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Loneliness and Alienation
by Pastor Douglas Shearer
This is the third in a series of five sermons I’m preaching on tough times – how to get through tough times – and not just by the skin of your teeth, but with joy and confidence.
We’re facing some really tough times, aren’t we?
And in addition to that there are the tough times each of you may be facing personally:
What does the Bible have to say about tough times? What kind of guidance does it provide?
I’ve always thought that Hebrews 12:1 – which I’ve made my overarching, theme verse for this series of sermons – affords some pretty good, down-to-earth advice.
… let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us…
Hebrews 12:1 likens tough times to a long-distance race, doesn’t it? That’s what the word “endurance” implies. And it goes on to tell us the key to winning: it’s to strip ourselves of
Over the course of the last month or so, I’ve explained to you that the weights and sins mentioned in Hebrews 12:1 are not two distinct items; in a very real sense, they’re flip sides of the same coin: a weight is a sin; and a sin is a weight. But one is more of an attitude; the other is more of a concrete offense the attitude produces. Let me say that again:
But what, specifically, are those attitudes –
Let’s turn to the Book of Leviticus for the answer – that’s the third book of the Bible following Genesis and Exodus. It’s a book that’s very seldom read. Why? Because it seems so obscure – so esoteric – so arcane – so pointless. Its focus is an apparently chaotic welter of puzzling rituals that don’t seem very relevant to the 21st Century. Actually, though, it’s a treasure trove – crammed with insights that fill out the meaning of genuine spirituality.
What, then, is a ritual? Rituals are a means of story telling used in cultures that don’t make use of books. A ritual is a kind of pantomime – a sort of skit – that draws you into the story not just with your eyes and ears, but with your whole body. You become part of the story itself. You’re given a role to play. You become one of the actors.
Let me show you what I mean. In the New Testament, you’re simply told about the meaning of Christ’s death – that when Christ died on the Cross, he died to free you from the penalty of your sins – death. Jesus Christ died in your place. He died so that you might live.
But in Old Testament times, that truth was taught not by simply telling it or reading it, but by acting it out in a ritual. The Old Testament made you an actor in a high powered drama designed to teach you that very same truth.
Christ is a lamb in the rituals described in the Book of Leviticus – which is why John the Baptist calls Jesus the Lamb of God in the New Testament.
The next day John saw Jesus coming unto him, and said, Behold the Lamb of God…
You, on the other hand, are a sinner in desperate need of being freed from the penalty of your sins – death. Here now is how the ritual – the drama – is played out:
The next day John saw Jesus coming unto him, and said, Behold the Lamb of God, that takes away the sin of the world.
… Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures…
1 Cor. 15:3
Do you see that phrase “according to the scriptures”? Let me ask you: what scriptures? The New Testament wasn’t written at the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 15:3. The scripture Paul has in mind here is obviously the Old Testament, not the New Testament – and, more specifically, the story told by the rituals described in the Book of Leviticus.
The Book of Leviticus describes five different ritualistic sacrifices – not one, but five. Each of the sacrifices adds to the meaning of Christ’s death on the Cross – and the atonement that death secured for mankind.
Why five? Why not just one? That’s because the impact of sin is more complex than most of us have been taught. Sin features more than just one aspect.
In the New Testament we’re taught clearly that sin produces guilt and condemnation. That’s the one aspect of sin the New Testament most highlights.
There are four other perverting attitudes – in addition to guilt and condemnation – that sin produces; four other wounds that sin inflicts on the human psyche – four other heavy weights that sin lays upon us – weights that wear us out and keep us from being winners in the race of life:
You can’t expect to be a winner in the race of life if you’re weighed down by
…all of which are produced by sin. That’s far too much weight to be carrying around. Any one of those attitudes will wear you out – let alone all of them bearing down on you. You’ll drop out of the race. You’ll give up. You’ll cave in – which is what most people do. In one way, shape, or form, they drop out of life.
Last week we examined distrust and suspicion. You can pick up a copy of that sermon either on tape at the end of the service or in a pamphlet I’ve prepared and left in the sermon rack in the foyer. You’ll see it as you leave the sanctuary through the back doors; it’s on wall to the left as you leave.
This week, we’re going to be taking a look at alienation and loneliness.
