was very surprised once, I heard one of my sons giving a talk — it was nice to know he could string a couple of sentences together — and he introduced himself by saying that his father, i.e. me, always began a sermon with a joke, and actually I’ve done that already now, haven’t I? I didn’t mean to be funny, because I was going to say, this is not the time to begin a sermon with a joke because it’s been a real struggle to prepare for this morning.

Because we’re dealing with an issue, which I would imagine, affects all of us in different ways. Whether from personal times of despair, or times of sharing and being alongside others who are in despair, or when we hear the sort of news, the reports from abroad that Stewart has just shared with us, which hits us so hard and knocks us sideways.

As I was preparing for this morning, I was pondering on Psalm 22, which is the words Jesus uses when he’s hanging on the cross. I thought, I need some inspiration to get me into this. So I got out a commentary, a very big learned commentary, and the opening words about the opening verse of this Psalm use phrases like, here was a person who was in the utter most depths of suffering, on the brink of the grave, in utter despair. And that’s true. The words of Jesus are the words of a person who is on the brink of despair.

That’s what we’re on about today: prayer in despair. Not prayer when you’re in a bit of a tight spot, when you’re feeling a bit discouraged, a bit off-colour, or need a bit of cheering up, but those times in our lives when everything seems lost, when we feel abandoned, when there seems to be no-one to turn to., and especially not God. Something that Saint John of the Cross called, “the dark night of the soul.” I guess, looking at some of the heads nodding, you know what I am talking about, some of you, either from your own experience as I’ve said or from the experience of others. When prayer seems impossible and God seems to have gone away on holiday and turned his mobile phone off.

So where do we start? I want to share with you, three pictures of Jesus. Two in a moment, a third one later on in this sermon. Matthew 26, Verse 38:

“Jesus says, my soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death, stay here and keep watch with me. And then he goes away to pray and says, my father, if it possible may this cup be taken from me, yet not as I will, but as you will.”

Jesus is anticipating the situation to which he is entering, almost as if events have taken over and he’s being drawn into a very dark and frightening place. A time when He knows He is going to be alone. And so he turns to his father and its almost as if He wants to open negotiations with his Father. Over, perhaps we can redraw the plan. Perhaps there is some other way we can deal with this situation, which won’t involve me going through what I know I’m going to go through. It’s rather like, when you’re facing that frightening exam, and you just think there might, perhaps if I was sick, they might just assess me on the work I’ve already done and they’d let me through. That’s a very trivial example, but you know that feeling, could you negotiate your way out of this?

It’s very interesting, in our home group the other day, we were talking about prayer, and the question of Abraham praying for Sodom and Gomorrah to be saved came up. And we noted how Abraham, when he prays to God, not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, he sort of tries to do deal with God. You can almost imagine him in the market place, saying, alright, tell you what Lord, if I could fifty righteous people here would you let them off, and God saying alright yeah fair enough, and Abraham saying no, no I’ll tell you what, let’s make it twenty five. He discusses the matter with God, and this is what Jesus is doing. He’s wrestling with God in prayer.

He doesn’t hide his fear. He doesn’t put a brave face on it. He doesn’t pretend it’s going to be easy-peasy and He can do it. He is totally honest with his Father. “Not as I will, but as you will.” He acknowledges that ultimately, what his Father wants to matter is what has to happen.

And his sense of isolation, tragically, or sadly is perhaps a better word, is increased by the fact that his closest friends, who he wanted to keep watch with him, have just fallen asleep and left him as a man alone, and he begins to experience that sense of being abandoned. That’s picture number one.

Picture number two, going back to Psalm 22, and the words that Jesus utters on the cross, this cry of anguish, cry of dereliction, so agonizing and so powerful, my God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why have you abandoned me? It must have had such an impact on those who heard him that they remembered it clearly, and Matthew and Mark quote him in the original Aramaic. The actual words that Jesus used were burnt into their souls so deeply that they remembered word-for-word in Aramaic what he said, recorded in a Greek book, a book written in Greek but we get those words, so powerful were they.

The bleakness of Gethsemane has become the darkness of death, and Jesus has that experience of being shut off from his heavenly father. That God the eternal trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, with this eternal intimate relationship closely bound up together, has suddenly been broken by the weight of the sins of the world. Jesus experiences within himself being shut off from the life-giving God that he, indeed, was part of, and he screams out “Why have you forsaken me?”

So hold on to those quite frightening pictures for a moment.

