First Sunday in Lent
Mark 1:9 --15
On Your Mark, Get Set, Go!
Mark doesn't waste any time getting us involved in the beginning of our Lord's Ministry. In these few verses we experience Jesus baptized by John in the River Jordan, followed by the Holy Spirit descending upon him. Immediately after a voice from heaven proclaimed pleasure in Jesus. Moments later Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness where we learn he is to be tempted by Satan. And by verse 14 we discover that Jesus is back in the Galilee region preaching, "The Kingdom of God Is at Hand."
Let's start with the baptism. The River Jordan is a small river that begins above the Sea of Galilee; it feeds that Lake and then continues on to the Dead Sea. In most places the Jordan is not a particularly spectacular river. Above the Sea of Galilee the waters run faster and clearer. The river is fed by the streams and mountains of Lebanon. Today there is a pilgrimage rest stop a little below the southern end of the Sea of Galilee where the Jordan River continues to make its way south towards the Dead Sea. This pilgrimage stop is designed for visitors to have a few moments on the bank of the River Jordan. The water moves slowly the river bed is fairly shallow and by and large its color is brown. It is a somewhat muddy river. The crystal-clear images portrayed by Hollywood of Jesus baptism by John are quickly erased in the presence of the muddy and earthy banks of the River Jordan. But perhaps the muddy waters are a better image for us to reflect upon as we consider the wonder of Jesus being baptized. Perhaps it's a better image because so much of human life is not crystal-clear and sparkling but rather muddy, and earthy and often confused. Our Lord enters the real and challenging human condition which we all face. He does not deny it, he does not brush over it rather he goes in the midst of it, is washed within it and comes up from it to meet a Dove and hear voice from heaven.
In a way Jesus bursting forth from under the muddy waters of the Jordan River is a foretaste of his bursting out of the tomb after his horrendous crucifixion and death. There is a power that is around him at the beginning, and at the end of his ministry, a power that never leaves him, a power which might best be described as the real presence of God. When Jesus came up from the waters of baptism in the River Jordan there the Spirit like a dove descended upon him and a voice from heaven proclaimed, “Thou art my beloved son; with thee I am well pleased." We hear the voice of the Father who is absolutely delighted with his son who becomes vulnerable by sharing in our humanness. We experience the Father in heaven who looks upon this action and sees in it something wonderful and if we open our eyes wide enough perhaps we can also begin to see and feel just how crazy our God's love is for Jesus and humanity.
I don't think it's a stretch to suggest that our Father in heaven experiences us as beautiful and wonderful too. I don't believe he would have ever sent his son Jesus into the world if he was not excited about you and me, if he was not crazy about us, just as he is crazy about his own son. I don't believe our Father in heaven would risk such a wild journey if he didn't have the deepest commitment for us all.
How foolish we are at times in the church when we argue about the methodology of baptism. Some believe that a sprinkling of water is acceptable while others are baptized in dunk tanks and still others feel the need to be baptized in lakes and rivers. Some suggest a few cupfuls are enough while others only believe that full immersion is sufficient for the baptism to be effective. I don't think it matters how much water we use, just that we use water. It is our Lord who gives us new life, with water being a symbol of destruction of the old life and God as creator of the new. What makes the moment of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan and the moment of our baptisms effective is the life giving Holy Spirit.
The gift of the Holy Spirit in this passage might best be described as the knowledge that we are loved and that we are beautiful to God. And this gift is not something that we are to simply hold on to and feel good about; rather this gift is to empower us in to ministry. It is a gift that is to move us out of our comfort zones and on to the next stages of ministry which for our Lord at the time of his baptism was to go to the wilderness. But before we go there one last thought on the water of baptism.
It is interesting that the same River Jordan feeds two bodies of water. The River Jordan feeds the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. The first, the Sea of Galilee is alive, it is a filled with fish, small communities were built around it because it was a place of life. We hear of its movement tossed about by winds, fierce storms and waves. On the other hand we have the Dead Sea also fed by the Jordan River but it is lifeless, filled with a superabundance of salt and minerals, no fish live in it, its water can not be consumed. The biggest difference between the two bodies of water is at the Sea of Galilee shares its water, water flows into it and out from it. The Dead Sea keeps its water to itself. In these two bodies of water we have an image of ministry. The blessing and empowerment, the life giving Spirit which Jesus received was not meant to simply bless or to remain stagnant in him but rather it was given to bless us all. The spirit was to not simply be upon him rather it was to flow through him. Had he kept the Spirit to himself and the gift of God to himself his ministry would never have flourished. The same is true for the church. We are given the Spirit of God not to keep trapped within the confines of our buildings and our Bible studies but rather we are given the Spirit of God to spread to every corner, every inch of the world.
