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March 6: Baptism and Temptation

Mark 1:9-13

Matthew 4:1-11

The river and the wilderness are holy places in the Bible. At the Jordan river, where we meet Jesus today, as he is baptized by John – at the Jordan river, God's people have stepped into God's future more than once. When God freed the people of Israel from their slavery in Egypt, and brought them into a new land – the land that would be their home, the land that God had promised – God brought them into the land by leading them across the Jordan river, near Jericho, where Jesus was baptized. When the prophet Elijah – the Old Testament's most revered prophet, the one who it is said, in the last verses of Malachi, the last words of the Old Testament – those words say that Elijah will return and herald the Messiah's, the savior's arrival – when Elijah was about to die, about to return to God and pass down his authority to his student Elisha, Elijah crossed the Jordan river near Jericho, and went out into the wilderness.

In the Bible, holy things happen at the Jordan River. And, even moreso, holy things happen in the wilderness. The wilderness – a mountainous desert, east of the Jordan river, just outside the land God had promised to the people – the wilderness is where Elijah listened for God's voice, it is where Moses stood in God's presence, it is where God delivered the ten commandments to the people, it is where Israel wandered for forty years after being liberated from Egypt – Israel wandered in the wilderness, learning how to follow God faithfully, and was tested by God, strengthening itself for what lay ahead.

Jesus, like these others before him, comes to the Jordan river, and then goes out into the wilderness – and something holy happens. He goes to the Jordan, lost in a sea of people, all of whom are there for something. They are there to hear John, this radical preacher, this powerful prophet, this new Elijah – John is calling them to turn away from their sin, to reject their greed, to put away their hypocrisy, to care for those who are in need, to practice justice – John tells them to repent, to turn their lives around, to turn away from evil and turn towards God. John is calling them to change their hearts and change their lives. And as a sign of that change, John is baptizing them, washing them in the river, inviting them to die to sin and become alive to God, inviting them to wash away all that is evil and emerge renewed, transformed – embracing that which is good.

Jesus joins the crowds coming to the river, coming to be baptized by John. It doesn't make sense to us – why would the Sinless One need to be cleansed of sin? Why would the faithful one join with us, who are so often faithless, in this ritual? Why would the One who is the Son of God, God-in-the-flesh, need to be called to turn his life around, turn to God and find life?

John, the prophet who baptizes Jesus, had these same questions. In Matthew, when he tries to refuse – when he tries to insist that it is instead Jesus who should baptize him, Jesus responds by saying "it must be this way, in order to fulfill all righteousness." A cryptic answer, but that's Jesus, right?

So, Jesus steps down into the water, and he is baptized by John. And as he comes out of the water, something happens – something holy happens, here at the Jordan river, yet again. The skies are torn open, and the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus in the form of a dove, and a voice speaks from heaven, saying "you are my Son, my beloved, and I am pleased with you." This is a moment that the early church saw as one of the first clear revelations of the Trinity – God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God the Son is baptized in the waters, God the Spirit descends on the Son, and God the Father speaks a word of blessing – claiming Jesus as God's own, as one who is set apart God's own purposes.

And, then, again, something happens. The Spirit has descended onto Jesus – and now, the Spirit gets to work. The Spirit drives him out into the wilderness – the word used in the Gospel of Mark is the same word you'd use to describe someone driving cattle, it's the same word that's used later when Jesus makes a whip and uses it to drive people out of the temple – the Spirit pushes Jesus out into the wilderness, so that Jesus can be tested. Notice that – the whole point of what happens next, the thing God is trying to do, is force Jesus to face this challenge, to withstand temptation. And why?

Because, if Jesus is going to be ready for what comes next, he's going to have to face temptation. It's worth noting that the first story of Jesus that we have – the Gospel of Mark, which was written 30, maybe 40 years after his death and resurrection, and which is pretty clearly written before Matthew, Luke, and John – the Gospel of Mark, the earliest Gospel written, begins with this story. No story of the birth of Jesus. No Mary and Joseph. No wisemen. Not even the beautiful poetry of the Gospel of John, where Jesus is described as God's Eternal Word, who existed before creation. Mark just says "the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ" and – BAM! – we are in the wilderness with John, watching as Jesus is baptized, and is then driven in to the wilderness. This moment, this experience, it seems, is the foundation, it is the starting point and the cornerstone, of who Jesus is, of what he does, of what comes next.

Jesus goes into the wilderness to be strengthened, to be prepared, for what he is going to face next. And he's going to need all the strength he can get, it seems, because one of the first things Jesus says after returning from the wilderness – "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is Near" – those same words are words that get John the Baptist arrested and killed. Jesus goes into the wilderness, needs to be strengthened, because the journey ahead of him, the mission God has given him, will take everything he's got.

But, let's not get ahead of ourselves. Jesus, having been baptized, is driven into the wilderness, where he fasts for forty days and forty nights – reflecting the 40 days Moses was on the mountain in God's presence, and the 40 days Elijah fasted in the wilderness, seeking God's protection, and the 40 years that Israel spent wandering in the wilderness relying upon God – Jesus fasts for 40 days and 40 nights, and at the end of his time, he is famished. Be honest, how often do temptations seize upon you when you are stretched thing – hungry – or hangry – tired, overworked, anxious, worn thin – Jesus is at the end of his rope, he doesn't have much left in the tank, and that's precisely when the devil shows up.