So the question is, what does has this to say about praying in despair? This is where I found the sermon got more difficult to prepare, to be honest. What does this say about praying in despair?

I want to look at two areas. This is not a list of handy hints, how to get it sorted, how to get through okay, it’s just some observations and reflections for you to ponder on, while the going is good.

Praying for others.

Perhaps our experience of despair is not our own personal experience, but of a friend or a family or someone that we’re called on to minister to professionally at some point in our lives. And the clue for me in this is that very often, what others need is simply for us to be there. Jesus says to his disciples, stay here and keep watch with me. He didn’t want them to talk with him, he didn’t ask them to pray with him, he wanted their companionship, and their fellowship.

I sometimes when I hear people say, often at the end of a funeral service, as people are going out, they go up to the next of kin and they say, I’ll be there for you, or I’ll be here for you. And it’s sometimes can sound a bit hollow, and yet very often that is the one thing a person needs to know, that they’re not going to be left alone and abandoned and deserted, simply because they’re not very good company at the moment.

I was once carted off to hospital. It was on a Sunday evening, in an ambulance. I was in a lot of pain, I was very frightened, and I was put into bed, I couldn’t really walk and I had a sleepless night because there were other patients in the ward and they were being very noisy so I lay there all night and I was very frightened, I was waiting to have results of some tests to tell whether or not I’d got cancer in my spine, so it was a very scary moment in my life. It gradually gets light, you know what it’s like in the hospital its fairly noisy through the night, and then the noise level increases, so you know abandon hope all ye who enter here, you’re not going to get a night’s sleep. I wasn’t laughing at the time, it was one of the few times in my life when my sense of humor had totally and utterly deserted me.

I was lying there with my eyes shut and I sensed a presence next to me, and I opened my eyes. It wasn’t Jesus standing there, but it was the next best thing, the Archdeacon.

Early hours of the morning, it was 8o’clock, I didn’t even know that he knew I was in hospital. I knew everything was going to alright. Not just because he was the Archdeacon, although Archdeacons are pretty solid guys, and ladies these days, they’re pretty solid and reliable people. But I knew, I knew I wasn’t alone. I knew the church cared for me, that my brothers and sisters in Christ loved me. He was on his way to a meeting up north, so he’d got out early to come and stand at my bedside for a few minutes, read a little portion of scripture and pray with me, and then be on his way. If ever I’d needed a lesson in pastoral visiting and care, I’d got it that day. He was there at the moment I needed someone to be there.

I once had the privilege, when I training for the ministry of spending time at Saint Christopher’s Hospice which was the forerunner of all the modern hospices, when Dr. Cicely Saunders was still in charge of it, and she was the great pioneer of the modern hospice movement. It was a great privilege for me as a student to be there for a few weeks when there were no other students around so she had time to talk to me, which was really nice. She said to me one day, just remember Alistair, when you got to the bedside of someone who is dying, please remember the Holy Spirit was there ahead of you and is already at work — try not to interfere. Very wise words for an eager student. Being there is so important for other people.

Another thing that I discovered, from a fellow priest who was very ill following the death of his wife. He said that the thing that shook him rigid was that he found it hard to pray, not for himself, but for other people, he just found he couldn’t pray for others. And he mentioned this to a priest colleague who was visiting him, and this priest colleague simply said to him, we’re praying your prayers for you. We are praying your prayers for you, in the knowledge that Jesus was already praying our prayers for us. Hebrews tells us that Jesus lives to make intercession for us, he’s praying our prayers for us. And if we can gently to let people know that, not to worry, not to feel guilty about not being able to pray, it doesn’t really matter because they’re part of the body of Christ, and we are praying not only for you, but we are praying your prayers with you. Jesus is taking your prayers, for your family, for your place of work, for your ministry, all the things you can’t do yourself or can’t pray for yourself, are being prayed for you. Let go.

The third thing I want to say as an observation is try not to make people feel guilty for feeling guilty already. Because one of the things about being in despair is very often it is complicated by guilt feelings, ‘I shouldn’t feel like this’, ‘I should be shining for Jesus’ or whatever. One of the things I found hard during that period of illness was people saying, everyone’s praying for you. And I wasn’t getting better! And I felt, was that my fault? All this people are praying for me, I should be up and walking and healed and jumping up and down the aisle and doing my job. Until a wonderful elderly lady came to visit me and she must have read what was in my heart and in my mind. She said, Alistair, don’t feel guilty about everyone’s prayers not being answered. That’s not your fault, that’s God’s fault, let God handle the prayers that everyone is saying on your behalf. You just lie there. And suddenly a burden was lifted from me, that it wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t my problem, God would deal with that. I still felt ill and horrible, but it was a help.

