A Sermon preached on 18th February 2018, Lent I, at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenGenesis 9:8-17, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15
Mark certainly manages to pack a lot of action and meaning into very few words and little space. We just heard about Jesus’ Baptism, his divine confirmation, 40 days in the wilderness, temptation, John the Baptist’s arrest, and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry all in 130 words! And Mark also manage to fit in references to the OT books of Genesis, Exodus, Isaiah, and Psalms. And now I will take about 1300 words to explain it all!
Jesus’ Baptism took place in the river Jordan. It is not a big river, not like the Rhine or the Seine. It’s is neither wide nor deep, and when we were there two years ago we waved at the Jordanian guards on the other side and could probably have waded through. But it is a very important river. It makes the Jordan valley fertile and symbolically, for the Jewish people, it is the boundary between the wilderness and the promised land. This was the river they crossed at the end of their forty-year journey through the wilderness from Egypt under Moses. This was the river they crossed when they returned from their exile in Babylon.
For Jesus though, going into the waters of the Jordan comes before his wilderness experience, not after. Nor does he immediately enter the Promised Land. Instead, he starts proclaiming a new version of the Promised Land, the kingdom of God, a promise which is available for all people, everywhere, and at all times.
But let’s stick with the wilderness experience for now. The text does not identify the site, but we can assume that it takes place in the Judean desert, which borders on the Jordan valley and which you have to cross to reach Jerusalem. While the Jordan was a little disappointing, I was expecting a bigger river, the Judean desert which we also visited, was not. It is big and arid and dangerous. I did not see any wild beasts, just some Bedouin boys and camels, but they are around, and you really do not want to spend a lot of time there.
But Jesus did. And Jesus needed to. He needed time to reflect on what he had heard and experienced at his Baptism. The voice from heaven had said, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Mark 1:11) What does it mean to be God’s son? What is my role? What will I be called to do? How can I do it? In the other Gospels we are given the details of the temptations, and they all revolve around these questions. Mark does not. All we know is that he was with the wild beasts, so he was in danger. And that the angels waited on him, so that even, or especially in the wilderness, he could be sure of God’s love and protection.
Our first reading today, from Genesis, was also about a wilderness experience: not in a desert but in a world drowned by a flood. Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, and Noah in the Ark for forty days, at least in one of the two versions in the Bible. Noah also receives a promise from God in the form of a covenant between God, Noah, and every living creature, for all future generations. God promises life: “the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.” (Genesis 9:12, 19)
Why is the Bible full of these stories of trails and tests, of time spent in mortal danger in deserts and other wild places? Because our lives are also full of these times. The line “I beg your pardon, I didn’t promise you a rose garden” is from a song. It is not scriptural – but it could be. God promises us everlasting love and offers us an unending relationship. But we are not exempt from harm or suffering, we will die, and following Christ was often, and in some places still is, the cause. Even after we are baptized, after we come up out of the metaphorical river, we will experience dry and dusty paths, temptations, dangers, and apparent failure.
Jesus’ wilderness experience is important for another reason. He went the way his people must go. And on that way, on that path through the desert, he was sustained and drew strength and courage from the words he had heard at his Baptism, from the knowledge that he was chosen and special, from the assurance of God’s love for him. He both shared in our experiences, and shows us how to not only cope with, but grow through them.
In what we might call our wilderness experiences, our dark times, our arid and painful times, the times when we are tempted to doubt and despair, when we are tempted to forget that God in Christ is with us at every moment, we need to recall and reaffirm our Baptism and what it means: I am in Christ and Christ is in me. I am a child of God. God loves me and values me. At our Baptism, and every day since, God says to each and every one of us the same powerful words of love spoken to Jesus: You are my dear child; I am delighted with you. They are true even when we don’t hear them or feel that love, even when our experience runs to the contrary. As Paul said: “We walk by faith and not by sight.” (2 Cor 5:7)
It is after his wilderness experience, and after he learns what has happened to John that Jesus begins his public ministry, in full knowledge of the dangers. His ministry and mission is to proclaim the good news of God, saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15) Jesus calls on his listeners to believe in the good news, that is to trust in God’s love, and to believe that the new, universal promised land, the kingdom of God, is already here and at hand. The kingdom of God is very real, even if it is a part of reality that only occasionally shines through.
The church has placed the 40-day period we call Lent before Easter. It is intended as a spiritual wilderness experience during which we are called to “self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God's holy Word.” This is not only a time to reflect on our mortality, and frailty, and sins. It is also a time to build up the trust and hope that we will need in our dark times. To remember that in all the wilderness stories, our forbearers never faced the experience alone. For forty years, God journeyed with Israel. For forty days, God watched over Noah. For forty days, God stood with Jesus. And for our time, God will stand with us too.
The Bible is full of wilderness stories, and the Church offers us this wilderness experience, because we need it: To discover anew the joy of being God’s child and beloved. To learn live as one beloved. To listen for the voice of God calling us again. To see Christ more clearly in the world around us. To encounter God. To be transformed.
Most of all, we need the wilderness experience of Lent to be able to both believe and to proclaim anew and with conviction that “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”