By Pastor John Johnson

March 1: Lent 1: "Away Games" first in series "Being Alone Together with Jesus"

March 19, 2020

Those of you who are not around during the September through November months may not be aware of my juggling of my calling as pastor with my perhaps overly fanatic role as a fan of University of Illinois football, which means that for almost every one of twelve of the fourteen Saturdays that begin on Labor Day weekend, I am at an Illinois football game, even though on the next day I am bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and, I hope, well prepared to lead worship.

Now, most of those Saturdays, because that is the way it works out, I have been in the Champaign — Urbana, Illinois, community, where the University of Illinois campus I attended is located, and very specifically, at Memorial Stadium, where the “Fighting Illini’s” home games are played, and where I am accompanied — surrounded, that is — by tens of thousands of other Illinois fans in a sea of orange and blue, the school colors.

But there are Saturdays when Illinois is not playing in Memorial Stadium, but at the opposing team’s stadium, where there usually are not tens of thousands of my fellow Illini, but only a smattering, perhaps a few thousand, more than likely a few hundred, or even just tens, often primarily the parents of players. This photo is at one such stadium, that of the University of Washington, in Seattle. This stadium is in an “awesome” setting, “awesome,” because off to the right but not in the picture, I could see the lake next to which the stadium sits and see boats that some would use to travel to the game.

But if you cannot see the lake off to the right, I hope you can see a smattering of orange in the lower right-hand corner of the picture: I was not alone at the game; I was not the only Illinois fan at that away game.

There is something about away games or bowl games — thank goodness Illinois finally made a bowl game this past season, though I had to take a Sunday off to attend it, — there is something about away games or bowl games that one misses if one only attends home games, and that is the remarkable sense of camaraderie among those sharing identification as Illini fans sojourning in hostile territory. This camaraderie can come from something as simple as seeing another fan in an orange shirt and shouting, “I-L-L!” and hearing back, “I-N-I,” or it can be sharing high-fives with people one has never met while being completely out-numbered by fans of the home team as Illinois executes a neat play.

Those neat plays don’t happen quite enough, but still. . .

So while I cannot put my finger on exactly why, away games give an enhanced sense of connectedness with others, maybe because it is connectedness in what is somewhat of a hostile environment, and it creates a bond that ignores any of the differences that might separate one from these others in different circumstances.

While I might even be sitting almost alone among strangers if my best-friend and college roommate, Emerson Lacey, does not attend a particular game, I still feel connected somehow to the few other Illini fans or parents scattered among the thousands of Badgers or Hawkeyes, to give recognition to those of you whom I pick upon from Wisconsin or Iowa.

Thus, at these away games, I know that though out-numbered by hostile — almost always friendly in their hostility — I know that though out-numbered by hostile fans of the other school’s team, I am not completely alone; I am never completely alone, even at away games, sojourning in an alien stadium.

And that, I think, is a good parallel to being a Christian, and something I want to emphasize as we begin our Lenten sojourn, or journey.

As at least some of you have heard me say before that I tended largely to ignore Lent until I was in seminary and asked to do an Ash Wednesday service for the inner-city church in Gary, Indiana, where I was doing my field work. This spurning of Lent was partly because Lent was more of a Catholic Church thing, and not biblically, but church, created, and, beside, no way would God want for me to give up chocolate for forty days. But both Lent and Ash Wednesday have become important to me as a pastor (though I see no need to give up chocolate), and while I was correct that it is not particularly biblical, Lent is at least based on some “forty” events in the Bible: Israel’s forty years in the wilderness during the Exodus, perhaps to some extent the forty days of the Great Flood, but most definitely Lent is based on Jesus’ forty days in the Wilderness, which itself reflects the forty years of the Exodus.

Jesus’ forty days alone in the Wilderness, or at least, alone except for the Tempter, the Tempter whom we call “Satan,” a word that in both Hebrew and Greek means, “tempter” or “adversary.”

Those Jesus’ forty days alone in the Wilderness is why we sing, “Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley, He had to walk it by Himself. For nobody else, could walk it for Him, He had to walk it by Himself.”

I like that hymn, or rather, the tune and the first verse of that hymn, but as I shared with those who attended our Ash Wednesday service, I do not agree with the next verses, the idea, “You” — which is to say, “You and I” —  have to walk this lonesome valley, you” — “we” — “have to walk it by yourself”; I do not like it because, precisely because, since Jesus walked “it” for us, we do not have to walk “it” by ourselves; we are always accompanied by Jesus . . .

We are always accompanied by Jesus. That Jesus is always with us is a central and important part of the message that I hope we all draw from our Christian faith. But there is another reason that we do not have to walk it by ourselves, and that is because just as we are being accompanied by Jesus, there are others whom He is accompanying even as He walks with us!

There are others whom He is accompanying even as He walks with me — or you, — and so, almost as when I am watching an Illinois football game at, oh, let’s pick an extreme example, Ohio State, I am walking with other Illinois fans who have walked — well, most likely flown or driven — to Columbus, connected to them through our loyalty to Illinois, during Lent I am walking with other Christians, connected to them through Jesus.

We are not alone, not at Lent, not at any time; we are always accompanied by Jesus.

Now, let me back off just a bit. I am not what some would call a “Jesus freak”; I am perhaps too low key for some of you because I feel I am most effective with non-believers — indeed, anyone with doubts — by trying to sneak up to them with a sound mixture of reason and faith rather than shouting and risking scaring them away. But that does not mean I do not believe that Jesus is with me, or perhaps, rather, I never feel that God is not listening to me and trying to get me to listen to God.

And I do feel that Lent is a time set aside for us to put a little extra time and extra effort, not so much into getting closer to God, for God is always near, but into listening, into thinking about exactly what we hold as our faith, and into taking to God our deepest thoughts and concerns, fears and hopes. . . and in reflecting on what through His life and death and resurrection, Jesus has done for us.

Listening, thinking, pondering, sharing with God — and yet not being alone even as we do so, for we are doing so at the same time hundreds of millions of Christians are doing the same thing.

Even in this largely Christian nation, Christians can readily feel that they are in hostile territory, sort of like I can feel wearing my orange and blue Illini shirt in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But just as when I am in Ann Arbor, I am not truly alone — if I listen, someone will be yelling at me, “I-L-L!” — similarly, as you and I walk about during Lent, though there will be many around us who could care less about our concern to be faithful followers of Christ, rest assured, there will be others who are rooting for the same team as we, rooting for the Church of Jesus Christ to succeed in carrying Him to those who are alone.

Our’s is a team that is not concerned with beating anyone, but a team that is concerned with winning over to our cause, to our Lord, people who might indeed be alone and in need of someone to walk on their life journeys with them.

As we being our Lenten journey, our Lenten sojourn, paying attention to time alone in prayer is a very positive thing to do, but Lent is not about, or at least not just about, being alone by ourselves, it is about being alone with Jesus. . . and being alone with those others and with each other who are indeed walking with Him and thus with us.

Lent might not be so colorful as an Illinois away game, but as at an away game, I know that not only during Lent but at all times I am never truly alone, nor are any of us truly alone, for we are together in and with Jesus, who walked by Himself so that we need never walk alone.

And in His name. Amen.

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