These are just observations about being with people in times of despair, they don’t need preaching, they don’t need witnessing to, but they need to know that they are loved.

Because when you know you are loved, the sense of security that comes from that love is something that can set you free.

But supposing its not someone else, supposing its you. Supposing the dark clouds came crowding in around you. It may be because of circumstances that everything gone tragically wrong in your family, or a career that you loved, you’ve suddenly been told, ‘you’ve been let go.’ And suddenly, your world comes crashing around you. It may be issues outside you, but it may be something that is eating away inside you, what Winston Churchill used to call ‘the Black Dog’, that fearful thing called depression which sort of takes over. What about prayer in those circumstances?

I was once in a yacht in a huge lake, Lake Ontario I think. Somewhere in Canada anyway. I’m no swimmer, and the boat capsized and we were struggling, and we couldn’t get it up, and I thought we were going to drown, I am very melodramatic when I get into trouble. I saw a boat going past. You know what I shouted? HELP! I didn’t say, “excuse me, we were sailing this boat, which we didn’t know how to handle properly, and capsized and it went underneath and you look like you’ve got a good boat there and you could come and help me”. I didn’t bother with any other words! I yelled help! They didn’t hear me by the way. But a bloke on the banks saw us waving and in the middle of Canada, a Glaswegian policeman came out in a boat and rescued us.

When you’re in trouble, don’t worry about complications and praying, sometimes you just want to cry out “help me!” because that’s how you feel, that’s how you feel in your heart and in your soul. You don’t need to be polite with God, you don’t need to put on an act with God. He’s your loving Father. He can take it, he can take all the abuse. Look at the way the Psalmist in Psalm 22 speaks to him. Not only does he tell him how badly he feels, he tells him how well he’s treated other people. So why not me?! Sometimes, our prayers only have to be one word. Sometimes the word is “Why?!” Why? Why am in this situation? Don’t bottle it up, you don’t need to bottle it up. God doesn’t want you to bottle up your feelings. He’s not going to look at his watch and say, sorry old chap I’ve got another patient waiting to see me. He’s not going to turn, when you’re half way through, and start typing on his computer. I’m sorry if you’re a GP, I am sure you’re… I was going to say something else, but that’s insulting to solicitors… But you know what I mean. Particularly those of us who are British — there’s a certain courtesy, even in the moments of deepest despair, that we don’t want to be a nuisance. We don’t want to take up other people’s time. God’s got all the time in the world! He’s got eternity. Even if you rattle on, scream at him for hours. That is a mere blink for him.

Jesus says, you know, He knows how many hairs you’ve got on top of your head, he knows all your needs, all our cares and our worries. He’s not going to turn and walk and say I’m bored of all this. He will listen, he will take it. He will reach out, he will hold you.

Sometimes, you just need to be silent, when even the word ‘why’, the word ‘help’ is not enough. To be silent and perhaps try to draw to mind the fact that we’re not doing this alone. Moses went through times like this. Elijah certainly did. John the Baptist, in prison, did. And above all, Jesus did. We don’t walk this way alone.

When we’re in the darkness of despair, however far away God may feel, Jesus is there in the darkness with us.

Let’s go to our third picture of Jesus. On the cross, Jesus cries out, “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” It was only recently that I noticed something, which you may well have been well aware of, but it only just hit me recently. What was the response of the person standing at the foot of the cross? The centurion. After Jesus had cried out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me”, the centurion says, surely this was the Son of God, the moment of Jesus’ deepest despair, was the moment of the greatest victory of all time. Because he then goes on, if I’ve got the order right, and this is the way I’ve read it, Jesus says, “it is finished.” Not, “I’m finished” but the job is finished. Job done. The will of the Father fulfilled. Sin and death conquered. The world transformed. History being written afresh. And then he says, quite simply, “into your hands, I commend my spirit.”

If we travel our journey through life with Jesus, there will be times when absolutely certainly, we will travel with him through very dark times. If we go with Jesus, because that where he goes. But if we go with Jesus, we will travel into very bright times. Through the victory of the cross, to the day of resurrection. Because part of this picture involves the third day, when we see Mary, broken-hearted from standing at the foot of the cross, all her hopes and dreams absolutely smashed to little pieces, comes to the tomb of the one above all whom she loved. And the stone is rolled away. The tomb is empty, and the man she thinks is the gardener is standing there and he speaks her name and calls her out of the darkness of her despair into the light of His resurrected life.

