What Happens to Those God Loves? (A Progressive Christian Lectionary Commentary for Feb 26)

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

I

The Gospel reading begins nine verse in to Mark’s Gospels. The previous eight verses describe the ministry of John the Baptizer: his penchant for wandering in the wilderness, his odd wardrobe of camel’s hair, and his unusual diet of locusts and honey.  Most of his conversations took place outside of the mainstream as well. He was known to go around proclaiming, “I have baptized you with water, but [the one who is coming after me] will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

This passage finds us face-to-face with the fulfillment of John’s proclamation: “Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan [River].” According to the Gospel of Mark, this episode is the first recorded event of Jesus’ life. And by most standards, Jesus’ first entrée into the public square succeeds spectacularly, at least at first.

Jesus’ goal seemed simple enough: get baptized by John. But baptism itself was a low bar to cross. John had presided at many baptisms: “People from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to [John to be] baptized.”

The baptism ritual started normally that day: Jesus waded into the Jordan with John. But the ending was unlike another baptism that John or anyone else gathered on the banks had ever witnessed:  “Just as [Jesus] was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” And if the visual effects weren’t enough, A voice came from heaven [saying], ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”

I’ve seen a lot of baptisms. Some, like the baptism of my godsons, were particularly meaningful, but I must confess that even though they are great kids, the heavens did not break open on those occasions.  Now, I truly believe that my godsons are, like everyone of you, a beloved child of God. But it might be reassuring every once in a while to have God proclaim our belovedness from heaven

Or, as the old country song goes, should we be saying, “Thank God for unanswered prayers?” Because when I look at the rest of Jesus’ story, I’m thankful that the heavens didn’t open over either of my godsons’ baptisms. Notice the order of events in Mark. Jesus is obedient in following God’s call to baptism. He is declared to be God’s Beloved Son in whom God is well pleased. Then, in the very next verse, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” The honeymoon ended quickly.

Since their baptisms, my godsons have grown. They now go to school, are increasingly independent, and have been on campouts, but  I don’t think that either of them are ready for the Spirit to drive them out into the wilderness — baptism or no baptism.

Sometimes I wonder what this scene from Jesus’ life might be like from the perspective of a recent high school graduate. You’ve earned a degree that you’ve been working towards your whole life. Lots of people are congratulating you. You’re hoping the good times and the graduation presents will continue for as long as possible. But what if instead of a walking out your front door and finding a brand new car with a big red ribbon wrapped around it, you get a different consolation prize: a one-way ticket to the “wilderness [for] forty days,” where you will be “tempted by Satan” and be at one “with the wild beasts.”  Sorry to disappoint.

Why the desert sands immediately after the glorious proclamation of Jesus as God’s own beloved? What exactly is in store for those God loves? Perhaps we can find a clue by continuing to read in Mark.  After Jesus’ sojourn in the desert, the next verse says, “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

In the Gospel according to Mark, it seems that the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert as a time of preparation.  Jesus went into the desert after humbly submitting himself to baptism by John.  Jesus emerged from the desert forty days later confidently proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God.

For a contrast to Mark’s Gospel which begins with Jesus as an adult, some of you may have heard of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. This non-canonical Gospel details events in Jesus’ childhood. In all likelihood, the stories in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas are not historically accurate, but they are fascinating nonetheless. They present hypothetical scenarios of  how Jesus spent the approximately three decades life before his baptism.

Listen to this story from chapter thirteen of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas:

Now [Jesus’] father was a carpenter, and at that time he used to make plows and yokes. He received an order from a certain rich man to make a bed. But when the measurement for one of the beautiful crossbeams came out too short, he did not know what to do. The child Jesus said to his father Joseph, “Place the two pieces of wood on the floor and line them up from the middle to one end.” Joseph did just as the child said. Then Jesus stood at the other end, grabbed the shorter board, and starched it out to make it the same length as the other. His father Joseph saw what he had done and was amazed. He embraced the child and gave him a kiss, saying, “I am blessed that God has given me this child.”

Even if that story is apocryphal, the tale makes for an interesting conjecture that Jesus would’ve made one heck of a carpenter. And perhaps for a little over a decade he did serve as a woodworker at Joseph’s side, from his teenage years through his twenties. Again, these non-canonical stories about Jesus’ childhood, although entertaining, are speculation. But perhaps Jesus’ future promise as a carpenter was one of the reasons that the Spirit drove him into the desert for forty days.

Even though both of Jesus’ parents had been visited by angels as a child and told of Jesus’ special vocation, they were still human parents. And, as human parents, it is likely that Mary and Joseph had hopes and dreams for the child they were raising. It is likely that Jesus, who was called “the carpenter’s son,” helped Joseph with his craft, as well as that Joseph treasured these moments and hoped for them to continue for as long as possible.

These idyllic early years are all the more reason that Jesus needed to spend time in the dry, sparse sands of the desert. He needed time and space to hear God’s call over the din of the societal expectations around him. Living with his parents, his life was inevitably aligned with their way and their hopes and dreams for him. Jesus needed time in the desert to align his life with God’s way, with God’s hopes and dreams.

II

On this first Sunday in Lent, for those called to follow the way of Jesus, our invitation is also to the desert.  Jesus’ desert experience seems both transformative and crucial in his life.  But in many circles the spiritual desert of Lent has a bad reputation. Especially for many people who grew up observing Lent, it can be easy to associate the season with empty self-denial.