Let me tell you a story. Just after graduating from college in 1968, I landed a job working for the California State Legislature. The job I was assigned was program and budgetary oversight of the California State Hospitals for the Mentally Ill. Every spring, I’d visit several of the hospitals – checking into its programs and making sure that the money it was allocated was being spent properly – and then I’d report my findings back to the Legislature.
And because I represented the Legislature, I was always given a royal welcome. I was “Mr. Money Bags.” That meant I spent a lot of time with the head doctors of each hospital – and, quite frequently, with the directors themselves. I remember asking the director of Napa State Hospital what one underlying cause accounted for most of the mental illness he was treating.
I’ve never forgotten what he told me: “Doug,” he said, “if I had to put my finger on just one cause, I’d say it was alienation and loneliness - isolation. It’s both a cause and a symptom of mental illness. And it’s hard for us to tell when it’s a cause and when it’s a symptom. The one seems to shade into the other.”
Alienation and loneliness – both a cause and a symptom of mental illness. I’ve never forgotten that.
And that’s very ominous. Why? Because alienation and loneliness have become endemic to American culture – meaning isolation has become a defining feature of American life. Countless demographic surveys undertaken over the course of the last thirty years indicate that Americans are withdrawing from community and retreating into isolation and loneliness. The bonds that once linked us to one another are weakening and, in many cases, dissolving altogether.
The internationally renowned Roper Survey has tracked that breakdown using several bench-marks – including…
The results of the survey are very disturbing:
And that’s just over the twelve year span from 1973 to 1985. A thirty nine to forty two percent decline! Imagine that! And when the base year is set during the 1950s and the span is stretched out to the present, the decline is downright stupefying.
Moreover, the percentage of single person households more than doubled during that same span of time – from 1973 to 1985 – and it has continued to increase every year since – even over the last ten years when housing costs have dramatically increased – making living alone a very expensive proposition. It didn’t slow down the increase – not even a little.
When asked why they’re less likely to integrate themselves into community – why they don’t socialize more – Americans have responded:
What’s so intriguing about their responses is that compatibility doesn’t seem to be a factor. Very few persons indicate that they didn’t socialize because they can’t find anyone whose interests coincide with theirs. That isn’t the problem. Once again…
And that’s a horse of a different color. That’s alienation. Whenever we feel
It’s alienation that’s breaking down the bonds of American culture. It’s not compatibility – it’s not that we don’t share common interests and common concerns; it’s alienation: meaning that…
And the reason for that is sin: plain and simple. The feeling that we don’t belong; that we can’t fit in; that no one wants us around – the root cause of that feeling is sin. That, at least, is what the Peace Offering teaches – the third ritualistic sacrifice described in the Book of Leviticus.
The Peace Offering looks like the Whole Burnt Offering; but it’s different.
What we have here, then, is a shared meal –
And a shared meal in any pre-modern culture is charged with significance. Even today, in the Middle East, if you’re invited to share a meal with a Middle Eastern family, that’s a very meaningful gesture. In a very real sense, you’re being invited into the family – you’re being made part of the family. It’s not just a matter of eating a meal – it’s much more than that; it’s a celebration of acceptance.
And that’s what the Peace Offering is: it’s a celebration of acceptance – it’s celebrating the restoration of a broken relationship. God is taking you back into his family; he’s saying that the rupture your sin caused has now been healed.
When you ask Christ to forgive you of your sins, when you ask Christ to become your sin-bearer…
The Peace Offering speaks of fellowship; it speaks of belonging; it speaks of family. You’re no longer a wanderer – a restless, homeless, lost soul with no place you can call home.
That’s a devastating feeling:
That’s exactly the curse God pronounced against Cain after Cain killed his brother Abel
…a fugitive and a vagabond shall you be in the earth.
A fugitive is someone running from the law – running from judgment – pursued by guilt and condemnation – it’s the story the Whole Burnt Offering tells; but a vagabond is someone who’s homeless, rootless, dispossessed, a wanderer. That’s the story the Peace Offering tells.
Homelessness! Rootlessness! That’s a heavy burden to be carrying around. You’ll never be a winner carrying around that kind of weight. You’ll become a drop out.
Let me tell you another story. Back in the early and mid-1970s, Sita and I ran a series of half-way houses. We took in homeless persons from off the streets and told them about the love of God and the forgiveness of sins he provides for in Jesus Christ. We’d give them meals and provide a roof over their heads. We lived right alongside them – along with our four children, Kendra, Greg, Alan, and Margo.
