… any onlookers to Jesus’ baptism would have seen and heard nothing except one more small-town tourist from up country joining in the frenzy of baptism and confession along with the Jerusalem crowds. (Sharyn Dowd, Reading Mark)
It’s the First Sunday in Lent. Most years, we hear the story of the testing of Jesus in the wilderness by Satan, found in the Gospels According to Matthew and Luke.
This year, we concentrate on Mark’s Gospel. Mark doesn’t say too much on what happened when Jesus was tested in the desert. In our Gospel Reading today, we go from Jesus being baptised to being pressured — yes, pressured — into the wilderness to be tested, and then — after John is arrested — himself proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. All in seven verses.
That’s fast moving!
This morning, I’m not going to move as quickly as Mark did. I’ll hardly get past the baptism.
You know, later in his ministry Jesus said something about baptism. It may seem strange to our ears:
I have a baptism with which to be baptised, and what stress I am under until it is completed! (Luke 12.50)
Jesus said this long after John had baptised him. It seems that for Jesus, there was something about baptism that was still to be completed.
The word ‘Baptism’ comes from a Greek word meaning ‘immersion’. And yes, Jesus would soon be immersed in a process involving the law makers and the tradition keepers of the land, a process that would end with him strung up on a cross on the first Good Friday.
The cross would mark the completion of his baptism. The cross, where Jesus becomes part of the refuse of the world, one of those who are left to die without a thought. Where Jesus is fully identified with the so-called ‘worst’ of humanity. As the prophet Isaiah says (53.3):
He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;
and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.
Let’s go back to today’s Gospel passage.
John the Baptist was in the southern part of Israel, while Jesus came from Nazareth, a hick town near the Sea of Galilee in the north.
Mark tells us people were coming to John the Baptist from all over Jerusalem and Judaea — in other words, from all over the south of Israel. But down from the north there comes this lone Galilean, Jesus.
Now, what this Galilean experiences in his baptism changes the world.
He sees the heavens ripped apart. The veil between heaven and earth that hides the spiritual realm from daily life is in tatters.
Through this rip the Spirit of God comes upon and into Jesus.
A voice — God’s voice! — sounds through the rip, telling Jesus that he is God’s beloved Child.
Jesus’ life is forever changed.
The thing about John’s baptism was that it is a baptism of repentance, of renewal, to call out of Israel a group of people faithful to God. They were in a difficult time. The Romans had invaded the land, and the Jewish authorities were collaborators. John was looking for faithful people to rise, not to fight against the Romans but to live faithfully so the Messiah might come.
In being baptised, Jesus identified himself with those who were repenting; yet it was clear to John that Jesus was much more than another member of the group.
Let’s look a bit more at one of those things Jesus experienced when he was baptised: the descent of the Spirit.
… just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw … the Spirit descending like a dove on him.…
In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are stories that Jesus would know well.
In the creation story in Genesis 1 (v.2), the Spirit hovers dovelike over the surface of the primordial waters. And in the Flood story, a dove brings an olive leaf to Noah, so he knows that the waters are receding.
The dove prefigures amazing hope in darkness, a new creation; the Spirit descends like a dove upon Jesus.
Or does she? Mark wrote in Greek, and he could just as easily have meant that the Spirit descended into Jesus, not just upon him.
What’s got into Jesus? They will be asking this question by chapter 3 of Mark’s Gospel. The scribes who have come from Jerusalem spread a rumour that he is possessed by Beelzebul, the chief of the demons. And his family — including his mother! — come to take him out of the public eye because everyone is saying Jesus is out of his mind.
What’s got into Jesus? None else but the Spirit of God, who remakes, renews and redirects our lives every. day. of. the. week.
The Spirit ‘drives’ Jesus out into the wilderness. No, she isn’t a chauffeur. Jesus is prodded and compelled by the Spirit to go out there. Jesus had some real thinking to do. Mark says his conversation partners were Satan and wild beasts; oh, and yes, ‘angels waited on him’.
I’ve known angels who have waited on me, taken care of me, ministered to me. None of them have had wings that I can see, unless they were cleverly hidden. No, my angels have been human.
How can I call them angels then? ‘Angel’ means a ‘messenger’ of God. I have been blessed by people who have brought me a message from God many times. Some years ago, I was in the wilderness of depression. I needed those angels then, but: I also need the angels God sends me when I judge things are going ok.
Who are the angels in your life?
There’s much more I could say about all this, but I’ll leave it there.
We often describe the Season of Lent as a wilderness experience. We may or may not feel we’re in a wilderness right now, but I am sure there are aspects to each one of our lives that could be called a little wilderness-y.
Let’s just reflect, as Jesus may have done out in the wilderness.
What is God doing with me here and now?
Can I see the angels God has sent me —
and will I receive the message they bring to me?
West End Uniting Church, 21 February 2021