Summary: Too easily, we try to comfort people in sorrow and pain, saying that we know what they are going through. The fact is that mostly we don't. But Jesus knows what we are going through, because he has been there. What does that imply for us?
[Sermon preached on 18 February 2018, 1st Sunday in Lent / 3rd year, ELCF Lectionary]
I was still a student when we gathered with a group of theological students for a training seminar on pastoral counseling. One of the members shared some of her childhood experiences that had recently come to the surface. For years on end, she had been sexually abused by a close relative, and there had been nobody to help her.
We all listened with deep sympathy to her as she unraveled her experiences and feelings, sobbing and stammering. Most of us were dead silent, not knowing what to do or say. The woman sitting next to her gave her a tight hug, sharing in her tears. Then a couple of students tried to give her some words of comfort. One said something like, “I can imagine what you must have been going through.” The other added something like, “I know how you must feel right now.”
And I remember how this young woman jumped up from her seat and shouted,
“No, you don’t know how I feel right now! You cannot imagine what hell I have been going through, unless you have been going through the same hell!”
For me, as a theological student at that time, that was such a powerful and unforgettable lesson. We are being trained to give help and support to people in all kinds of crises. But our professional help so often remains detached and superficial, because the experience that we face in the other person’s life is foreign to us. Honestly, we have no clue apart from our textbooks, lectures, and research reports. And to suggest, that we do have a clue—that we can identify with the pain and suffering of the other person—is to play down the immense traumas that they may be experiencing. It is unfair. — Worse even, it is cruel! We can sympathize. But we cannot empathize. Because we haven’t been there.
Often, peer support is much more helpful and much more healing.
Alcoholics Anonymous brings together people who all share the same problem.
“I am Jim and I am an alcoholic.”
“I am Carolyn and I am an alcoholic, too.”
And when you come to an AA meeting as a first-timer, you suddenly feel that here are people you can talk to, people who listen and who really understand from the inside—with their brains and with their hearts—what you are going through.
In today’s reading from Hebrews we are told that Jesus is a person with whom we can share everything. He became one of us “in every way”. He went through all the possible temptations that we may go through. In fact, he was under a far heavier attack from the forces of evil than anyone of us will ever be. He can really empathize with us.
First, right at the beginning of his ministry, he was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tested by God and tempted by Satan. The Gospel of Mark spends only two sentences on what was a crucial forty-day experience in Jesus’ ministry.
Only from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke we find how Satan used all his force and shrewdness to try to make Jesus abandon his calling. He offered him not only relief of his immediate needs, but also a shortcut to getting the whole world under his control. But even though Jesus was physically weakened after forty days without food, he rebuked Satan. He was determined to remain faithful to the mission he had received from his Father.
Later in his ministry, Satan used Peter, the trusted disciple of Jesus, to try to get him off track. Peter tried to convince him that the Son of the living God need not suffer and die at the hands of his enemies. But Jesus rebuked him and said: “Get away from behind me, Satan!”
And still in the very end, in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross, Satan was whispering in his ears, that Jesus could call upon legions of angels any time to deliver him.
But Jesus stayed faithful to the bitter end. He defied even the toughest temptations.
Jesus did not only resist the most powerful temptations, he also faced the excruciating suffering of death on a cross. He did not back out. He bore the humiliation, the shame, the guilt and the pain that the cross on Calvary caused him. Not because he deserved it. But because he was on a mission to save the world, to save people like you and me.
Jesus stayed faithful to the bitter end. In temptations and in suffering. And that is precisely why he can identify with our temptations and our suffering, our desires and our fears. That is why he can empathize with us and help us.