We did that for five and a half years – from 1973 through the end of 1978 – both in Berkeley and then here in Sacramento. A good many of the persons we took in committed their lives to Christ; but most of them kept on moving after a short stay with us. Jonathan Prince worked with us in that ministry. I think he’s here this morning.
What I noticed almost from the very get-go was that a disproportionate number of the persons we were taking in were Vietnam War veterans. At first I didn’t give it much thought. I knew that a lot of combat veterans find it hard to settle down after being discharged from the army.
But I checked into it a little further – and found out that the percentage of homeless veterans following in the wake of the Vietnam War – living on the streets – wandering from town to town – that percentage was far higher than the percentage of homeless veterans who followed in the wake of the First and Second World Wars and the Korean War. I didn’t know why? All I was able to find out was that the percentage was much higher – not just higher, but much higher.
Then, about ten years ago – long after we discontinued the ministry – a friend told me about a conference she’d attended – a conference that featured several Vietnam war veterans. One of the speakers was a former Buddhist Monk who’d given his life to Christ. He told how, during the war, the monks in South Vietnam would daily pronounce curses against the American soldiers – and you’ll never guess the one curse most often pronounced against them: that the returning American soldiers would never find rest for their souls; that they’d be friendless and rootless; that they’d be cut off from family and friends; that they’d be vagabonds all their lives.
It was a terrible curse. A curse that tragically still haunts many Vietnam War veterans.
Man isn’t designed to live alone. He’s designed to live in fellowship.
That’s what the Bible tells us. Furthermore, the Bible tells us that if our fellowship with God is broken, that will break our fellowship with family and friends as well. It’s impossible to lose fellowship with God without at the same time losing fellowship with family and friends. The one leads inevitably to the other. If you’re cut off from God, then, inevitably, you’ll find yourself cut off from family and friends as well – drifting into isolation and loneliness.
…then this morning won’t you consider the possibility that it’s because your fellowship with God has been broken? First restore your fellowship with God, then you’ll find that your fellowship with family and friends will turn around as well. I’m not suggesting that it won’t take time: breaking out of isolation is never easy. But it’s made worse when you’re harboring the thought
God has invited you back into his fellowship. Do you know that? He has granted forgiveness to anyone who asks for it. Sin is what breaks fellowship with God; but God will wash away your sins if you ask him to – wash them away in the blood of Christ – your sin-bearer.
God wants you to sit at his table with him; to fellowship with him around that table. He has invited you into his family. That makes you a prince, doesn’t it? Because that’s what a child of a king is – he’s a prince.
A prince! Imagine! A princess! That’s what you are. That’s the new identity God has granted you in Jesus Christ. And each day, as you sit at God’s table, fellowshipping with him, you’ll be changed into his likeness. You’ll begin looking like what God has made you – a prince – a princess.
You’ll begin to change the way you think about yourself. You’ll walk with a new dignity. You’ll carry yourself with a new sense of destiny and purpose – not arrogantly, but with a quiet confidence – your heart filled with gratitude.
You’ll find rest for your soul; you’ll find a home; you’ll find reconciliation with family and friends – each day celebrating the acceptance that your new found identity in Christ furnishes.
If this morning, you’ve never made Christ your sin-bearer, if sin has ruptured your relationship with God, make that right. Ask God to wash away your sins and sit you down at his table. Make that decision right now. Don’t wait. Do it now. And then come forward after the service and tell me about it. I would like to pray with you and give you a Bible.
If this morning – though you’re a Christian and have already asked God to make Christ your sin-bearer – you, nevertheless, feel odd man out; you nevertheless feel cut off and alienated, uninvited and unwanted – then consider the possibility that you’re not spending enough time at God’s fellowship table – in God’s presence – listening to him tell you again and again, “I love you. I’ve made you my child. You’re a prince. You’re a princess.” You need to spend more time with God. Make it a priority in your life. Make that decision right now. Don’t wait. Do it now. And then tell others about your decision and ask them to hold you accountable to it. Tell me about it as well. And I’ll pray with you.
May God richly bless each of you as you ponder the truths I’ve preached on this morning - and may you sense His closeness and His love.