Sermon for Williamstown
The First Sunday of Lent, 22nd of February 2015
I’ve mentioned before that the Gospel according to Mark is a short, quick, intense gospel. Today this is a huge benefit for us, because in six verses Mark gives us Jesus’ baptism; his temptation in the wilderness; and the beginning of his ministry; one after another; bam, bam, bam. And this is wonderful, because the three, baptism, temptation, ministry, go together – for us as well as for Jesus. We should thank the author of the Gospel of Mark for never taking a breath.
The reading begins with Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan by John. As I’ve said before, something quite strange is going on here. In the passage immediately before today’s reading, we’re told that John the Baptist appears in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The people from Jerusalem and all Judea come to John and are baptised by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now Jesus comes from Galilee to John at the Jordan, expressly in order to be baptised by him. But one thing we know about Jesus is that he had no need of repentance. Sin is most basically a turning away from God, and Jesus, Emmanuel, God-with-us, lived his life in full relationship with God. Jesus did not sin, and had no need to repent. So, why, since John is baptising for repentance those who confess their sins, does Jesus seek baptism? Why, after he has been baptised, does a voice from heaven say that God is well pleased with Jesus?
It’s all about the Incarnation, God’s amazing, unique intervention in history that we celebrate every Christmas. In the Incarnation, God became human, in the most wonderful act of solidarity with humanity, and in his baptism, Jesus, God-with-us, begins his ministry by acting out that solidarity. Jesus’ baptism is symbolic of everything that’s going to happen. It’s an example of the obedience, humility and sacrifice that will shape the course of Jesus’ life, ministry and death. John says of Jesus that: “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.” And yet Jesus, like all the others who come from Jerusalem and the whole Judean countryside, comes to enter the water and be baptised by John. At the time being baptised by someone else was a highly unusual procedure. Ritual baths and immersions were common enough, but to allow someone else to immerse you added a whole new level of submission and obedience. It was so unusual that John was known as ‘the baptiser’ because he did it. By being baptised by John in the Jordan, Jesus demonstrates for the first time his obedience to God; the obedience that will continue till his death on the cross.
In response to Jesus’ baptism, the heavens are torn and the barriers between God and humanity are withdrawn. This is an end-time image; it comes from a plea in Isaiah: “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” (Isaiah 63:19) This is exactly what has happened; in Jesus, God has entered into the world in a new way, and this new communion between heaven and earth will never end. At the very end of the gospel, at the end of Jesus’ life, there will be another tearing; the curtain of the temple will be torn in two from top to bottom. (Mark 15:38) In Jesus, every barrier that separates God from humanity has been torn apart.
This whole story is full of Old Testament imagery. The creation story tells of a world covered in water and darkness, before the Spirit swept over the face of the waters and creation began. Water is a gift to people wandering in the desert, but it’s also chaotic, frightening. Today’s reading from Genesis reminds us of that, as it describes the covenant made between God and Noah after the flood had destroyed most of the earth. Entering water in baptism is a symbolic death. At the very beginning of his ministry Jesus dies symbolically as he’s baptised by John. At the end of his ministry Jesus will die again, but that death won’t be symbolic.
After the baptismal story of water we have a story of wilderness. The wilderness was the place in which the people of Israel wandered for forty years after the liberation from Egypt. Jesus is now sent there by the Spirit, to be tempted by Satan, in the presence of wild beasts. Jesus obeys God, is baptised, is claimed as God’s beloved son and told that God is well pleased with him – and the very next thing that happens is that God sends him to be tested in the wilderness, the place full of forces hostile to God, including wild and dangerous animals. Jesus has been baptised in solidarity with humanity; now he’s tested in further solidarity with us. He experiences danger and isolation. But he also experiences the presence of the love of God. It’s the Spirit who drives Jesus out to the wilderness, and while he’s there he is not only with Satan and wild beasts, but with angels who wait on him. He is bereft of human comfort and exposed to demonic power, but Jesus is also attended by divine care.
After this time of temptation and care, which happens in a mere two verses, Jesus begins his ministry, returning to Galilee and proclaiming the good news of God. He has been baptised; he has been tested; and he is now ready to begin his ministry. Mark immediately moves on to that typical day in the ministry of Jesus, with teaching and exorcisms and healings, which we heard about in the Epiphany readings.
In the Years of Matthew and Luke we are given their versions of Jesus’ temptation on the first Sunday in Lent, just as we have Mark’s version today. But because the authors of the gospels of Matthew and Luke have much more expansive versions of the temptations, we don’t also hear about Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of his ministry. And that’s a pity, because as I said at the beginning of this sermon, the three go together.
Jesus is baptised and told that he is God’s beloved son. He then faces his demons. And he then begins his ministry. The three are intimately connected. This happens to Jesus, Emmanuel, God-With-Us. But Jesus is not only the Son of God; he is also the Human One, the one who shows us what it means to be truly human. What is true for him is true for us. Just as Jesus is the beloved child of God, so are we. Just as Jesus must face temptations, demons and wild animals, while also being comforted by God’s presence, so must we. And just as his baptism and time in the wilderness prepares Jesus for his ministry, so our baptisms and our wilderness moments prepare us for our ministries, whatever they may be.
In Jesus God is acting in solidarity with humanity, and so be watching what Jesus does we can see what we are called to do; what it means to be human beings living in relationship with God.
First and foremost, it means that we are beloved. Never, ever forget this! We are the beloved children of God. This is who we are, our most basic identity.
Second, it does not mean that we won’t be tested. Being in relationship with God does not mean that everything in our life will be easy. There will be demons and wild animals. But we will not have to face them alone.
Third, we are all called to ministry. Our baptism is our inauguration in our ministry, although discovering exactly what form our ministry takes will take most of us years and years.
Today is the first Sunday in Lent, and Lent offers us is time to practice being tested in solidarity with Jesus’ time in the wilderness and time to reflect on what God is calling us to do in response to God’s claiming of us as beloved children. Over the next six weeks, through our Lenten disciplines, through our commitment to prayer and study, through our journey with Jesus to the cross, we are invited to enter more deeply into the ultimate meaning of our lives. In today’s reading we see God in Jesus acting in solidarity with us. During Lent, we are called to live in solidarity with God. This Lent, let us live and learn the love, peace and truth to which we are called as the children of God. Amen.