A livelong night of desperation

A Sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO

[Gospel reading: Mark 8:1-13]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

God, that madest earth and heaven, darkness and light;
who the day for toil hast given, for rest the night;
may thine angel-guards defend us,
slumber sweet thy mercy send us,
holy dreams and hopes attend us, this livelong night.

We have just sung these words from the first verse of our hymn. The verse starts with the concept that night offers rest after toil of the day and ends with the imprecation that may God be with us through the ‘livelong night’.

The livelong night … a time of refreshment and renewal, but the long night might also suggest a night without end, a night seemingly without hope, where the dawn seems never to come.

Our gospel reading tonight – the feeding the multitude – is about the only miracle that appears in all four gospels. It clearly was an event considered important enough by the four canonical gospel writers for each of them to relate in varying detail what happened at that time. It is not surprising therefore that over the past two thousand years there have also been a large number of interpretations about what took place and of the significance which we are to draw from that miracle.

But tonight, I don’t want to unpack the detail of the mass feeding event to determine whether it was as miraculous as has been reported or whether it stands as a metaphor of, prosaically, the benefits of human sharing or, metaphysically, the redemptive power of the Bread of Life. Instead, I want to focus on these verses which opened our reading this evening:

In those days when there was again a great crowd without anything to eat, Jesus called his disciples and said to them, ‘I have compassion for the crowd, because they have been with me now for three days and have nothing to eat. If I send them away hungry to their homes, they will faint on the way—and some of them have come from a great distance.’

Hasn’t it ever struck you as odd as to how the massed crowd ended up so hungry that they needed to be fed? It wasn’t just that they had missed lunch or elevenses on one day, they had gone hungry for three days according to the reading. Let me state in another way what these verses are saying: a large crowd went a long way from their homes, too far to return for a meal; they had been seeking Jesus and had stayed with him for three days without any food. It should be easy for us to comprehend how physically hungry they must have been by the end of those three days, but what hunger of the spirit must they have been experiencing beforehand that would have them abandon their daily busyness, drop everything and go searching out Jesus; and not just go down to the local park but go to what Matthew’s gospel refers to as ‘a remote place’; and then stayed there for three days. Their actions sound those of desperation to me; this was no sabbath resting but an anxious seeking for an end to the long night that hung over their lives.

Desperation – the word means ‘without hope’ … they were people for whom the toil of the day was not being followed by a night of rest but by a night without end, without hope whereby they were desperate for the spirit of God to minister to them, hoping that spiritual nourishment might come.

2020 was a year like none of us had ever experienced before; by New Year’s Eve we were glad to ring out the year and felt optimistic about the year ahead – 2021. We are now two thirds of the way through this new year and our collective optimism has been sorely tested. I don’t know how you are feeling personally but I have encountered a general spirit of a collective ennui at best, a malaise at worst. COVID Alpha variant morphed into the Delta variant, lockdowns that were novel and almost somewhat of an adventure have yawned into long seasons of forced isolation and dormancy in some parts of Australia which hang like a Sword of Damocles over the rest of the country. Indicators of stress are increasing. In yesterday’s Advertiser there was reference to a survey released by Suicide Prevention Australia whose chief executive, Nieves Murray said: [p8]

We know social and economic isolation are the biggest drivers of suicide rates, and COVID-19 has seen Australians subject to 18 months of lockdowns and disruption to their lives, employment and businesses.

While John Brogden, chair of Lifeline is quoted as saying that the organisation’s counsellors are the ‘only real voice some people hear during lockdowns’:

Some ring us every day because it’s the only voice they hear. The mental health pandemic will last longer than the physical pandemic by several years.

The impact falls upon all of us as we weary in the face of ongoing restrictions. Over a week ago I sent a note to encourage our children and grandchildren, who all live in Melbourne. I wrote in part:

Lockdowns WILL end, the country can’t afford for them to continue without end, the important question for governments is to know how and when to move to the next phase where lockdowns don’t occur. 

