Sermon Ideas For Mark 1:9-15 Part 1
Baptism...by water and by Spirit...unambiguous and overwhelming heavenly affirmation. What a solid beginning for new life of faith and the launching of public ministry! We do not know whether Jesus had anguish and doubt before taking this first step, which paralleled the anguish in the Garden of Gethsamane before the final step. We do know that he waited until the age of 30. In any case, whether hard or easy, the decision is now made, the call has been answered, and the commitment has received spectacular ratification from heaven. How we can wish our own beginnings were so unambiguously confirmed--to resolve any lingering ambiguity, to render the future focused and assured, to launch a new career with confidence.
"`Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased.'" Surely the next verse will report that "Jesus immediately began preaching and healing, to the acclaim of the multitudes." But Mark says no such thing. Instead, he reports Jesus dispatched to the wilderness for a forty-day bout with Satan and wild beasts. What a disrupting intrusion into the momentum begun with the baptism!
Just as disrupting as encountering Noah, immediately after receiving God's rainbow covenant, in a scene of shamefully drunken nakedness (Gen 9). Just as disrupting as the Hebrew people, having finally escaped slavery in Egypt with the precarious crossing of the Red Sea, then looking around and finding themselves in parched desert (Ex 15).
This is too much like our own experience. We make breakthroughs to new beginnings, thinking the struggle is now surely passed and the path ahead finally open. Instead we find ourselves in totally unexpected and totally disrupting wildernesses. At work, I struggle for a promotion, a new assignment, for a new program or system to be adopted, for a new computer, a new secretary, a new boss;this will be the breakthrough that finally gets my life on track. But the new program or new assistant, or whatever, turns out to make its own problems and keep me even further off track, and in the wilderness. The adolescent anguishes towards marriage and/or a career choice and/or some semblance of a settled religious faith and/or getting a different President elected. She thinksthis will get lifepast its wilderness stage and finally launched, only to discover that marriage and career and religious seriousness and the new President bring their own unexpected wildernesses and intense face-to-face encounters with wild beasts and Satan. Life begins at 40, we say, or when the children are out of diapers, or out of college, or when we can buy our own house, or when we can get voting rights legislation passed. But the life that then begins has its own share of unexpected stress and uncertainty, fully as much wilderness as it is promised land.
But, if it is startling for Jesus to move from the exalted moment of baptism to the torment of wilderness, there is something still more startling in Mark's account: It was the Spirit who drove him there. What seems to us contradiction of the exalting moment of baptism is, in God's perspective, a continuation of it. The Spirit who blessed at the Jordan also blesses by sending into the wilderness. It was in the wilderness, as Matthew and Luke tell us, that Jesus was forced to make resolute confirmation of God's radical intention for his life and his commitment to that call. If he had skipped the wilderness and moved immediately from baptism to preaching, he would have known less well what the baptism meant and would have carried less focus and resource into his preaching and healing. The Hebrew people forged their identity as a people in the rigors of 40 years in the wilderness. It was from Sinai that they could look back to Passover and Exodus with new meaning. It was from Sinai that they could, at last, move into the promised land with sureness. The rainbow promise (Gen 9) means nothing except as part of the devastating experience of Flood. The rhythms of baptism are the correct symbol: First deep into the depth and momentary death,then up into new life.
The meaning of goals we aspire to but seem to find thwarted, is far more than we can imagine until after we go through our own testing in the wildernesses they bring. The unexpected and unwanted difficulties of adjusting into marriage, career, political action, child-raising, schooling, whatever, may be gifts of the Spirit. They enrich our understanding of our own aspirations and our capacity to make the most of them.
But, just as the baptism without the wilderness would be incomplete, so would the wilderness without the baptism be impossible. The gospels are right to insist on both together.
To be able to appreciate the trials as gift, we need to make just the surrender that baptism symbolizes. We need to surrender our own fears and pride, our own sense that we can and must control our own lives, asserting our own destiny and therefore defining anything that impedes our plans as evil. We must be as open as Lent can make us to the new things that god has in mind for us. This is our perpetual call to repentance, conversion, to the surrender to God's call with baptism symbolizes.
This surrender is also surrender to affirmation. Jesus prevailed in the wilderness and returned from it strengthened because he went into the wilderness and returned from it strengthened because he went into the wilderness knowing himself Beloved Son, with whom God is well pleased. And we may know our portion of that blessing too, if we will, the gracious blessing that yields the wilderness a time of blessing, too.
The gospel lesson causes us to underline certain words in the Psalm (Common, Episcopal) for today: "Make me to know thy ways, O Lord...[The Lord] leads thehumble in what is right...Allthe paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep covenant..." (Ps 25:4, 9, 10).
James E. Dittes