That’s prayer in despair.

I want to end with a personal testimony of my own experience. I mentioned earlier on, being carted off to hospital on a Sunday night. I’d like to take you back to an earlier part of that journey of being ill. I’d started being ill, developing very weird and wonderful temperatures, extreme pain in my spine, and the doctors didn’t know what was wrong with me, so there was various tests. It turned out to be osteomyelitis in the lower sacral junction, for those of you who like to know these technical terms. In the early days when no-one knew what was wrong with me, and I was in extreme pain, and I could barely walk, I was beginning to think I may never be able to walk again. I had no idea what was happening with me, it was very frightening.

One night I was sleeping in the spare room because I couldn’t bare to be pushed or nudged or, you know the sort of things that happen in married life. Don’t lets go any further there. I was lying in the middle of the night having woken up. I was in a lot pain, I was incredibly frightened, and I felt totally alone. It was a particularly dark night. Absolutely dark, I couldn’t even see my fingers in front of my face. I lay there in the depths of despair. In the darkness, I knew there was someone in the room. And I heard a voice — as clearly as I can hear my own voice today — and the voice said “my God, my God why have you forsaken me”.

Looking back, I think, in many way that should have been a depressing thing to hear at a time when I felt forsaken. But actually at the time, it wasn’t.

Hearing that voice in the darkness, said to me that I was not abandoned. I was not alone. That Jesus was there in the darkness with me.

It was also a bit frightening as well because it made me realize that, suddenly, Jesus was not going to suddenly going to send in the heavenly fifth cavalry to rescue me from this illness, heal me overnight and make my life carry on as if nothing had happened. It was almost as if he was saying to me, I am with you in this, you are following me, and following me involves you going through Gethsemane and Calvary before we get to resurrection. And we went on a long journey together. And even at the lowest moments of life there were always reminders, like the Archdeacon, that Jesus was taking me on this journey.

About four months after this event, I was back home from hospital, I was well enough to get around on a pair of crutches, but not well enough to go back to work. I was able on Easter Day to go back to church for the first time since Christmas, and go to the service. I sat at the back of the church. It was a bit annoying because there were more people in church that Easter Day than there had been the previous Easter and I’d not been there for four months. The Holy Spirit had been at work! I sat there, and the person leading the service said would I like to go up and say a few words. I hobbled up to the front and stood there and looked around at everyone — like you — smiling away, and I said, this year, the resurrection has taken on a whole new meaning for me. For I’d been on that journey with Christ. I realized, maybe for the first time, what resurrection meant. This being lifted up with Christ, to live for Him now in companionship with him now, and to go through all that He would go through now. I would never want to go through that period again, believe me, and Sheila would probably go somewhere else if I did! No she wouldn’t, that’s a rotten thing to say, but she knows what I mean.

It was such a difficult and tough time, and yet the blessings and our experience of Christ were so incredible, the experience of being loved by the body of Christ was so incredible, that resurrection has a whole new meaning.

It’s very tempting as Christians to want to leave the dark side of life out of church and only bring the jolly side in. But if we’re following Christ we know we are going to go through hard times, he warns his disciples, you’re gonna go through some very tough times, your family might reject you, people will persecute you, attack you, isolate you, and you will feel abandoned.

But Jesus says, I will never abandon you, I will never leave you.

Sometimes we can be tempted — this is just a practical note — as we approach Easter to want to skip the bad stuff at Easter. So its nice to come to church on palm Sunday, I love coming to church on palm Sunday, we have the palm crosses, it’s a fun day and the kids love it, its really lovely. And we can come along on Easter Sunday. Easter Sunday is wonderful, its my favourite day of the whole year, and not just because I have roast lamb, but because its just a wonderful day. We come in and we celebrate that Jesus is risen! He is risen indeed. But actually, we need to go through the garden of Gethsemane and Calvary during the week. And I would really earnestly encourage you, and I know its harder for those of you who have young children, but to come to one of the more solemn events of the week, Maundy Thursday evening perhaps. If one of you come on Thursday and the other on Friday, we’ve got a service Friday afternoon haven’t we? There’s three services where we step back, and we share with Jesus the pain and the anguish and the separation and the apparent despair that He went through before resurrection. I would encourage you to come in for those so that when we get to Easter morning and meet with Mary at the empty tomb, we will know the joy that she experienced that day.

Thank you for listening this morning, and being patient with me as I have struggled through.