Baptism And Wilderness
The text for this first Sunday in the season of Lent is the account of Jesus' baptism in the first chapter of The Gospel According to Mark, and there are three things in this account to which I wish to call your attention.
The first is that Jesus' new beginning in the refreshing waters of the Jordan is followed straightway by his harassment in the desert.
The second is that it was God who drove him out there.
The third is that it was God who took care of him while he was out there.
You know, when I read this story about Jesus going through the water and about forty days and about sudden and unexpected struggles or hardships, I begin to realize that this is an old, old story which I have heard in other versions.
I remember this good man who was chosen by God to be the progenitor of a new human race. He built a boat for himself and his family and representatives of all other living creatures. For forty days they went through the rainwaters of a great flood. Then the sun came out, the rainbow appeared, and Noah stepped out on dry land. We are ready to hear how he went about laying the foundation for the new world order, and what we hear instead is how he succumbed to the weakness of the flesh and fell into a state of drunken nakedness.
Then I remember another story about later descendants of Noah who had fallen into bondage in Egypt. I remember the dramatic account of how they escaped to a new life of freedom through the waters of the Red Sea. I am ready to hear how they entered the Promised Land and there enjoyed the life of which they had dreamed. What I hear instead is how they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, rather than forty days, wondering from day to day what they were going to eat and drink and whether they should have left Egypt in the first place.
Now here is Jesus being baptized in the waters of the Jordan at the beginning of his ministry. I am ready to hear of the power and effectiveness with which he then carried out that ministry. Instead, I hear that he spent the next forty days in the wilderness being be deviled and pestered.
But I know this story more recently and personally than that.
The first summer I went to YMCA Camp near Winston-Salem I had to stay in the little shallow area of the lake roped off for non-swimmers, like me. The next summer I was a swimmer and was looking forward to being admitted to the deep water area which had, not only a dock with a diving board, but a floating dock to which you could swim and from which you could jump and dive. To my chagrin, I discovered that before you could enjoy that privilege you had to swim all the way out to that floating dock and back without stopping. It was a scary ordeal. I struggled out and back, swallowing water as I went. When I finally grabbed the ladder at the dock where I had begun, my head was just above the surface of the water. I looked under the dock. There, curled up on one of the floats supporting the dock was a big black snake staring at me. It seemed like forty years passed before I could get my feet in gear to get up that ladder.
Tom got an offer of a job with a large corporation in April. Feeling great, he went through the baptism of his college graduation in May. In June he reported to work, anticipating rapid promotion and wondering how clear and exhilarating the air was going to be halfway up the company ladder. Eighteen months later he was wondering where he was going to get the motivation and energy to keep on doing the tedious, repetitive tasks they were assigning him as a management trainee. Every day was beginning to feel like it was forty hours long.
Did you ever go through the exciting, painful, wondrous experience of childbirth, either as a mother or father, and find yourself wondering six months later how parenthood could be so much more demanding, time-consuming and exhausting than you had ever imagined?
I have two brothers who are lawyers in Charlotte, North Carolina. One of them, who was very involved in school activities with children, was persuaded some years ago by friends and neighbors that he owed something to the system in return for what his kids had gotten from it. At their urging, he finally agreed to be a candidate for the Mecklenburg County School Board. He said that his bubble of pride and satisfaction at that decision was popped that very evening when he got a phone call from a total stranger suggesting he was getting into the race for some kind of personal gain. It was the first of numerous hostile calls which followed over the next few years after his election. From the euphoria of the "baptism" experience he suddenly found himself out in the "wilderness."
We think that life is really going to begin when the children are out of diapers or when they have all finished college or when we finally buy our own house or when we get our new computer system installed or when our party wins at the polls. But what we discover is that the life which begins at these places is followed by as much uncertainty and by as many problems as the life which preceded them. To our chagrin we find that we are in the wilderness, not the Promised Land.
What is worse, those of us who are believers often have this strong sense that it is not accidental. It is as though someone has put us there, and we have a strong suspicion about who that Someone is.
In Jesus' case it is not a matter of suspicion. Mark says in verse 12, "The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness." By "the Spirit" he means the Holy Spirit, God. And we begin to be aware, as we reflect on the whole story, that the challenges of the devil and the harassments of the wild beasts deepened and hardened Jesus' commitment to the life to which he had been baptized. It gave him added strength to withstand the stronger temptations later in Gethsemane and to face the mob clamoring like wild beasts for his crucifixion.
The Israelites, as it turns out, were also in the wilderness for a purpose, the purpose of learning what it meant to live in a covenant relationship with God. From Mt. Sinai they were able to look back with more understanding to their deliverance through the sea and to look forward with more confidence to their life in the Promised Land.
Any lingering fear that I had of swimming in the deep water at Camp Hanes was dispelled by that qualifying ordeal of swimming to the floating dock and back. I knew that I had the ability and stamina to make it to a safe place anywhere in the area.
Getting an early understanding of what parenthood is really all about prepares you for what may be more stringent parental challenges ahead.
To learn that there are no office systems which are glitch free should help you be a better manager.
Learning how to take the heat as a trainee or as candidate will help you take the greater heat as a vice-president or incumbent.
It seems that when we put ourselves in God's hands God sees to it that we get what we need rather than what we want.
Perhaps you remember this testimony of a Confederate Soldier:
I asked God for strength,
that I might achieve,
I was made weak,
that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health,
that I might do greater things,
I was given infirmity,
that I might do better things.
I asked for riches,
that I might be happy,
I was given poverty,
that I might be wise.
I asked for power,
that I might have the praise of men,
I was given weakness,
that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things,
that I might enjoy life,
I was given life,
that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for -
but everything I had hoped for.
Almost despite myself,
my unspoken prayers were answered.
I am among all men,
most richly blessed.
(An Unknown Confederate Soldier)
More prosaically, James E. Dittes of Yale Divinity School makes the point this way:
"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 wilderness they bring. The unexpected and unwanted difficulties of adjusting to 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."
And that leads to the third point. If it is true that baptism without the wilderness is incomplete, it is equally true that enduring in the wilderness without the baptism would be impossible.
Jesus was able to withstand the devilment and the harassment (and ultimately, awful pain and horrible death) because he knew that the Spirit who came to him in love and in power at his baptism was in him and with him during his wilderness times as well. Our text puts it this way: "He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him."
The Israelites were able at last to enter the Promised Land against great odds because they trusted that the God who had brought them safely through the waters of the Red Sea would bring them successfully through the waters of the Jordan.
If you know that you belong to a loving, patient and powerful God, you can make it, scarred perhaps but intact, not only through forty diapers a week and an equal number of assorted demands at inopportune times of the day and night; you can also make it through a later period when the one who was in diapers is now on the phone forty minutes at a time and listening to music as one hundred and forty decibels.
If the baptism of a baby or the knowledge that you yourself have been baptized can move you to open your heart to the loving Spirit of God who is always with you, you can keep on working at your job even when the promotion does not come or the new opportunity does not open up or the loose ends in your area of responsibility never get gathered up.
If you know that you have been baptized into God, who is working out his reconciling purposes in the world, you can walk without anger and without discouragement (or at least without despair) through a desert in which your own political and moral views may not be widely shared.
If you know that yours is the head upon which life-giving water is continually being poured (even though you cannot see it) and in whose heart a spring of water is always welling up (even though you are sometimes thirsty), you will have the courage and stamina and hope which you need for the forty days or forty years of wilderness which may stand between you and the Promised Land.
J. Harold McKeithen, Jr.
Hidenwood Presbyterian Church
Newport News, VA