Water and Wilderness
Today’s Gospel story is so disjointed isn’t it? First we have a lovely family christening scene,- we remember when people in our church community have been baptised, with the babies in long beautiful gowns, and cake to follow.
But Jesus’ baptism is different – it’s in vivid technicolor, with doves, and voices from heaven, like a movie where the special effects budget was just too much. That’s because the supernatural aspect of baptism was very visible – and audible when Jesus was baptised.
It’s always there when we have baptisms too – little Beth was the most recently baptised here, and the Holy Spirit was no less present for that occasion that it was for Jesus’ baptism. But when Jesus was dipped under the Jordan, and the heavens opened, and the Spirit descended on him like a dove, it was verrry public. All those around him saw it, heard it.
You may ask, wasn’t it a private family occasion? After all John was his cousin? No, many people were coming to John for the baptism of repentance. Jesus joined in with the crowds, and waited for his turn. But no one else had the same public affirmation of their ministry. They probably felt different inside when they had made a decision to repent. But all the crowd – and it may have been hundreds of people, would have seen the heavens torn apart – maybe they thought it was going to rain, and looked around for shelter. Then they saw the Spirit descending like a dove, and they would have started to wonder what on earth was going on. Things were getting a bit weird. Maybe it was just an ordinary bird that seemed to hover around Jesus? but no, then the Voice came.
Imagine hearing a Voice from heaven, a loud, ringing tone from above and around you. They would have been looking around to see who was speaking. Was it John? no, he was just as stunned as they were. Was there someone else on the top of a hill? No, they couldn’t see anyone. But everyone who heard those words would have remembered them – You are my Son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased.
Wow! Just imagine that! The crowd would look again at the skinny carpenter’s son who was the latest to be baptised. Him? God’s beloved son? Isn’t he the son of that Mary from Nazareth? And wasn’t there something dodgy about his birth? There’ve always been rumours … nah, he’s just an ordinary guy, isn’t he???
Now the story jerks away from the action at the Jordan. No christening cake, no party, no gifts and congratulations. Jesus runs off! Just when people were starting to murmur together, wondering what on earth they had just witnessed, he’s gone!
Jesus was driven out into the wilderness. Not gently nudged out, or invited out, but driven out. There’s a real power in those words.
I don’t know if you’ve seen pictures of the wilderness in Israel, but whenever I see news reports about different groups fighting over the land, my only question is, Why? it looks like such barren rubbish land. Even a goat would struggle to survive there. Maybe there’s a sort of rugged beauty, if you like rocks and dust and desert, but living there would be very harsh, lonely, and hungry.
The devil tempted Jesus, and we know from other gospel accounts more of the details of that. Can you imagine being in the wilderness for forty days – it’s not just a long weekend. There would be nothing to eat, and Jesus had to fast anyway. There were wild beasts – and in the back of the Bible I had as a child there were pictures of jackals, snakes and even lions, that would have been around. Jesus would have been weaker day by day, and in very real danger.
And then the devil tempted him, by showing him food, and promising him power.
I think Jesus would have had a soul-searing time in the wilderness, talking to his Father, dealing with his demons, focussing on what was his role.
How did it end? Did he just walk out?
I’ve been watching a TV programme about Bear Grylls dropping 13 average British men on a deserted island, and seeing how they survive. They struggled to find food, and water, but at least they had each other. But when their 28 days were up, the men were brought by boat back to a hotel, where they could have a beer, a meal, call their families, use running water…
How would Jesus have felt?
I think he must have been very self-sufficient, being able to get on with the job at hand, without needing others. Maybe God’s affirmation was enough for him. Maybe affirmations were Jesus’ love language – I know they’re mine..
What happened next for him? He went north to Galilee, back home. There may have been some time delay here between the desert time and the trip to Galilee. We don’t hear that the Holy Spirit drove him out to Galilee. Maybe it was a bit more relaxed.
When Jesus got to Galilee, he preached – The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’
The river Jordan flows out of Lake Galilee, and the distances may not have been great between the lake and where Jesus was baptised. After forty days in the wilderness, and then an unspecified time, he was back, preaching the Good news of the kingdom of God being at hand! All those people who were at his baptism would have thought, hang on, that sounds familiar. Isn’t that the guy who was baptised when the voice spoke form heaven? Gee, that was spooky wasn’t it? But he disappeared somewhere, ran off like he was being chased. Yes, it’s definitely him. And there’s something about him – it’s hard to draw your eyes away – what was it the voice said? This is my
beloved son… no. surely not. This can’t be. This carpenter’s son, could he possibly be the Messiah? The one we have been waiting for?
In Mark’s Gospel we often hear how quickly ideas spread throughout the crowd, and Jesus often tells people, to no avail, not to say anything. Imagine the rumours spreading like wildfire, the hope growing, and the Jewish people, long oppressed under Rome, started to think that maybe, just maybe, there was a saviour for them! They were starting to think of a soldier, someone who would defeat the Romans. Maybe they looked at the carpenter’s son, and saw the fire in his eyes, his strong arms, and thought, yes, he fits the picture.
When you were baptised, you too were cleansed for God’s purpose. You too, and me, we have been commissioned to spread the Good News. Can you say to someone, Repent and believe in the good news?
‘Repent’ is one of those words with fire and brimstone connotations isn’t it? It seems to imply an either/or choice. Repent, turn away from all sorts of evil living, and turn towards God, or the consequences will be dire!
We don’t preach that way any more.
As Chris said on Wednesday night, repentance is about turning back to God. You may not have turned all the way away, you may not have turned your back on God, but maybe, like me, you’ve had times when your focus has shifted off from God by a few degrees, as you were distracted by life. But guess what? Just as the voice from heaven was all around, so God is. We can never really turn away from him by facing away. We just need to lift our eyes and see God there. That means that whenever Life is doing it’s usual throwing everything at you at once, it doesn’t get in the way of God. We can look at God through Life, we can look at Life through God. Nothing is too insignificant for God. If we are having a bad day cleaning up the cat’s mess which someone has tramped through the kitchen, we can do that through God. God is aware of our life. As we sit in the hospital waiting room, anxious, bored, God is there with us too.
My friends, turn back to God this Lent. May you be as aware of God as you are of the air around you. We often only notice the air when it’s too cold, or too hot, or breezy – the Holy Spirit is always blowing. Let its breeze ruffle your hair and blow through you today, and every day.