In my final year of Seminary, I had the opportunity to interview potential students who were applying for admission. I was a part of a small interview team of professors and students. We got to ask people why they had come to feel that God wanted them to be Episcopal priests. And we heard some incredible stories. There is one young man that I will never forget, Michael.
Michael dressed well and his grades from college were good. But I would have forgotten him entirely were it not for his story. When we asked him why he wanted to be a priest, why devote his life to serving the church, he told us a story from when he was about four years old.
Michael was raised by a single mom. He never knew his dad, who left before he was born. His mom worked as a secretary in a small Episcopal Church. She worked all the time, or so it seemed to him, and he remembered playing in a play pen in the church office while she answered phones. But his mom worried a lot and she had an inhaler and sometimes she just seemed so tired and would just yell at him out of the blue. As a very young boy, Michael became afraid that something would happen to his mom. He had no one else.
One night, his mom woke him up. She was having trouble breathing. The ambulance was coming, she told him as she bent over and tried to breathe. He was terrified. All that fear rushed upon him at once. She managed to walk with him to the front hall to wait. The big red ambulance pulled up with the lights blaring and Michael began to cry. But just as the big men were surrounding his mom, trying to help her breathe, the door opened again.
Three women walked in. They were in bathrobes and nightgowns. They seemed old to Michael, older than his mom at least. He recognized their kind faces from church. One of them picked him up. She was soft and strong. They took him into the kitchen and the men took his mom away.
The women turned on the kitchen lights and sat him down at the small table. They explained that his mom would be OK, that the doctors would take good care of her. And then they decided to make hot chocolate. One of them found some marshmallows in the pantry. And they sat down with him, four of them around the small table. And they talked to him and joked with him and drank hot chocolate and he looked at their kindly faces. And afterwards they tucked him in bed and they promised to stay with him.
Michael never forgot those three women who came to his house that night. In a way, they were what church was all about for him. They were like angels.
For almost two decades, I have preached on the first Sunday of Lent. We have processed into church not to singing but to the words of a long prayer, The Great Litany, which explores much of the struggles and darkness of our world. And every year, I have focused on this gospel, where Jesus is driven out into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit, and he is tempted by the devil.
And there is no denying that there is evil in the world. No denying it. Just turn on the news and watch as Christians are beheaded right before our eyes. Just hear the story of a young woman shot in her car because she chased down a man who cut her off. There is evil and there is suffering which happens for reasons that we cannot understand.
And the evil is not just out there, it is in our minds. The Satan means the adversary, the enemy, the tempter. Jesus walked into the desert right after he was baptized. It was the first thing that he did. He had to defeat Satan before he could do the work of God. That had to come first. You and I also must master temptation and know what it sounds like in our own minds before we can help anyone else. We must face our own darkness if we are to follow the light.
And for years I have thought and thought about temptation, how it comes to all of us differently. How much we can hate ourselves in our own minds. How frightened we can become! How critical we can be of one another, how full of worry and anxiety that can cripple us. There is a battle going on in all of our minds between temptation and Christ. That's why, during these forty days, many will give up something that they love, a food or a pastime, so that they can hear that temptation. "Just take a little chocolate or coffee or sugar or meat or whatever it is you vowed to withhold from yourself. No one will see. Maybe I need to take a break from my fast, just today...and then I will go back to it tomorrow." You know the sound of temptation. We all do.
And for years, these forty days have been, for me, a study of the battlefield between me and temptation. But there is something very important that I have forgotten. For years, I overlooked this gospel passage from Mark and also the one from Matthew. I didn't read the Scripture carefully enough. I missed something crucial.
Jesus was not alone in the wilderness with Satan. There were animals there and perhaps more importantly, there were angels.
Angels in the desert! Usually, we think of angels at Christmas, maybe Easter, but in the dry, barren desert, when Jesus was hot and hungry and tired? The devil came to him but in Mark and in Matthew, angels came too.
Did you really think that God would leave you alone to struggle with your darkness? Did you really think that Jesus, who gave his life for you, would abandon you to master your own mind alone? Are you ever really alone?
Often, I find that when the darkness and the fear come, the angels are not far. Remember on 9-11 how all these people came out to help each other? All our differences went away. Think about the times when you have taken ill and some kind nurse or relative or friend is there. The darkness descends, but then someone shows up to make hot chocolate with you.
I will never forget being terrified before some minor surgery and this man, a nurse I suppose, stood behind me at my head and, just as I was going under, he said, "Don't be afraid. I will treat you as if you were my own daughter."
What are angels? The Scripture speaks of mysterious forces of love and goodness, beings that we often see but that come to us and help us. We can see evidence of the presence of angels wherever their is kindness, wherever there is justice, hope, love.
When I think of the new Christian martyrs in the Middle East, I often think of St. Stephen, the first Christian to die for his faith. He was stoned to death. There is nothing more frightening than that, right? But, just as he was dying, what did he see? The glory of God.
I will never make the mistake again, to think that Jesus was left alone with the devil. Just like the women who showed up for little Michael on the night of his terror, so God will never leave us alone in our temptation and terror. Remember that, my friends, as our world is wracked with violence. You are never alone with the darkness.