February 21, 2021
Each year on the first Sunday in Lent we hear about Jesus heading out into the wilderness. I say Jesus “headed out” into the wilderness, but that’s not really accurate. We’re told the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. The Greek means “threw him out,” as if the Holy Spirit hurled Jesus out there like a fastball thrown when the pitcher is really getting warmed up.
We get the feeling that this time in the wilderness is not going to be a spa retreat for Jesus. And it isn’t. He’s out there for 40 days, where he has the delightful experience of being tempted by Satan. The other gospel accounts go into greater detail about what the specific temptations that Satan serves up, but the Gospel of Mark is brief and to the point, leaving us to imagine how Satan taunted Jesus throughout those long days. What did Satan try to offer that would be better than being the Son of God?
This year I kept thinking about two details: that Jesus was out there in the wilderness with the wild beats, and that the angels waited on him. What was it like for him to face – in addition to Satan – the snarls and pacing of those wild animals who might have looked at him like he was a juicy morsel served up exclusively for their dinner? What was it like for Jesus, as he struggled with all kinds of dangers, to receive the tender mercies of the angels who cared for him?
When we read this story on the first Sunday in Lent each year, I always think about my internship in southern Arizona. My own year in the high desert offers up some very particular images of wild beasts. I think immediately of the javelina, those medium-sized animals that look like wild pigs. They’re not technically pigs, but they have some sharp-looking teeth and always look at you as if they’d like to tear you to shreds. And they usually travel in groups, so when you’re staring at eight to ten of them at the same time, they can be pretty intimidating.
Truth be told, the javelina aren’t really that dangerous. They mostly eat plants – agave, mesquite beans, prickly pear. While they have been known to go after dogs, that’s most likely a response to years of being hunted by coyotes. Usually if a javelina gets aggressive, it’s because it thinks that someone or something is a threat to their young. The same could be said for many of you. So for all the time I spent worrying about the javelina, I probably should have been more worried about the rattlesnakes and the scorpions.
My angels that year were many. A supervisor who spent countless hours showing me what it means to be a pastor. All the parishioners who enthusiastically participated in the different endeavors I cooked up as an intern that year – and helped me figure out which ones worked and which ones didn’t. The colleagues in town who shared their wisdom. No matter how overwhelmed I felt or how impossible a situation seemed, there was someone – usually several someones – ready with a word of encouragement, a prayer, or a baked good.
That’s how the wilderness works, I think. In the wilderness times we don’t have any expectation that life will be safe or easy. We know from experience that it won’t. Sometimes we feel the threats breathing down our necks, and at other times we feel a constant hum of anxiety like a low-grade fever. It’s hard to feel calm and safe in the wilderness.
Each Lent we enter a figurative wilderness. We commit to spending some time over these forty days really grappling with how much we need God – how much we need God’s sustenance in the difficult times, how much we need God’s forgiveness for all that we have done and left undone, how much we need God’s resurrection hope.
In many ways the Lenten wilderness doesn’t feel so figurative this year. We’re coming up on a full year of pandemic disruption in our lives, and even though we technically finished the season of Lent last year, it kind of feels like we just stayed in it – stayed in that place of fear and vulnerability that is like gasping for water in the desert.
I want you to think about what your wild beasts are in the wilderness of this year. What’s got you scared? What’s scratching at your door? What do you wish you could chase away so it would just leave you alone? Or what feels like Satan whispering in your ear, trying to persuade you that you are not worthy of love just as you are?
Some of our wild beasts are like the javelina. They look more threatening than they actually are. But some of them are like a scorpion that hides in a shoe. You don’t see them coming until the pain radiates through you.
When the pain comes, we need our angels. So what about yours? Who or what are your sources of support when you are feeling gripped by fear or worry or anger or despair? To whom might you need to reach out right now to hear a word of encouragement? To ask for a prayer? To be heard without interruption? The angels are all around. They don’t all have wings, but they are waiting to care for us. Sometimes receiving help from the angels can seem harder than fending off the wild beasts, but it is necessary for our survival.
Remember what happens right before Jesus finds himself in the wilderness. He is baptized. He’s baptized by John right there in the river. And then Jesus is hurled straight from that baptismal river into the desert. There was barely a moment to catch his breath from being underwater before he finds himself surrounded by danger and desolation.
That’s how our baptism works too. We should probably be more clear about that during the Service of Holy Baptism. We might say: “Let your light so shine before others that they will see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven. And by the way, life is going to be wonderful and terrible. It’s going to make you laugh until your sides hurt and then turn around and break your heart. But you will be held by God in all of it. You will never be alone.”
Baptism is what saves us from the wild beasts. We can face them down with confidence because God has torn open the heavens to be with us and tells us again and again, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased. I have claimed your life, and no matter what happens, I will not let the wild beasts win.”
At University Lutheran Chapel in Berkeley, California, there are some words from a former pastor, the Rev. Gustav H. Schultz, inscribed on the window above the baptismal font. Rev. Schultz said: “Baptism is intended to acquaint us with a ‘brush with death’ so that following baptism we know that we can live out the risk of being faithful.”[i]
I love that. Baptism as a brush with death. We can live out the risk of being faithful, not because we are extraordinarily brave, but because we are extraordinarily loved. Loved by a God who has also known wilderness and will not leave us to face the wild beasts alone. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] Thank you to the Rev. Jeff Johnson for reminding me about that detail in “Preaching Helps” found in Currents in Theology and Mission 48:1 (January 2021)
Raise your hand if you haven’t slept very well this week. Raise your hand if you’ve watched more hours of news than you know is healthy. Raise your hand if you eventually managed to turn off your devices and sleep but still felt – still feel – a constant hum of anxiety moving through your body.
