Preached on 18 February 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
First Sunday in Lent, Year B
Wow, what a week! In case you missed the reminder of your mortality on Ash Wednesday with a smear of ashes on your forehead, you could hardly miss the one in the news. Does it feel a bit like someone punched you, loaded you into an SUV, drove out to the middle of nowhere, opened the door and shoved you out, and then sped off?
Or maybe you’ve become numb to the news. Or maybe, out of self-preservation, you have to shut it out, completely.
Even if we escape the emotional turmoil of events in the news, even if we skip the reminder of our mortality on Ash Wednesday, at some point, life will hand us one; life will toss us into the wilderness, ready or not, to confront temptation, danger, evil, loss.
Eventually, we have our very own, personal first Sunday in Lent.
Each year, on the first Sunday in Lent, we hear about Jesus in the wilderness. He is tested by Satan, threatened by dangerous animals, and served by angels. This year, we hear Mark’s account. It is brief, even terse. He is very spare with the details, describing the entire forty-day ordeal in a mere two sentences. He leaves us to fill in the silence.
The lectionary includes the verses immediately before and those immediately after. It appears, actually, that this is how Mark intends to tell the story, all of a piece.
In his telling, we see two intersecting story lines.
First, there’s John. He is just outside of Jerusalem, baptizing people in the Jordan River. He is proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, the One who is greater than he. And he is telling the people the time has come, they must repent of their sins and be baptized. This story line ends in his arrest.
Then there’s Jesus. He leaves his home in Nazareth, up north in Galilee and travels south into Judea, to Jerusalem where he is baptized by John in the Jordan and by the Holy Spirit from heaven. Immediately, the same Holy Spirit tosses him into the wilderness. When he finds his way out, he learns of John’s arrest and returns to Galilee. There he proclaims the kingdom of God.
So often we hear these as three separate events, but Mark tells it as all of a piece. Baptism-Testing in the wilderness-Proclaiming the reign of God.
Now, I’d like to pause a moment and say something about baptism. When I was going through baptism preparation, the priest told us that the word baptism comes from the cloth-dying industry. It has to do with the cloth or the yarn being so thoroughly soaked in the dye that every bit is colored. Likewise, he said, when we are baptized it is like we are soaked in God; God is in every part of our being.
Now, I have never heard or read that description anywhere else, but it was very meaningful to me and that is the image I still carry with me. God is thoroughly with us and in us; we are never apart.
Mark describes it as the Holy Spirit descending into Jesus. And then God’s assurance, “you are my beloved Son. I am so pleased with you.” Before Jesus even does anything, God expresses God’s favor.
This is all so important because immediately, the Spirit tosses him into the wilderness.
But not alone.
God is with him, the angels serve him.
Baptism and wilderness go together. Danger and evil aren’t eliminated, but we have God’s help confronting them. We mustn’t delude ourselves, thinking that we can or do overcome evil, resist temptation on our own. We do it with God’s help.
Then, after John is arrested, Jesus returns home to Galilee to proclaim the time has come, it is now, the reign of God is here. He proclaims the kingdom of God, not when everything is going great, but rather in the middle of a broken world. He proclaims it to a people under the oppressive thumb of a foreign power, in the context of the unjust arrest of one of their own.
It’s time, he says. Despite what you see, the kingdom of God is breaking through and the kingdoms of this world can’t hold a candle to it. God’s is a different kind of kingdom.
It’s time to turn your heart and mind and spirit toward God. It’s time to choose; to believe, to trust the Good News; to rely on it.
We undertake the work of Lent, of facing and seeing and challenging the darkness within ourselves, in our lives, and in the world around us.
We undertake the work God calls us to do, proclaiming the Good News of the reign of God in the face of the powers of this world, powers of injustice, powers that seek to destroy, because we don’t face them alone.
We do it in the presence of God;
with the power of the Holy Spirit,
held within the steadfast love of God,
and bathed in the light of Christ.
Thanks be to God.