Sermon for Lent 1, Sunday, February 22 2015, 10:30 am
Fr. Bruce Myers, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
Here we are again, back in the wilderness with Jesus.
The first Sunday of Lent always begins in the wilderness, with one of the first three gospel writers offering their account of the temptation of Jesus.
This year it’s Mark. And in Mark’s typical fashion, his version of the story is short, sparing on details, and constantly keeping the story moving quickly along—truly an evangelist for today’s increasingly short attention spans.
While Matthew and Luke go into the details of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, recounting the list of things with which he was tempted—and even letting us listen in on some of the dialogue between Jesus and his tempter—Mark simply tells us Jesus “was in the wilderness 40 days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” Period. That would even fit in a tweet (with some characters to spare). In fact today’s entire gospel goes at breakneck speed: Jesus is baptized, then heads straight into the wilderness, and then launches right into proclaiming the good news after that. Mark’s rapid-fire pace seems to contradict Lenten exhortations to slow down, reflect, contemplate. But it also helps highlight an inextricable connection between baptism, preparation, and ministry.
The 40 days of Lent are an echo of Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness, which were immediately preceded by his baptism in water and the Holy Spirit. One way of understanding Lent is as a time of particular reflection on baptism—climaxing at the Easter Vigil with the baptism of new believers, and for those of us already baptized, in the renewal of our baptismal vows.
We heard this same account of Jesus’ baptism just over a month ago on the first Sunday after the Epiphany. We’re reminded again this Sunday of how scandalous a gesture of solidarity Jesus’ baptism really is: God’s Son receiving baptism at the hands of John. Jesus chooses to be fully immersed into the human condition by being fully immersed by a human being in the Jordan River. He doesn’t bypass this act, with all the human limitations it implies, as presumably he could; rather he jumps in with both feet.
Neither does Jesus skirt around the wilderness and dive straight into his public ministry, as he also presumably could—although Mark makes you wonder how much of a choice Jesus really had in the matter. While Matthew and Luke say the Holy Spirit “led” Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days, Mark says the Spirit “immediately drove him out into the wilderness” after he was baptized.
Whether drawn or compelled to go there, Jesus spends his time in the wilderness being tempted—a most vivid (and most human) reminder that baptism is no exemption from temptation. Rather it’s but one step on a lifelong journey of Christian discipleship whose path is riddled with all manner of wild beasts and demons, internal and external. Some we succeed in overcoming; others we do not.
The work of revealing the kingdom of God that Jesus inaugurates requires a deep moral and spiritual preparation of the kind a sojourn in the wilderness can provide. Neither Jesus nor we are spared that leg of the journey either. The Holy Spirit effectively dumps Jesus into the middle of a realm in which he is relentlessly enticed with attractive and seemingly easier options, all of which he ultimately rejects as the fallacies they are. As individual baptized people—and collectively as the church—we too are periodically propelled into periods of intense testing in order to equip us for ministry in the world, which is our baptismal calling.
To the question, “Where might you expect to find the baptized?” Archbishop Rowan Williams replied: “In the neighbourhood of chaos. It means you might expect to find Christian people near to those places where humanity is most at risk, where humanity is most disordered, disfigured, and needy. Christians will be found in the neighbourhood of Jesus—but Jesus is found in the neighbourhood of human confusion and suffering, defencelessly alongside those in need. If being baptized is being led to where Jesus is, then being baptized is being led towards the chaos and neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its own density.”
Our baptismal covenant, which we will renew five weeks from now at the Easter Vigil, reminds of and calls us to that destiny: to live in Christian fellowship, resist evil, serve Christ in all people, strive for peace and justice, care for the earth—in other words: give living, visible, tangible expression to the kingdom of God that in today’s gospel Jesus proclaims has, in his coming, come near.
Fulfilling our end of the baptismal covenant—remembering our human destiny by revealing God’s kingdom in this world—can be a messy affair. As Archbishop Williams put it, “You don’t go down into the waters of the Jordan without stirring up a great deal of mud!”
But we don’t do this work (messy as it may sometimes be), or face our temptations, alone. Nor did Jesus. Mark’s telling of the story suggests that angels continually attended to and sustained Jesus during his time in the wilderness, not just coming to the rescue as some kind of emergency intervention at the conclusion of his 40 days in the desert.
We do this work, and face our temptations (and sometimes succumb to them), in communion with all those who have throughout the ages gone down into the waters of baptism before us—including Jesus Christ himself—and in communion with those with whom we form the church visible today, sharing this work with whatever other people of goodwill we can along the way. And the same Holy Spirit who drives us from the waters of baptism into the messy, broken, temptation-riddled, redeemable wilderness of this world is the same Spirit who sustains us as we go.