Our youngest son, Elliott, responded, writing:

I agree, but also mention that they need to be aware we are all human and even the most in line with these rules can break and they may now find themselves with the opposite of what they are trying to achieve.

He is no contrarian, he wants to do the right thing but he knows it is just getting harder and harder for people to do that, especially when they feel that there seems to be no end in sight, no dividend for doing the right thing.

So what should we, as Christians, as proclaimers of the hope of Christ, feel and say about all this?

Of course, Christians too can get depressed. Tonight, on my radio program I will be interviewing Ben Cosford, an ordained minister who will frankly share his journey of many years with depression. And a few years ago I interviewed Chris Cippolone, a minister from NSW, another sufferer from depression who wrote Down, not Out: Depression, Anxiety and the difference Jesus makes. Maybe even the apostle Paul suffered depression, for we read in his epistle to the Romans 4:18 words that seem to have been written not just to reassure the Christians in Rome but possibly himself as well:

Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed.

Yes, believe as we may, we can have ‘dark nights of the soul’ as St John of the Cross had put it centuries ago. Sentiments echoed by a post on social media by Pastor Andrew Evans quoting Billy Graham in which the great evangelist had said:

The Christian life is not a constant high. I have my moments of deep discouragement. I have to go to God in prayer with tears in my eyes, and say, ‘O God, forgive me, or help me.’

On this Fathers’ Day, I am reminded of the counsel that same son of mine whom I quoted earlier had given to me when I was going through a bad time:

Hey dad, I remember when you mentioned this quote to me when I was having a hard time and I cannot think of a better quote: ‘I’m a little wounded, but I am not slain, I will lay me down to bleed a while, then I’ll rise and fight again. Love you dad.

‘Against all hope, Abraham in hope believed’. But what of those who have no sense of that hope which Christ offers – how should we as Christians respond to them. First of all, we could do with putting aside the collective tendency we often indulge in to feel sorry for ourselves, feeling ourselves besieged in a secular world; we could focus less on what the world thinks of us and more on what Jesus offers to us and of which a non-believing world is in ignorance – against all hope, a hope to believe in.

Professor Reverend Doctor John Swinton, of Glasgow University, undertook a study in 2001 about the impact of spirituality on mental health. In his study he quoted some of those he interviewed for the study. Here is what one participant said:

I don’t depend on there being direct, individual meaning in my particular circumstances or situation or all the bad things that happen to me. I’m quite happy to live with the idea that … in a fallen world there are things that happen to people just sort of through chance and circumstance. But what one does need to believe is that all of that is happening in an ultimately meaningful framework. [p112]

While another had said:

When I’m in a phase that I’m able to believe that there is a God who gives meaning to (the) universe, then I have hope. But there have been spells when I haven’t been able to believe that, and that has been absolutely terrifying. That’s been falling into the abyss. [p113]

Those thousands of people who had followed Jesus into a remote place for three days hungered both physically and spiritually – against hope they wanted to believe … and Jesus fed them. In our contemporary context, where the shadow of malaise is cloaking many from seeing the light, may we take courage personally and may we, like the boy in John’s version of the miracle of the feeding the multitude, who against the logic of the moment proffered his paltry five fish, may we proffer our fragment of knowledge of the hope in Christ to those whom we encounter hungering for solace, for meaning, for hope.

In his poem I open the Door in the Evening, the Greek poet Tasos Livaditis wrote:

I open the door in the evening,
the lamp I hold high,
so the Earth’s grieving can see,
so they can come and find company.
So they can find a made table,
a pitcher so the longing can drink
and between us will stand
pain, the world’s brother.
Let them find a corner to lean on,
a stool so the blind man can sit
and there as we are talking
there will arrive the fellowship of Christ.

To those thousands who hungered in body and spirit that day of the miracle of the feeding of the five thousand, those who grieved as between them stood pain, the world’s brother, into their midst arrived Christ, opening the door in the evening with his lamp held high. Let us open that door into our own lives and into the lives of others.

Holy dreams and hopes attend us, this livelong night. Amen.