Riffee – Lent I – Sermon – Between a Rock and a Hard Place
May I speak in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. Please be seated.
Have you ever felt like the choices you had weren’t really choices at all? I sure do. I remember as a child at the dinner table that I could either eat my carrots with the promise of play afterward or quickly go to bed with an empty stomach. Neither choice was good. The pros and cons of each decision were seemingly deplorable.
I could either play with the sick taste of carrots in my mouth, weighing heavily on my stomach or I could go to bed ever hungry, ever anxious, with daylight taunting me through the small cracks of the window blinds. For a small child of six, I found myself between a rock and a hard place (the rock being the carrots and the hard place my bed, which was actually quite comfortable).
Now, upon my reflection, the situation I found myself in seems quite trivial, but it certainly wasn’t at the time. And when I look at the people gathered here, I can’t but wonder what similar pressures are brought upon us. There are so many things offered that promise to benefit our lives, but generally requires giving up something that may also be good. Big or small, these things matter and the decisions we have to make are often harder than it seems, especially to the outside observer.
Keeping this in mind, I want you to think back, and, again, ask yourself, “Have you ever felt like you were caught between two undesirable alternatives?” Did you find yourself between a rock and a hard place, between the devil and the sea, a Catch-22, a Hobbsin’s choice, an offer you can’t refuse, or some other cliché that is equally grating? If you have, whether it is comforting of not, I want you to know that you are not alone.
Today’s gospel reading shows Jesus in a similar situation. Just before our reading starts, Jesus is baptized by John the Baptist, where the Holy Spirit descends like a dove upon him and a heavenly voice utters, “You are my son, who I love and am well-pleased.” From this affirmation, Jesus embarks on a journey away from the comforts of his everyday life. He fasts in the wilderness, but he is reaching a point in his journey where the ever-frightening reality of the present begins to sink in. Jesus has succeeded in much of his past, he had knowledge of a powerful future, and he was promised God’s protection, but now he is hungry and lonely for people and the regular comforts all humans seem to take for granted.
Soon, the devil enters the picture. He sees Jesus’ plight and starts putting doubts into his head. As if to say, “If these things of the past and future were true, then where is God when you need him now?” The devil offers Jesus alternatives to his present situation and offers gifts in the now if only he would forsake his father and follow him.
Like all of us, the man Jesus, had numerous possibilities, good and bad, wafting around in his head. He probably worried about God’s silence during those days in the wilderness. He probably wondered about Satan’s offer, because, unlike God, he came to attend to Jesus’ present needs. Jesus found himself between a rock and a hard place. But, in that far from ideal situation, he still went forth, trusting in the Lord God, without reassurance that God was still with him and for him in all walks of life. Jesus chose to put God first, hoping the rest would work itself out and, in the end, the choice He made did not put God to the test.
Now, as a follower of Jesus, I try very hard to put the things of God before my own. But, I will be very honest with you; those things are rarely easy, especially when I find myself between a rock and a hard place. I fail a lot and I am often confused, because the things of God are never quite as clear as they seem in many of our Bible stories. I especially find this difficulty within my personal prayer life.
It is sometimes hard to know what exactly we are asking in prayer. Are we talking to God and asking for help or are we bargaining with God and expecting of God, thereby putting Him to the test? Though I am older and my prayer life has matured throughout the years, I must admit that I still find it difficult to discern where my prayers lie.
Very recently, I found myself in one of the hardest emotional situations of my life. This past Christmas, I learned that my grandmother had taken a bad fall. It was that kind of fall where you don’t get back up. Where modern medicine doesn’t fix the problem, rather, it lessens the severity of the symptoms. My family called two nights before Christmas Day to let me know of the situation. Eventually, in minutes or in weeks, grandma would die.
I learned that she had fallen into a coma on Christmas Eve and I had to decide, “Do I stay to do the work I am called to do on one of the busiest nights of the year or do I go home to be there for a grieving family?” Rest assured, both my immediate family and my parish family were extremely supportive and flexible to whatever outcome I decided upon. They were fantastic in being present in that manner. Yet, I was conflicted trying to figure out what grandma would want or me, or God, for that matter. Without going into too much detail, I want you to know that I tried to figure this out through prayer.
When I started praying, I remember asking God to just make it all go away. Then I remember asking God to just let me get through the services and keep grandma safe for long enough to where I can travel back home. I was asking God to take charge of situations in life that had already come to pass. As such, I was putting God to the test. The reality of the situation, however, was that whatever was going to take place would.
Regardless, I would have to learn to deal with it and eventually make a decision. When I came to terms with this reality, I started praying again and I asked for God to be present with me, to help me see, and give me courage knowing that whatever I choose will be to His glory. I remembered Jesus’ pray, “Not my will but yours my God” and I knew that she would be okay, even if it didn’t pan out the way I would have wanted.
Well as you know, I decided through prayer to stay and I was able to worship the Lord with hundreds of wonderful people at my side. I made my choice. I later learned that my grandmother passed right when the last service left the church singing Silent Night. This reality brought forth mixed emotions, but I do know that prayer gave me clarity to see the good and bad of either choice.
Prayer led me to realize that in these situations there are multiple rights and multiple wrongs; there were no rights and there were no wrongs. For me, the choice, whenever it involved God, was to feed the needs of those within my reach. At that time, it was this flock that had many decisions also weighing upon them here at St. James’s. And as I said before, “Big or small, these things matter and the decisions we have to make are often harder than it seems, especially to the outside observer.”
Today, what I want you to reflect on is how you personally deal with unsavory choices in prayer. Prayer for us is a gift from God where we can bring our concerns to Him, to commune with Him and be guided in the things that happen in life. However, when we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place, it is easy to forget that prayer is a gift. We often use it as a tool or treat it as something earned or owed to us. We leave God’s freedom and sovereignty out of the picture to hope for a desired outcome, which leaves God without any real options. When we do this, we forget why prayer exists in the first place.
Now, this does not mean that I believe we cannot question why certain prayers may or may not be answered. Neither, does it mean that I don’t believe prayer can bring with it real change, miracles where outcomes become unexplainable. What I do want to offer is that in prayer, we can understand God’s will in various aspects if we give it time, patience, and good intent. If our intentions are to commune and learn with God, then our prayer life will leave God untested and us with a more mature sense of how to live like Jesus, a man sometimes uncertain of what is to come, but trusting that God will see him through, come what may.