Lent provides a 40-day preparation for Easter Sunday. But this season is also an annual opportunity in the Christian year to shift your attention away from your own immediate desires and to reorient your focus toward the love of God and neighbor.

We begin our Lenten journey on Ash Wednesday with the imposition of ashes. We smudge a cross on our foreheads to signal our desire to change directions at Lent, to reorient our lives to the way that Jesus walked before us, a way that risks confrontation between God’s way and the ways of the world: a confrontation that can sometimes risks suffering and even death at the hands of those who support the unjust status quo.

The promise of Lent is much more than a burdensome requirement. Lent offers an opportunity, an excuse, even permission for reexamining your life: an annual encouragement and framework not only to ‘give up’ a bad habit in which you perhaps overindulge (sugar, caffeine, alcohol, red meat), but also to take on a spiritual discipline that will cultivate an increased love of God or an increased love of neighbor.

If you haven’t decided what to give up or take on for Lent, it is not too late. Traditional Lenten disciplines include fasting, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, sheltering the homeless, visiting the sick, and visiting the imprisoned. All of these can be done by volunteering with a local nonprofit agency.

But your discipline could be as simple as picking up a Lenten Devotional and prayerfully reading it each morning between now and Easter Sunday.

A more innovative idea for Lent is suggested by pastor Chuck Poole, who writes:

Take one word of the gospels literally as a step toward taking all the words of the gospels seriously. We cannot take all the gospel words literally, nor should we. Jesus frequently employed the language of extremity to make important points, and to take those phrases literally would be disastrous. (If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, etc.) However, there are some words from the gospels that, taken literally, create a spiritual discipline that helps us take the whole gospel seriously.

For example, when it comes to the poor, we could take literally Matthew 5:42, “Give to anyone who begs from you.” (This would require us to always leave home with some money in a pocket designated for those who may ask for help, or with gift cards to a local fast-food restaurant or grocery store.)

Or we could take literally Luke 3:11, “Those who have two coats must give one to someone who has no coat.” (This would require us to give away all but one of our coats.)

These are just a couple of examples of ways to take one gospel word literally as a step toward taking all gospel words seriously. It can be very demanding, so if you feel inclined to try it, keep it simple, specific and focused. For example, try giving to anyone who begs from you for [March].  (If that goes well, you might try something much harder in [April].  Maybe, “love your enemies.”)

Poole’s suggestion is a more challenging discipline for Lent, or for anytime during your spiritual journey.

Even if we take Lent as seriously as we are able, it does not mean that we should beat ourselves up if we don’t emerge from the Lenten desert on Easter Sunday ready to perfectly follow the way of Jesus. But after 40 days of practicing a Lenten discipline, we may find our daily lives more aligned with that narrow gate and hard road that leads to abundant life.

And even if we never succeed in fully living the Jesus way, our attempts are still important. As Roman Catholic priest and New Testament scholar Raymond Brown reminds us: “Jesus’ values must not be forgotten; for when they are put in practice, however seldom, at that moment and in that place God’s kingdom has been made a reality.”

Incarnating the kingdom of God, building the Beloved Community, and turning God’s dreams into deeds are hard work.  But it’s good work, and as followers of Jesus and members of the body of Christ, we are fortunately in this together.

III

So, again, what happens to those God loves? It seems that often at some point after baptism, a trip to desert is in order, although maybe not as soon as with Jesus. As is the case with my godsons, they have been baptized, but their adult ‘desert experience,’ if it is to come, still lies in the future.  But maybe for some of us, our time in the desert has arrived, whether as a literal trip to the desert (such as a visit to a monastery) or a metaphorical trip to the desert (such as taking on a new spiritual practice for Lent).  But we don’t have to stay in the desert forever: “everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven.” But, for Christians, the next six weeks until Easter is the time for Lent.

As you consider whether God is really the travel agent that you want and if you are ready to continue traveling down the path Jesus walked, ask yourself, “Am I  ready to allow God’s Spirit to drive you into the desert of Lent?”

“Am I ready to align myself more fully with God’s way through Lenten disciplines of devotional reading, prayer, and service?”

IV

I invite you to spend a few moments in contemplative silence, listening for God’s call:

  • Do you feel called to volunteer once a week at a local nonprofit agency to help the “least of these” among us?
  • Do you feel called to time of daily prayer and devotional reading?
  • Do you feel called to follow Chuck Poole’s suggestion of “Taking one word of the gospels literally as a step toward taking all the words of the gospels seriously”?

However you decide to spend the next six weeks until Easter, I invite you to spend some time reflecting, journaling, or drawing about how the desert sands of Lent might shape you so that you can better proclaim with your daily life that the kingdom of God has come near.

 

A Lenten Prayer

Gracious and Loving God,

You are present to us in the grace-filled waters of baptism,

You are present to us in the harsh desert sands of Lent,

On this first Sunday in Lent,

Forty days loom literally and symbolically before us –

between our present and your future promise of new life at Easter.

Open our eyes and ears during these next weeks that we may be more attentive to your loving presence and to the needs of our neighbors around us.

Strengthen our endurance that we may persevere in our Lenten discipline and have a holy Lent.

In the name of Jesus, who gave us the example of a 40 day sojourn in the wilderness,

and in the name of the Spirit, who calls us to follow Jesus’ example of finding healing and renewal in the sands of the desert.

Amen.

The Rev. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. candidate at San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).

About Carl Gregg

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