Lent has been a period glossed over for many years; the companies that try to sell us stuff don't seem to much like a 40 day period when we are asked to look at ourselves and spend less time....well....spending! So we see a Christmas that begins in August and an Easter that starts on Boxing Day, with the months between devoted to marketing goods to us.
That seems to have changed this year, the year of the pandemic. Of course, our shops and those who work in them have suffered dreadfully whilst doorstep deliveries have shot up. However, there is something else in the air. Somehow, the isolation, illness, death and despair have been channelled into more people thinking about such matters and saying to themselves, "What's it all about?"
Some of that turns to rage, often against religion and especially against those that believe in one, all-powerful God. How can such a being allow such suffering, how can this God create a virus that causes such pain, why does God not stop all this? This anger and inner doubt can also cause much mocking and, the modern word, trolling. No sooner did the Church of England speak out on social media, with its leaders encouraging people to accept and welcome vaccinations, than abusive messages poured in: "if your God is so great, why don't you just pray for a cure"? "You claim Jesus and his followers could get rid of diseases; OK, you do it and I might believe you." Or even, "You didn't accept science before but now you are afraid of the virus you are running to accept it, you hypocrites!"
Of course, this has all happened before. The Bible speaks frequently of people sneering at believers: Daniel and co were thrown into the lions' den and into a fiery furnace by such people; Jesus himself was tempted with a "Go on, throw yourself off this building and get yourself saved by God"; at the crucifixion, he was mocked and told to save himself if he thought that he was so powerful.
Such mocking is expected. Jesus told his followers that others would make them suffer for believing in him and they did. It was only days after his Resurrection that Stephen was stoned to death for believing.
We shouldn't expect to live out our lives without any form of pain or suffering. We have free will and live in a created world where anything can happen and many times does. The role of a faithful person is to believe through all this, all the good times and the bad times, to love our neighbour and God and to come out the other side still believing that Jesus is waiting for us, ready to take us into a life without any pain, where there is no death. We will fail along the way; we will need help; that is why we read of the Good Samaritan, why people like Terry Waite or Senator John McCain could sustain themselves through terrible times, the latter through war injuries, imprisonment, torture and cancer.
The reason they could do this was a belief in God with us: "Emmanuel", as we otherwise call Jesus.
The sticks-and-stones of social media trolls are as nothing; as we journey through Lent, we can instead look at ourselves and those close to us, think about who we are and what we are, what we wanted to become and what we have become. We can read and listen to those Bible stories that speak to us and tell us, "You are not perfect; you never will be. God accepts you and loves you for what you are. God hopes, like all good parents, that you will turn out to be a good person and listen to his Son, following his faithful path. But God knows that you will fail and that you will doubt; why wouldn't you? That is why you have free will."
May God continue to watch over you, to remain alongside you and to listen to you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.