I’m right there with you. I don’t have a magic pastor blanket that I can wrap around me to keep away those fears and worries. I’ve had more than one night this week when I woke up in the middle of the night and tossed and turned. I tried praying, though the prayers mostly came out like fragments of questions that we hear in the psalms: Why, God? Why? How long, O Lord, how long will this go on? I know God hears what I’m trying to say in those jumbled prayers, but it can still take a while to fall asleep again.
Sometimes I’ll get up in those restless hours for a drink of water. Something so basic and necessary – water. Water that cleanses, water that nourishes, water that keeps us alive. It’s why we use water for baptism – because it is at once so ordinary and so vital.
The story of Jesus’ baptism is the very first story we hear about him in the gospel of Mark. There’s nothing here about Mary and Joseph. No angels. No shepherds. No wise men. Not in these opening verses. Instead, right out of the gate we meet this strange character of John the Baptist, who has tons of people flocking out to the wilderness. And for what? To confess their sins. To be baptized. To hear John talk about this more powerful person who is coming soon. It doesn’t exactly sound like Disney World, but people are coming to the wilderness from throughout the Judean countryside, including from the city of Jerusalem. What would make people leave the relative safety of the city and head out to the desert?
We learn both in scripture and in our own lives that we can’t always predict what places are safe and what places are dangerous. You think the solid structures of Jerusalem will be safe, until you realize that by the time the gospel of Mark is written down, the Romans have destroyed the Jewish temple. You think the Capital building in Washington, D.C. will be safe, well-guarded. Until an armed mob finds its ways inside and wreaks havoc in places you thought were sacred. You assume the wilderness is wild and dangerous. And it can be. But it can also be a place where something new happens. The wilderness can offer a pathway to redemption, an encounter with the living God in the waters of the river.
As promised by John, Jesus shows up out there in the wilderness. He is baptized by John in the river Jordan, and what happens next is important. Just as Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are torn apart, and the Spirit descends like a dove on Jesus.
The word that the author of Mark’s gospel chooses here is important. Torn apart. The gospels of Matthew and Luke say simply that the heavens opened. But the gospel of Mark describes the heavens being torn apart. Mark uses the Greek word schizo – from which we get words like schizophrenic or schism. It suggests something more unsettling, more disruptive to the way things have been before that moment. It’s not like opening a door and then closing it, which doesn’t really change things all that much. This is a rending open that says things will not return to their usual state.
What’s happening in this moment is that God does not intend to maintain some kind of careful distance between God and us. God is about crossing boundaries and borders, saying, “I have come to love you up close. And I refuse to let you stay mired in a life of sin. I’m offering you a new way to be, a new way to live, a new way to love.”
I needed that reminder this week. I needed to remember that there is a profound difference between human disruptions and God’s holy disruptions. We saw this week that human disruptions often lead to destruction – not just of property, but of lives. People killed, people traumatized, people huddled behind locked doors and calling family members to say “I love you” because they are convinced that they’re about to die. The very fabric of our democratic process threatened. I will leave it to the historians and the political scientists to provide certain kinds of analysis of what happened on Wednesday. What I can speak to is what happened theologically.
This week we saw idolatry up close. Many of the people in that mob call themselves Christian, only they’ve decided to regard politicians as their savior instead of Jesus. Make no mistake: Putting Jesus’ name on a sign does not make a person a follower of Jesus, especially if that person demeans and endangers Jewish people, black and brown people, immigrants, LGBTQ people, and anyone else who doesn’t fit their self-proclaimed ideal.
We don’t have time this morning to untangle all the ways that what happened Wednesday is rooted in those hatreds, but the name for it is Christian nationalism. In simplistic terms it merges a worship of God with a worship of country, and that’s where the trouble begins. Because God never tells us to worship a country. You might recall that the very first commandment is “I am the Lord your God. You shall have no other gods before me.”
It’s easy to look at the participants in Wednesday’s mob and say, “I would never do something so terrible.” And you probably wouldn’t. It’s also easy to look at what happened and feel helpless. What can I do about it?
We have seen so clearly this week that human disruptions are destructive and dangerous. So where, then, do God’s holy disruptions lead us? What happens when the heavens are torn open and God meets us in this mess of our own making? Where does God lead us? Not to safety, necessarily.
After his own baptism, Jesus is sent into the wilderness to be tempted and tormented by Satan for 40 days. Baptism leads to a direct confrontation with evil.
In baptism God gives us the gift of forgiveness and the promise of eternal life. Which in turn gives us freedom…
The freedom to confront the sin that we find, both within ourselves and in the world around us.
The freedom to reject some cheap version of unity and to pursue instead the hard work of addressing what divides us and why.
The freedom to stand with and for all of the people that Wednesday’s mob would rather harm or kill.
The freedom to follow Jesus over those boundaries that he is always crossing, trusting that he alone is our source of life and hope.
You may recall that in our Lutheran baptism service, right before we say the Creed together, we go through three questions one after the other that are often called the renunciations. This week seems like a good time to repeat them. We ask the person about to be baptized – or the parents, if it’s a baby:
Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God?
Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God?
Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God?
The person responds: I renounce them.
People of God, I’m going to ask you to make those renunciations again this morning. After each question I invite you to say “I renounce them” and, in doing so, to renew your commitment to living your baptismal promises in a world that wants you to worship many other things besides God.
Do you renounce the devil and all the forces that defy God? I renounce them.
Do you renounce the powers of this world that rebel against God? I renounce them.
Do you renounce the ways of sin that draw you from God? I renounce them.
Children of God, may you know God’s presence every day, our God who tears open the heavens to be with us. May you be emboldened by the courage that comes with trusting that Christ sets us free from sin and death. May you be sent out by the Spirit to speak and act in the name of all that is holy. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