Yes, sorry, I’m preaching about love again. It’s almost as though love was at the heart of the Christian faith or something.
Sermon for Williamstown
The First Sunday of Lent, 18th of February 2018
I’ve mentioned before that the Gospel according to Mark is short, intense, and everything happens immediately. That’s lucky for us, because today in a mere six verses Mark gives us Jesus’ baptism; his temptation in the wilderness; and the beginning of his ministry; one after the other; bam, bam, bam. And this is wonderful, because the three, baptism, testing, 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 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, the reason that I’m Christian rather than the atheist that my paternal grand-father wanted me to be, or the agnostic that would really make more sense. 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. On Thursday those of us reading Rachel Held Evans’ book, Searching for Sunday, over Lent, talked about whether we should make more of the ‘death’ element when we baptise someone, and agreed that since we primarily baptise babies that might be a wee bit problematic. For babies we’ll continue emphasising that baptism names us ‘beloved children’ rather than that it kills us. But baptism is also about death and here, at the very beginning of his ministry, Jesus dies symbolically. At the end of his ministry Jesus will die again, but that death won’t be symbolic. And all of us, when we are baptised, will be baptised into his death, and so also into the resurrection that follows it.
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.
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, and so it is what we emphasise most when baptising people and welcoming them into the body of Christ.
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.
The Lectionary pairs today’s gospel reading with the covenant that God makes with Noah, reminding us both of the dangers and death of water, and that God has promised never again to allow the waters to become a flood to destroy all flesh. But for me, because of last year’s poll on same-sex marriage and because I’m part of the group writing a report and proposals for the July Assembly of the Uniting Church, any mention of rainbows makes me think of LGBTIQ people. In the part of Searching for Sunday that we read last week there is a chapter titled ‘Enough’ (pp. 32-35) about a nineteen-year-old called Andrew looking forward to his baptism. Andrew’s father was a Presbyterian pastor in the USA, and when Andrew came out to his family as gay he was cut off from both his family and his church. But Andrew had found a church that loved him and supported him and would baptise him. Andrew’s father had always refused to baptise Andrew because he said that Andrew didn’t show enough fruits of the Spirit. Now that Andrew was going to be baptised he wanted Rachel, the author, to be there because she was part of the only family he now had, the church family who loved him and would never turn him away. Rachel writes, ‘Sometimes the church must be a refuge even to its own refugees’.
When Jesus was baptised in solidarity with humanity, it was in solidarity with all humanity, not only those of a particularly sex or race or sexuality. When baptism tells us that we are God’s beloved children, that love isn’t limited by our sex or race or sexuality. This is especially obvious when we baptise babies. We may know their race, their nationality, we usually know who their parents are, mostly we know their sex. But we don’t know their gifts and skills; we don’t know whether they will develop autism or have developmental delays; we definitely don’t know their sexuality. And none of that matters; we baptise them as God’s beloved children because that is who they are.
That is who we are, no matter how we may be tested, no matter how many wild animals surround us. We are God’s beloved children: baptised; tested; called to ministry. God-in-Jesus experienced all this is solidarity with us; we are to experience all this in solidarity with God. This is what we do in Lent as we walk with Jesus to the cross. We live in solidarity with the God who tore open the heavens to be with us. May we walk with Jesus this Lent. Amen.