Forty Days

February 18, 2018 – First Sunday in Lent/Mark 1:9-15

Theologians like to engage in discussion about why Jesus needed to be baptized.  It’s kind of like asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.  John the Baptist called for people to repent and be baptized.  If Jesus was without sin, then why would he need to be baptized?  Why would he need to repent?  I don’t get tangled up in those kinds of debates.  For me it’s pretty clear that there was something else going on in Jesus’ baptism – something quite different from what was happening with all of those other people John dipped into the waters of the Jordan.

Just look at what happens as Jesus comes up out of the water.  He sees the heavens torn apart, and the Spirit settles on him as gentle as a dove.  And he hears a voice out of heaven – presumably the voice of God – claiming him.  “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Jesus’ baptism was very different from all those other baptisms John did.  No one else experienced the breaking apart of the heavens or the appearance of the Holy Spirit – or the voice of the LORD God Almighty.  No one else but Jesus.  And certainly, no one else experienced what happened next.  That Spirit that had settled so gently upon Jesus as a dove drove him out into the wilderness.

The Greek captures more of the intensity of that act of the Spirit.  The Spirit expelled Jesus; the Spirit cast him out, removed him from society, banished him into the wilderness.

We don’t hear about any of John’s other disciples being thrown out into the wilderness.  After their baptisms, life continued somewhat as usual, though perhaps with a little more thoughtfulness, a little more effort not to sin again.  But Jesus?  The Spirit threw him into the wilderness – immediately, Mark says.  No time for signing a certificate of baptism.  No time for family pictures.  No time for a special meal or reception to recognize the newly baptized.  No – Jesus is immediately cast out into the wilderness.

And there he stays for forty days.

Mark doesn’t give us any particulars about what happened during those forty days.  He says only that Jesus was tempted by Satan, surrounded by wild beasts, and waited on by angels.

When he finally returns, he begins proclaiming the good news of God.  “The time has come!  God’s kingdom will soon be here.  Turn back to God and believe the good news!” (Mark 9:15, CEB)

Jesus goes into the waters of the Jordan as a man from Nazareth, and he emerges shaking the water out of his hair and wiping it from his eyes with a “unique sense of God-given identity and affirmation, followed by an overwhelming sense of God driving him into the wilderness for an extended period of spiritual struggle.”[1]  When he returned from the wilderness, he was changed yet again – gifted with the power of God and preaching a revolutionary new message.

Jesus’ baptism changes him, and his wilderness experience refines him.  “Such is the transforming power of the Spirit in the Bible.  When Spirit comes, one is changed and, in Mark’s theology, set on the road of discipleship to the cross.”[2]

The disciples limp along behind, never quite understanding what this Jesus is up to.  They see something of God’s glory settle upon him at the transfiguration, but they remain unable to understand the meaning of Jesus’ coming crucifixion and resurrection.  “The disciples fix their eyes on human greatness all the way to Jerusalem.”[3]  Therein lies the problem – for them and for us.  “Unless we are willing to let old identities dissolve and allow ourselves to be shaped into crucifixion-resurrection disciples, our sense of divine vocation is fraught with demonic potential.”[4]  All the way to the cross, the disciples will rebel against Jesus’ coming suffering and crucifixion.  All the way to the cross, they will struggle to come to grips with what it really means to be a disciple.  All the way to the cross, they will stumble and fall.

Watching the disciples in Mark’s Gospel, we see that our forty-day Lenten journey actually extends throughout our Christian life.  Like those early disciples, we will believe and doubt, trust and falter, follow and turn back time and time again.  We will have to wrestle “for God’s meaning afresh every day.”[5]

When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan, something fundamental in him changed.  Or maybe it just expanded.  Maybe, coming up out of the waters, hearing the voice of his heavenly father calling out to him – “Beloved” – confirmed for Jesus the call he always knew was his.  Maybe the forty days in the wilderness didn’t so much transform him into a new being as refine him to claim his place as the Son, the Beloved.

Something like that happens in our baptisms, as well.  As the waters drip into our eyes and run off our heads, we, too, are claimed as beloved children of God.  We, too, are “empowered to live and serve in newness of life.”[6]  The Apostle Paul writes, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4).

In the liturgy of the church, we affirm this call with these words: “In baptism, God claims us, and seals us to show that we belong to God.”  We will declare to the newly baptized, “Child of the covenant, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.”  Jesus is God’s beloved Son, but we, too, are sons and daughters of God.  We have been claimed – marked – by the waters of baptism.  Just as Jesus emerged from the waters and the wilderness to claim his identity as the Son of God, we also “have been given a name, an identity, and a worth and dignity as human beings that is rooted and grounded in the eternal, unconditional, unalterable being and love of God.”[7]

Thanks be to God the Father, Jesus Christ the Beloved Son, and the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] Rodney J. Hunter, Feasting on the Word, B/2, 46

[2] Ibid.

[3] Marilyn McCord Adams, Feasting on the Word, B/2, 48

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Hunter, 48

[7] Ibid.


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