Saturday, 20 February 2010

The First Sunday of Lent: Baptism and the Wilderness


Romans 10:8-13

‘The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart’ (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart and so is justified, and one confesses with the mouth and so is saved. The scripture says, ‘No one who believes in him will be put to shame.’ For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’

Luke 4:1-13
The Temptation of Jesus

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written, “One does not live by bread alone.” ’

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, ‘To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered him, ‘It is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written,
“He will command his angels concerning you,
to protect you”,
“On their hands they will bear you up,
so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.” ’
Jesus answered him, ‘It is said, “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.” ’ When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.


Today we in the first Sunday of Lent, and this is a good time to consider the meaning of our baptism in the context of the passage about the temptations that Jesus went through. Now why, you may be wondering, should we consider our baptisms in the context of Jesus being tempted? It’s all down to the context, because immediately before this passage we have the narrative concerning the baptism of Jesus.

What I’d like to do with this is to consider the similarities and the differences between Jesus’s baptism and ours, and we’re going to start with the differences. In fact ‘difference’ doesn’t really go far enough, because in one very important way the baptism of Jesus was completely opposite to our baptism.

That seems a little extreme because when we think of opposites we think of things like black versus white, or up versus down, or good versus evil. How on earth could Jesus’s baptism be the opposite of ours if baptism is about washing clean?

So what is baptism about for us? It contains the symbol of being washed clean. In some churches, as it was in the time of Jesus, baptisms are done by the whole person being fully immersed in the water. They come up out of the water just dripping with it. There is also a sense of the death of the old person drowning under the water, and the person that emerges is full of the resurrected life of Jesus.

And of course it is also a sacrament which means it is an outward and visible sign of something that God is doing within us, that he is joining us to himself, much like he joins a married couple together in their vows and love making. So for us, when we are baptised our old sinful life is washed away and we are born into new life in Christ.

But for Jesus it was the reverse of that. Our baptism is about the leaving behind of our sinful life and our birth into the new life of Christ, but for Jesus his baptism was about leaving behind his free life of heavenly perfection and his acceptance of our burden in human life. If you like, we are set free in baptism, but Jesus declared himself shackled to us.

For Jesus in the river Jordan, as he went down into the water he was leaving behind his freedom and when he came up out of the water he was accepting the burden of being one of us and representing us. So in that important way Jesus’s baptism was the opposite of ours. Ours is about freedom; his was about shackling.

But there are also a lot of similarities between our baptism and Jesus’s baptism, and these are the ones which can spur us on into Lent. So we’ll consider them next. Now similarities are much harder to explore than opposites. There’s normally only one answer for an opposite, but for similarities there may be quite a range. For example turquoise is similar to both blue and green. And an ocean is similar to a sea, a lake or a river.

The first similarity is that following Jesus’s baptism, he was led by the Spirit, and the same thing is true for us in our baptisms. It’s more difficult because we are not as in-tune with the Holy Spirit as he was, and that’s why we should learn to listen. So that’s my first lent tip for you. Over the next few weeks, why not promise God that you will spend some time in quiet with him everyday.

Another similarity is that being baptised won’t make life any easier for us either. If we were to look at Mark’s Gospel we would find that it says not that Jesus was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, but that he was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness. That’s not the kind of driving where we sit in the passenger seat while the Holy Spirit does all the driving!

No, it is much more like we are the horse pulling the load, and the Holy Spirit is the one in the cart yanking the reins and urging us on. And sometimes life as a Christian is like that. Many of us know those times where we are taken into a place that is hard and spiritually challenging, where we are forced to question what it is we are meant to be doing with our lives.

That wilderness that we go through is similar to the wilderness that Jesus went through. I won’t go into it here, but if you look in detail at each of the temptations it becomes clear that he is being challenged about his motivations and how he will conduct himself and his ministry. As baptised Christians we will also have to go through the same thing, and we also have a responsibility to guide others through the spiritual wildernesses as they are driven by the Holy Spirit into them.

How we approach the difficult times is often a mark of a Christian. We can moan and complain about them or we can learn from them, and here is the final and perhaps most important similarity. Jesus learned obedience from temptation, and he conducted his ministry as he said he would. We can also learn obedience, but it sometimes helps us if we make efforts to be more consciously aware of our spirituality. Let me finish with a story to illustrate what I mean.

Therésè of Lisieux entered a convent as a novice nun at the age of fifteen. She died only nine years later of tuberculosis at the age of only twenty four. As she lay dying a nun said, ‘I really can’t imagine what Reverend Mother will have to say about her once she is gone... for she’s never done anything worth the telling.’ But that wasn’t true.

Therésè, like many Christians, had a spiritual director who had told her to keep a prayer diary, a kind of autobiography describing her life of prayer. A year after she died people began to read it. And then they began to pass it around, and as it began to have a huge impact it was published so that even more people could read it.

In 1925 she was declared to be a saint. Now her example was perhaps out of the ordinary, but once again it shows the similarities between us and Jesus. When Jesus left the wilderness there was nothing visible to show for it. There had been no signs and no miracles. Instead there was a patient waiting on God and a refusal to do his own thing.

And so it should be for all of us, following our baptisms. As we head now into the season of Lent, we should pray and expect to be taken into the wilderness. So why don’t you keep a private diary of the experience, and see what the Holy Spirit teaches you. Why not make that your spiritual discipline, that every day you would seek the Lord in prayer and every day record what happens. Amen.

Roots magazine, Issue 45, Jan-Mar. 2010.

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