1st Sunday in Lent
Genesis 9:8-17; Mark 1:9-15
This is quite the dramatic description of Jesus’ baptism. I wonder how we’d feel about baptism if this sort of thing that happened all the time? Picture it: we all gather at the church, everyone in their best clothes. Relatives have all been invited and even those who haven’t darkened the door of a church in years have shown up to support the ones being baptized. Those being baptized along with their parents have been practicing their promises. The Godparents are nervous, because they have promises to make too and don’t want to goof them up. Everyone sits in the reserved “baptismal family” seating, which is, unfortunately, at the front. Those parents of small children are saying silent prayers that their kids won’t choose this particular time to throw a holy tantrum.
The time of baptism comes, and all gather around the font. Water is poured, the Word is spoken, candles are lit, and promises are made. Just when everyone breathes a sigh of relief that all has gone so wonderfully well, suddenly the heavens are torn apart, the Holy Spirit resembling a dove descends on the newly baptized, and a voice booms from above, “These are my beloved children; with you I am well pleased.”
I have to admit, that would be cool, don’t you think? Pretty impressive and powerful, right? Obviously, God is doing something that would get our attention. That would be just amazing—so far.
But then, in this text Mark goes on. This remarkable scene at Jesus’ baptism takes a turn. Right then the Spirit, who up until now has been cute and quiet, like an innocent little white dove, takes hold of Jesus and hurls him out into the wilderness. That’s the verb used here. The Spirit doesn’t guide Jesus, or suggest to Jesus, or even lead Jesus. The Spirit drives him, throws him, violently casts him out into the wilderness all alone, where he had to deal with Satan and wild beasts for six weeks.
What would we do if that happened at our baptisms? Suddenly, baptism isn’t so fun. Thrown into the wilderness for forty days with the wild beasts, tested by Satan the whole time. If this is what happened, we’d probably rethink this whole baptismal thing. Forty days in the wilderness sounds pretty lousy. Wild beasts? Satan? Sure, some angels came and help him out, but is this what we really bargain for in baptism?
So what is really going on here?
In the Bible, the wilderness is a difficult place. It’s a place where all the things we rely on are stripped away. It’s a place where we are the most vulnerable, weak, and lost. It’s a place where we are alone and where our strength is drained until we have nothing left. Have you been there?
You’re in the wilderness when you’re grieving the death of someone you love. You’re in the wilderness when you experience serious illness or injury. You’re in the wilderness when you try as hard as you can for as long as you can and still can’t find a job or save your children or even gain a foothold in your life. You’re in the wilderness when your best and most honest efforts still result in falling prey to an addiction or losing control. That’s wilderness. And it’s not a place we ever want to be.
And in spite of that, or perhaps because of that, the wilderness is also a place where people in all times and in all places have been met by God. Maybe because in the wilderness there’s nothing else to rely on. Maybe because we’re in such need that we can recognize God. Maybe because we’re so desperate that we actually seek God out. The wilderness is a place or a time in our lives when the saving power of God is real; because there is nothing else. When we live through the wilderness, when we have that experience of being held up only by the mercy of God, we are changed. We have that opportunity in the wilderness to know what we mean to God; in the wilderness we come to know who we are.
If we aren’t thrown into the wilderness immediately after baptism, we’re thrown there eventually. No one chooses to go; we’re always thrown there. The advantage we have is that when we’re thrown into the wilderness, we go with the promises, the assurance, the clarity of who we are in baptism. We can come out of it knowing God more fully and trusting God more deeply.
On Ash Wednesday, we experienced the reminder that we will all die, that ultimately in the face of death we are all helpless. We were marked with a sign of that helplessness, a sign of wilderness on our foreheads: we were smeared with ashes, the dust of the earth out of which we came and to which we will return.
But more than that, this mark of death was shaped in the form of a cross. We were marked not just with death, but with the cross of Christ and the promise of life. We were marked with assurance of the presence of God no matter how deep our wilderness becomes. Even in the wilderness of death, God meets us there to lift us up to life.
Last Wednesday we were reminded of our helplessness in the wilderness and our utter dependence on God. Today we recall the reality that we are at times thrown into the wilderness. But most of all we have the promises of God, spoken at our baptism, that no matter how deep, no matter how dark, no matter how lonely the wilderness may be, God will meet us there. And that really is cool. That really is impressive and powerful. Because God really is doing something that not only gets our attention, but truly is amazing.