Jesus, on the brink of his mission, about to go out and proclaim God's Kingdom, is confronted with the same temptation that we face whenever we are confronted by God's Kingdom, by God's presence, by God's way of being in the world. It's the temptation to see God's Kingdom, to see God, through what one author has called "the narrow lens of our own interests and aims." It's the temptation to love what God can do for us more than we love God. It's the temptation to be more interested in the gifts God gives than in who God is.

The question we are asked is whether we love God's Kingdom – God's community of welcome and love, God's peaceable way of being in the world, God's radical, upside-down, boundary breaking love – do we love all of that for its own sake, do we love God for God's own sake? Or, do we simple think of God, of God's people, of God's way of being as a way to get what we want?

When Jesus rejects the temptation of bread, he says that God is more than just a tool for our own prosperity. God is not a formula – God is not some magic cosmic vending machine, where if we just input the right codes, say the right prayers, have enough faith, God will magically give us whatever we want – health, wealth, whatever so-called blessings we want for ourselves. Those things aren't necessarily bad, in their own right, but they are not the point, and God does not exist to give those things to us.

When Jesus rejects the temptation to throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple, he says that God is more than just a way to get famous – after all, if you jump from the busiest and holiest spot in town and somehow survive, you're going to get a bit of a cult following – and he also says that God is more than just a tool for our safety, our protection. We want God to keep us safe, always. I know that I certainly pray for the safety of my loved ones quite frequently. And, again, that's OK. But if that's all we think God is, we are missing the point. After all, God is the One who calls the followers of Jesus to take risks, to go to dangerous places for the sake of love – God is the One who calls Jesus to give it all away on the cross. The first priority of God's people cannot be safety. The first priority is faithfulness. The first priority is God's radical way of love – a love that includes everybody, always. And love is always risky. Love is never safe.

So, Jesus puts God above prosperity. He puts God above safety. And, in rejecting the final temptation, he puts God above power. Power is not evil – power is a tool that can be used for good or for ill. It takes power to feed the hungry, and to free the unjustly imprisoned, and to fight against the powers of racism and white supremacy and injustice. Power is necessary. But, when power is about promoting our own self-interest, without regard for others – when we seek to put ourselves above the needs of others and above God – when power is used for that, power is evil. And, so, Jesus rejects this temptation. He will only worship God – not power, and not the One who promises him a life of comfort and ease and control.

And, having rejected the final temptation, out here in the wilderness, in this place where God's people have so often met God, been formed and equipped through testing and temptation, Jesus rests, and is waited upon by angels. He takes a breath, he drinks some water, maybe has a snack. Now he's ready – ready for what's next, ready for the Spirit to drive him forward into the rest of his ministry, into the work God has ahead of him. He departs into his ministry, and we are told that the devil departs as well – the devil lies in wait, waiting for the right time to test Jesus again.

The question Jesus answer here is one that we have to answer all the time: do we love God for who God is, or for what God can do for us? Would we love God even if it was inconvenient, even if it was heart-breaking, even if we didn't seem to get anything out of it? This is a question Jesus needs to answer, because it is the question he will face when he is arrested, put on trial, put to death on the cross. All he needs to do, he is told, is walk away, stop teaching, stop proclaiming God's Kingdom, stop welcoming all these outcasts, stop putting God's upside-down Kingdom of Love into action – just deny it all, and he will be free, he won't have to die. But, when it comes to that moment, he has already been tested. When the devil returns, tempting him, through the voice of the crowds, and the accusations of the chief priests, and the offers of the Roman authorities – when the devil tempts Jesus, at the end, to walk away from it all, to be faithless – Jesus already knows how he will answer, because he has already made up his mind, he has already passed the test in the wilderness. Jesus chooses faithfulness, and he invites us, his followers, to do the same.

As we enter into this season of Lent, each of us is invited to test ourselves. One way of understanding Lent is as a time when we are in solidarity with Jesus. We choose to be tested – in small ways, giving up foods we like, choosing to pray more or giving away money to folks who are in need – we choose to be tested in little ways, as a way of remembering and identifying with the Jesus who passed the ultimate test, who was tempted and tested for our sake. We choose to practice little deaths – the death of our cravings, the death of some of our preferences for a few weeks – to remember the One who went all the way to death for us. We choose to step into deeper forms of faithfulness – intentional study, prayer, fasting, reading Scripture, simply paying more attention to God's presence in the world – in order to grow in the likeness of the One who was always faithful, the One who always passed the test. Lent is a time of testing, when we are tested – as Jesus was tested – when we choose to experience small temptations, so that we are more prepared when the big temptations come. We choose to be tested and formed, so that we are ready – as Jesus was ready – to answer God's call, to join in the work of Jesus, proclaiming the love and mercy of God.

But, even more than that – even more than the things we choose to do or the ways we choose to grow during Lent – more than that, Lent is about Jesus. It is about remembering the One who is faithful even when we are not. Lent is about the road that Jesus walked – through temptation, and suffering, and despair, and even death. Jesus walked that road so that when we fail to walk it, when we get it wrong, when we give in to temptation – our failure doesn’t get the final word. So, hear this Good News: if you don't give up anything Lent, or take on anything for Lent; if your discipline fails and you try but just can't do it; if you use God as a means to an end, even though you know you shouldn't – no matter how faithless we are, Jesus Christ is the faithful One. Jesus Christ passed the test, so that we may be welcomed into God's Kingdom, even when we fail.

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