Lent 1 – Walking That Lonesome Valley  

Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd                     Mark 1:9-15             February 21, 2021

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

When Jesus was baptized by John, Mark tells us that Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and felt the Spirit descending like a dove on him. Jesus then heard a voice from heaven assuring him that he was God’s beloved son with whom God was well pleased.

The only other time the gospel describes the heavens being rent is at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. Usually, in scripture, tearing apart clothing or buildings is never a good thing. It indicates significant distress or grief. What meaning would it give to Jesus’ baptism? Some commentators suggest that it portrays the power of God’s presence.

I have found a certain awe in the midst of nature’s wrath. Having nearly missed being struck by lightning twice in a row, I don’t take thunderstorms for granted. I have some fear and a great deal of respect. When I returned to that electrifying place some years later, I was surprised to feel a sacred presence. But I was dismayed when I found that sacred spot had been desecrated by someone who had chopped down some of the trees. The power of nature certainly gets our attention and demands sacred respect for God’s creation, no matter how terrifying nature’s forces can be.

I don’t know what happened that would cause Mark to describe the event as a cataclysmic rending of the heavens, but any powerful event of nature does cause us to stop in our tracks and pay attention to whatever our senses pick up. Jesus was on high alert and became aware of the Spirit filling him and of a strong assurance that God was pleased with him, beloved as God’s own child.

Fortified with God’s blessing at his baptism, Jesus then began his ministry not with the proclamation of God’s kingdom but with what I call a second baptism into the terrors of temptation amidst the dangers of the desert. I think that this second baptism was as important as his first. I can feel some eyebrows raising with this comment. Let me explain. Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan and God’s pronouncement of pleasure and adoption as “Son of God” was an affirmation of Jesus’ divine nature. There are different interpretations as to what Son of God means, but minimally it means beings raised to a special status with God. It could be interpreted as being raised to equal status with God.

What I am calling Jesus’ second baptism is a recognition of Jesus’ humanity—a baptism by fire, so to speak, where he suffered physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Jesus struggled with and fought off all sorts of demons.

Only after both his baptism by water and his baptism by fire was he ready to be fully divine and fully human with others. Walking that lonesome valley proved to others who walk a lonesome valley that Jesus fully understands the distress, the abuse, the torture and the suffering of others.

This explains the appeal of Jesus to slaves who were abused in all sorts of ways, forbidden to read or gain any knowledge that might make them dangerous. But when the slaves heard about this Jesus who suffered unjustly, they listened and found hope in a God who loved through the vale of tears. They memorized biblical passages and passed them on through story and song. Spirituals have their root in clandestine worship meetings where stories were told about the liberation of the Hebrew slaves and the early church refusing distinction between slave and free.

When they heard the story of Jesus fighting off demons in the dry, parched desert filled with poisonous snakes and scorpions, they nodded in recognition. Their ancestors had been kidnapped in Africa, corralled into holding cells until the dreaded boats arrived where many Africans died in their chained, cramped and fetid quarters. When those who survived finally landed, their horrors continued. They were whipped and auctioned as cattle, children separated from mothers, husbands from wives. Abuse continued at the hands of their slave masters. They knew very well what it meant to survive the snakes and scorpions of the desert. And they found a deep kinship with their Jesus.

The spiritual Lonesome Valley connected the suffering of Jesus in the lonely desert wilderness with the suffering of the slaves. African American scholar Howard Thurman wrote of the loneliness described in this spiritual,

…all the great moments of profoundest meaning are solitary. We walk the ways of life together with our associates, our friends, our loved ones. How precious it is to lean upon another, to have a staggered sense of the everlasting arms felt in communion with a friend. But there are thresholds before which all must stop and no one may enter save God, and even [God] in disguise. I am alone but even in my aloneness I seem sometimes to be all that there is in life and all that there is in life is synthesized in me.

These words have a familiar ring in the depth of COVID-restricted loneliness that takes us unwillingly into the Lonesome Valley. But there are some who chose to walk this lonesome valley. There was a practice at one time where new African American converts to Christianity would prepare for their baptism by wearing clothes in a certain manner and not changing them until they emerged cleansed and made new from the baptismal waters. Their outward appearance as they walked the lonesome valley warned others to keep their distance and honour this solitary preparation to battle their demons and find their new life in Christ. The last verse of the spiritual Lonesome Valley was added at a later date to assure us that, even in our solitary walks, which we all must take at some point, we are never ultimately alone, for Jesus will fill the shadows with his grace.

Solo: Lonesome Valley—how about these words, Debbie? From

From https://wordwisehymns.com/2014/03/17/lonesome-valley/

CH-1) Jesus walked this lonesome valley.
He had to walk it by Himself;
O, nobody else could walk it for Him,
He had to walk it by Himself.

CH-2) We must walk this lonesome valley,
We have to walk it by ourselves;
O, nobody else can walk it for us,
We have to walk it by ourselves.

CH-3) You must go and stand your trial,
You have to stand it by yourself,
O, nobody else can stand it for you,
You have to stand it by yourself.

Now in ev’ry lonesome valley,
The trials and sorrows we must face,
O, Jesus Himself will be there with us–
To fill the shadows with His grace.

The African American spirituals touch us more deeply than ever as we walk our Lonely COVID Valleys. Thomas Dorsey, known as the “Father of Black Gospel Music,” was a great jazz musician who was beginning to sing at church services when tragedy struck. He writes,

“Back in 1932 I was 32 years old and a fairly new husband. My wife, Nettie and I were living in a little apartment on Chicago’s Southside. One hot August afternoon I had to go to St. Louis, where I was to be the featured soloist at a large revival meeting. I didn’t want to go. Nettie was in the last month of pregnancy with our first child. But a lot of people were expecting me in St. Louis. . . .

“. . . In the steaming St. Louis heat, the crowd called on me to sing again and again. When I finally sat down, a messenger boy ran up with a Western Union telegram. I ripped open the envelope. Pasted on the yellow sheet were the words: YOUR WIFE JUST DIED. . . .

“When I got back, I learned that Nettie had given birth to a boy. I swung between grief and joy. Yet that night, the baby died. I buried Nettie and our little boy together, in the same casket. Then I fell apart. For days I closeted myself. I felt that God had done me an injustice. I didn’t want to serve [God] any more or write gospel songs. I just wanted to go back to that jazz world I once knew so well. . .

A few days later, a friend knew what Thomas needed and gently led him to a piano. As his hands browsed the keys, the words to Precious Lord came to him:

Precious Lord, take my hand,
lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night,
lead me on to the light:
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home

These last days, I’ve felt tired, weak and worn. I was speaking with someone who was going through a very difficult time, having recently lost a loved one, on top of our COVID challenges and this person said to me, “It’s comforting, knowing that you, also, are struggling.” Yes—I think we all are to various degrees. Let’s take hope in the music of those who have also walked through the storms of life and found themselves lifted by God and guided to the light.

 Solo:  Precious Lord     – Thomas Dorsey

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m worn
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When my way grows drear precious Lord linger near
When my light is almost gone
Hear my cry, hear my call
Hold my hand lest I fall
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

When the darkness appears and the night draws near
And the day is past and gone
At the river I stand
Guide my feet, hold my hand
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m lone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand precious Lord, lead me home