Jesus is driven into the wilderness by the Spirit. In 2004 I had the great pleasure of joining deans of cathedrals from North America on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The trip was educational and there were two tracks that we could choose to go on. The first was a biblical track, where we would have the opportunity to travel throughout the country and visit and pray in places where our Lord lived out his ministry. The second track was political where participants could engage local politicians. Both were interesting but I found myself moved to participate in the historic/Biblical track. There were two primary side trips from Jerusalem. The first was in to the Galilee region where we visited Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River as well as several other biblical sites. The second adventure was to have some time into Judean wilderness. We would spend the night in a tent in the desert. This sounded romantic to me and along with about 20 to 25 of my colleagues we boarded our bus and headed for the wilderness. There's not much vegetation that grows in the Judean wilderness at least at the time of year we were there. The terrain is brown and beige and very rocky. The hills are more like small mountains and the land is treacherous. After several hours in the bus our leader invited us to join with another and to have a quiet time of meditation. We were told to always stay in view of each other so that none of us would be lost. Underneath the hot sun we carried our water bottles and enjoyed some quiet time, none of us were stung by scorpions and we all made it back to the bus safely. We drove a bit farther and then found the Bedouin hospitality center where we would spend the night.
My romantic image was quickly overcome by the reality of this experience. The tent was similar to being inside a very large lining of a giant garbage pale. There were no Oriental rugs on the floor, no great palm branches swinging from the ceiling and fanning us, keeping us cool. After dropping off our belongings and we boarded the bus so we could have a couple more hours in the wilderness for prayer. This was a wonderful time and the earth tone colors of the mountainsides were stunning in the evening light. The hours went by pretty quickly and one can only begin to imagine what 40 days in the wilderness would have been like. That evening we had a small but very real taste of the danger of wild beasts.
Each of us was given a well used and apparently unwashed sleeping bag, a straw matt and a 1 inch thick foam pad to lie down upon the hard ground. It was very hot inside the tent and the sound of my colleagues snoring was not conducive to sleep at least for me. In the middle of the night one of the women clergy screamed that someone had been licking her feet. It looked like we might have a scandal in our midst, just what the church needed -- a foot licking clergyman -- a new scandal in the Judean wilderness. Who would the foot licker be? After the tent settled down it happened again only this time we discovered that wolves had come into the tent. The wolves were the foot lickers. I saw the beige colored wolves dashing out and decided that I would post myself as a sentry outside the tent under the stars. The wolves kept coming; they appeared to be fairly focused on finding something to eat. The next morning we discovered that one of our companions was missing a bag that was filled with a few snacks and a valuable camera. A few of us went looking in the direction that we had seen the wolves come and go. Some of the contents of his bag were found scattered along the path, we never did find his camera which was in a leather case. In just one very long night we were raided by wolves in the Judean wilderness, the danger was real, one can only imagine what our Lord faced during his 40 days as he fasted and prayed and faced far greater dangers than we touched upon during our short visit.
The wilderness was not a safe place, certainly not for our Lord who didn't have a large group with him as he faced the temptations of the devil. Not only did our Lord face the barrenness of the wilderness, no doubt he faced the creatures of the wilderness and of course whenever we're in solitude we have the opportunity to face our own inner voices.
Jesus was led by the Spirit in to the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. Jesus did not choose to go to the wilderness, nor did he choose to be tempted. Both were imposed upon him from the outside, the leading by the Spirit, the tempting by the devil. There had to be room for free will, for personal response once he found himself there, but he did not design or create this wilderness. What might this speak to us as we begin our journey into this Lenten season?
First of all, we don't create our own wilderness; we don't start a mad scramble to impose all kinds of hardships upon ourselves to prove our spiritual muscles or lack of them. Rather, we look around to see where the Spirit has led us and is leading us and most likely we will find that it is a wild enough place with enough voices of temptation without creating more. Perhaps just as Jesus wilderness experience was a testing of his baptismal call and identity, so it could be that most of our Christian life is a testing and a living out of our baptismal call. Just as when the ashes are imposed we are called to remember our mortality (remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return), so the whole season of Lent is a call to remembering that it is in God alone that we must find our identity. This is so opposed to what our culture is crying out to us. We are shouted at from all directions to maintain our individuality, to seek self actualization, to discover personal and social liberation, to prove ourselves and to protect ourselves. And the voice is legion.
In Mark’s gospel text the humility and simplicity of God's Word comes to us. Lent is a time for stripping down the myriad distractions a time to remember the clarity and simplicity of that life laid down for us, that name we were baptized into. Binding the voices of legion in our culture takes work and discipline. We can quiet the outer senses by fasting and prayer. We can quicken our spiritual memories by reading God's Word; these are things which can be very useful when they do not become either a stick for beating ourselves or a measuring rod to mark our great piety.
Perhaps our own wilderness will leave us very little room for the familiar methods by which we have met our Lord in the past. Perhaps we shall have to struggle to realize one day at a time it is not ultimately our ability to meet the needs and demands of those with whom we come into daily contact that will save us making us holy. Perhaps we will realize in this lent that it is not our own challenging situations in life that define us or give us our value but rather the simple fact that Jesus loves you, that he lived and died to make you his own. And if this message has not come in to you yet, perhaps you need to hear God’s timeless word to you -- the flow of grace from his lips to your heart -- the gospel of God, "the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believed in the gospel." Let me repeat, Jesus loves you, and he lived and died to make you his own!