On Thursday, January twelfth, 2010, at 3:53 p.m. Central Standard Time, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck the island nation of Haiti. I didn’t know that was the first day of the worst year of my life.
The next morning, I sat in my office in Lincoln. I had just gotten off the phone with a producer from CNN. She wanted to know if I would go on the air with any comments on the possible death of Ben Larson in that earthquake.
I referred her to Ben’s family. I had no business saying anything about Ben’s death at that point. And I was pretty sure that all I would do on air was weep uncontrollably.
Ben Larson had been my pastoral intern the year before. His wife, Renee, had been the intern with Lutheran Campus Ministry at UNL. I had known Ben’s parents, Pastors April and Judd Ullring Larson, for years.
But I didn’t meet Ben until just before his internship. That is, unless you count the couple of times I talked to his mom when she was eight months pregnant with him.
In some ways, Ben became like a third son to me during that internship. So, his sudden death landed on me hard. But Ben’s death turned out to be only the beginning.
Two years earlier, I had presided over the wedding of one of my favorite young couples. I rejoiced just to be a small part of their new life together. They gave birth to a beautiful little girl. I was honored to baptize her at worship.
But soon, it was clear that something was wrong. The baby suffered from an incurable condition. It was a genetic abnormality, unwittingly passed on to her by her parents. She lived for six months. Then I presided at her funeral.
I started to unravel after that. I left parish ministry and got a job as a nursing home chaplain. That seemed like a way forward for me. A week after I started that new job, I took my wife to the emergency room at Bryan Hospital. Twelve days later, at 1:32 a.m., she died in our downstairs family room.
And I came completely undone.
I’m not telling you this to be dramatic or to garner your sympathy. I’ve had years to deal with all of this. Some of you have been through as much and worse.
You know what it’s like to enter a wilderness. You know what it’s like to get lost in the wastelands of despair and death. You know what it’s like to ask, “What’s the plan?” you know what it’s like to ask, “What’s the point?”
So does Jesus.
Last week we heard the story of Jesus’ baptism. As Jesus came up out of the water, the Holy Spirit came down to meet him. God announced for all the world to hear, “This is my Son, the Beloved, the one with whom I’m delighted!”
We rejoiced to remember whose we are in in our baptisms. In Jesus, we are God’s beloved children, with whom God is delighted.
In the next sentence – the very next sentence – the Holy Spirit carries Jesus into the wilderness to be tested by the devil. Would it have been too much to ask for just a few days to enjoy the moment?
But this is so often how it goes, doesn’t it? Just when things are going so well, it all goes to…well, you know.
It’s tempting to think that Jesus had it all figured out in advance. You know, because of the whole Son of God thing and all. But that’s not what the Bible really tells us.
In Hebrews four, verse fifteen, for example, you can read these words. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathized with our weakness, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (my emphasis).
When Jesus is tested in the wilderness, he’s not play-acting. He’s not staging a “pretending to be human” performance for our benefit. Jesus, the devil says, if you really are who God says you are, why are you suffering? Why has everything apparently gone to…well, you know? What’s the plan? What’s the point?
Most of all, Jesus – how do we get through this?
I have kept a series of rough journals since 2007. I wrote this for January 29, 2010. During Lent of 2009, Ben Larson had preached a sermon on Psalm 77. That’s a lament psalm. It’s the complaint of someone who’s life has apparently gone to…well, you know.
So, it’s not on most people’s top ten psalms list. The Psalmist cries out to a God who seems to be deaf and mute. The Psalmist complains to a God who seems to have stopped caring. “Has the LORD’s steadfast love ceased forever?” the Psalmist asks. “Are the LORD’s promises at an end for all time?” the Psalmist wonders.
Ben wrote these words as he reflected on the Psalmist’s questions. “Whenever we go to dark, chaotic places, we are not called to alter the truth. We are not called to pretend that everything is all right. We are not called,” Ben continued, “to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We are invited by God to recall God’s deeds of the past.”
Ben was reading the words of the Psalmist again. “I will call to mind the deeds of the LORD,” the Psalmist declares. “I will remember your wonders of old. I will meditate on your work,” the Psalmist continues, “and muse on your mighty deeds” (verses 11 and 12).
Jesus lives out the words of the Psalmist in his wilderness testing. God is the one who produced the manna in the wilderness. Why would Jesus do a magic trick just to keep his tummy from rumbling?
God is the one who rescued Israel from bondage and death. Why would Jesus dive off the Temple like some Hollywood stunt performer? God is the one who rules over all human authority. Why would Jesus need to reclaim an authority that was already his?
Remember who God is and whose you are. That’s how Jesus deals with the wilderness testing. Jesus remembers that he is God’s beloved Son. Jesus remembers that God is tickled pink with him. The Devil can’t make that any more or less true, no matter how many tests are involved.
Remember who God is and whose you are. In his Lenten sermon, Ben Larson continued with these words. “We remember our baptisms where we become part of the death and resurrection of Christ. We remember our baptisms,” he continued, “where God looked at the most powerful force of chaos – death – and it tumbled and was defeated.”
Remember who God is and whose you are. Less than a year later, Ben confronted that chaos. Ben and Renee, and Ben’s cousin Jon, were in a building that collapsed during the earthquake. Renee and Jon were in a space that let them live. Ben was crushed by large stones in the center of the building.
Ben was growing into one of the finest young preachers of his generation. He was also a gifted musician. No one was surprised to hear that he died singing praise to God. Renee crawled through the rubble to find him when the shaking stopped. She heard him sing his last breath: “Give us peace, O God, we pray.”
Remember who God is and whose you are. I would like to say that Ben’s words and witness carried me triumphantly through that worst year of my life. I’d like to say that. And sometimes that would be true. But more often, it wasn’t true. Jesus didn’t go directly from baptism to beating down the devil. There was a lot of wilderness wandering in between.
But when I forgot Jesus, Jesus remembered me. Even when I cursed God, God blessed me. Even when my spirit drained to nothing. The Holy Spirit kept filling me. It wasn’t all one thing or another. But angels waited on me whether I realized it or not.
I got through it in part because of the Church. The church reminded me of my baptism. The church spoke God’s word to me when God seemed silent everywhere else. The church fed me with bread and wine so I could remember God’s grace and mercy.
Remember who God is and whose you are. That’s what we do here every week.
Ben gave me one more gift I treasure. I wasn’t a fan of the new red hymnal until Ben came along. He taught us a song that is worth the price of the book all by itself. It’s number 808 in the ELW. It’s called “Lord Jesus, You Shall be My Song.” I’ll share a few verses as my prayer for us today. It helps me remember.
Lord Jesus, you shall be my song as I journey;
I’ll tell ev’rybody about you wherever I go:
you alone are our life and our peace and our love.
Lord Jesus, you shall be my song as I journey.
I fear in the dark and the doubt of my journey;
but courage will come with the sound of your steps by my side.
And with all of the family you saved by your love,
we’ll sing to your dawn at the end of our journey.