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LORD 10176CMessage for Easter 3 on John 20:19-31 given on April 14, 2024 at St. Luke's Lutheran Church St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Richardson, Texas

“Swampland visitations”—this is what psychotherapist and author James Hollis calls times of doubt, despair, or anguish. Even people with a strong spirituality and relationship with God can go through these experiences of “swampland visitations.”

The worst swampland visitation I experienced was in the middle of my five months of chemo treatment—Dan’s mom died a couple months before I was diagnosed, his dad was diagnosed with stage 4 brain tumor a few months into my treatment, we got a $10,000 tax bill, and a new study changed the protocol on my treatment which meant bigger doses of chemo, and at least one more added on. I was already plastered to the bed and didn’t have the strength to hold a cell phone to my ear, much less take care of our 3 kids.

And just it came over me uninvited—a dark night of the soul of doubt and anguish. It wasn’t so much like swamp, as it was a void. The complete absence of God. A dark silence. Like a hole opened in the floor and swallowed me. I am not sure how long it lasted—but long enough for me to think that I had not only lost my faith, but that maybe I would have to give up being a pastor, too. I was lost in doubt, empty and alone.

Perhaps you, too, have had a “swampland visitation.” Times of doubt often happen in young adulthood when the black and white faith of our childhood no longer serves us, and we have not yet embraced a relational, dynamic faith that embraces the questions and the paradoxes of faith. Often what we were told about God no longer fits who have become. And we wonder if the promises of our faith are really true—true for us, true for ME.

Other times, the crises in our life, issues with physical health, mental health or financial struggles stack up so unbearably high, we don’t know where to turn, and we wonder how there can be a good and loving God in this disaster. Most of us have experience a “swampland visitations,” when anguish looms large and faith is faint; when grief holds sway and trust wears thin, when we are left in doubt, feeling empty and alone.

Thomas is having a “swampland visitation” in our text from John. He is still grieving the death of Jesus and mourning his loss. We do not know where he was when Jesus first appeared to the other disciples—perhaps it was his turn to go to the market and get some fish and extra bread for lunch; perhaps he was a dutiful son, checking in on his mother.

Whatever his tasks, he was not with the disciples when Jesus first appeared to them after the resurrection and offered them his peace. Thomas hears the story of course, from everyone else, but this leaves him as the odd one out. Everyone has had a great experience except him, and it’s all they can talk about…

Thomas, wonders, “Maybe this is a big joke, and they are just pulling my leg.” But then it goes on for several days.

Then Thomas starts to wonder if it really is true:

• If he’s so great and all-powerful, why couldn’t Jesus wait until I got back? He must have known I was gone!
• Why didn’t he appear when James and John went to get more wine?
• Why me?
• Why was I the one who missed out?
• Jesus must not love me; Jesus must not have wanted to come back to see me

Thomas’s swamp is getting bigger by the minute—It cannot be true; Thomas does not believe it. He will never believe it. Not unless he puts his finger in the nail holes of Jesus’ hands, and his hand in Jesus’ side. This has been the worse week of his life—worse than Jesus’ death. At least then, their grief was shared together. But this whole Jesus’ re-appearing ordeal, has left Thomas in doubt, empty and alone.

But Jesus does not leave Thomas in doubt, empty or alone! The next week, when all of them are together, including Thomas, Jesus reappears to them and announces his peace again.

Jesus singles out Thomas this time and gives him the very experience he asked for—to put his fingers in the nail holes in Jesus’ hands, and to put his own hand on Jesus’ side. When Thomas receives what he needs, he makes the most powerful confession of faith there is—"My Lord and My God!”

All of this is to say that Jesus is a “swamp Savior.” If you are having a “swampland visitation,” Jesus is a swampland visitor! He goes straight to where our need is, he enters our doubt is, and comes into our empty and alone feelings, and that is where he meets us. That is where Jesus meets Thomas and that is where he finds us.

It may take a little time for us to notice. He may send in some other witnesses like he did for Thomas who say—
“hey I saw the Lord, and here’s how he showed up” or “I love you, and this is why” or “you are going to get through this, and I will say it over and over until you believe it with me,” but our risen Lord meets us where we are in whatever doubts, questions, anguish, or swamp we are in, and he finds us there.

Romans 8 promises us:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

That includes doubts, questions, anguish, depression.

Jesus met me in my dark night of the soul of doubt. And I experienced two important things as a result. I will have three invitations this week related to these:

The first is that I knew people who had a lot of faith and they were praying me. So, the first place Jesus met me was in revealing that I could rely on their faith and their prayers when I didn’t feel it. And I felt their faith carry me, and that gave me great comfort because I was still connected to the body of Christ through them—through their faith and their prayers.

That’s the power of this community. Because when someone is in the swamp of doubt or anguish, and can’t pray, they can say to themselves, “I am connected to this church full of faithful people who are praying, and I am relying on them to carry me right now.” Know that most days your faith and your prayers mean a lot to someone you may not even know.

That leads to my first invitation: If you aren’t already, take home the Prayer list in the bulletin and prayer for these names as part of your prayer practice a couple times a week—or those at home can click the link off the Weekly Word. If you have ever had a serious illness or chronic health issue, you know how much it means to you and your family to know people in the church are praying for you, and how much you rely on those prayers when you’re in a swamp.

A second invitation relates to remaining a strong faith community. I wonder what questions you have about our faith that arise from your doubts, that if we could address them, might strengthen your faith? If you are willing, I would like you to write your faith questions on the back of your Connect Card and, if we have enough of them, I can make a sermon series or Adult Education class out of them. It could be anything like “why do bad things happen to good people? Why is there so much suffering? What’s the deal with Job? There are extra cards in the Gathering Area if you want to submit a question anonymously. Those at home can send an email to the office or to me, or just put it in the comments.

The other way Jesus met me in my dark night of doubt was revealing that faith is not always a feeling or an experience. It’s wonderful when it is, but the ups and downs of my life do not change the reality or existence of God.

But, the other side of that was that I was experiencing God more often than I realized because as 1 John 4:16 says God is love. Every experience of love was an experience of God. There were many people helping us out of love. Then I found the less I focused on my misery and the more I focused on how much I loved my children, how much I loved my husband, how much I loved the rest of my family, the more prayer came back into my life, and the emptiness receded.

All experiences of love are experiences of God. Each time we receive love, we are being loved by God. Every moment we give love we embody the risen Christ;
Every time we share love, we express faith in the God whose love is more powerful than doubt or even death itself.

All experiences of love are experiences of God.

For your second practice: Pay attention to your experiences of love this week—giving it, receiving it, sharing it. It could be words of affirmation, acts of service, hugs, spending quality time, gift-giving or any other expressions of love.

How does it change your experience when you remind yourself that this an experience of God for you? How many times does God show up in your daily life when you count every experience and expression of love that you give and receive, however small, as a Jesus moment? I challenge you to keep a running list and see if you can share and receive more love each day. Who knows, you might be sent by Jesus as a “swamp visitor” one day to help someone, and not even know it!

The risen Jesus meets Thomas and all of us in our doubts giving us exactly what we need—his presence and his love. He surrounds us with a community that embodies his love for us even when they are not physically present, praying for us and upholding us just by the existence of our communal faith. As we experience this much faith and love, we can all confidently confess with Thomas, “my Lord and My God!”

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