4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.13He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
Our family moved from Washington back to Colorado when our son Judah was less than a month old. Judah was baptized a few weeks afterword at the church where my husband Matthew was serving as pastor. I’m a sucker for baptisms and wanted the event to be celebratory so I ordered a sheet cake, carrot cake to be exact, with a dove on it. I wanted to festively mark Judah’s entry in to the body of Christ. So after the service we stood in the narthex (what Christians call a lobby – when I came to the church as an adult it took me awhile to not giggle when the pastor said narthex when he meant lobby because “The Narthex” always sounded to me like a Dr Suess character that may or may not speak for the trees) anyhow…I stood there after Judah’s baptism filled with joy while serving dessert in the narthex. Only later did we learn that the carpet in the narthex had recently been replaced and that we had pretty much given the church ladies a heart attack by serving cake there. But regardless, Judah’s baptism was great – with all his grandparents present and the sheet cake in the narthex.
And, you know in all fairness, some pretty amazing stuff happened at Jesus’ baptism too. After all, there at The River that day the heavens were torn open and the Spirit descended like a dove and God called him beloved. You gotta admit, THAT’S a cool baptism. But the thing is, after Jesus’ baptism there was no sheet cake in the narthex.
Instead the Holy Spirit, who moments ago seemed like a nice and fluffy peaceful little dove, well, that same Spirit immediately casts Jesus out into the wilderness to be with Satan, wild beasts and angels. Given the choice…I’d prefer the sheet cake. Even if it does get on the new carpet and makes the church ladies cranky.
But that’s not what we see in the life of Jesus. And this week I began to think about how that’s not really what we see in our lives either. Like Jesus, we experience both The River and The Wilderness.
At The River, whatever that represents for us, we are surrounded by community and given new life and called beloved. God is near. And it’s beautiful. And we need it. But it’s not the whole picture.
Yet it can feel as though we treat Christianity, or being “spiritual” as a Wilderness avoidance program. As though finding oneself in the Wilderness is a failure. I know for myself, when I’m struggling with depression or I am in a period of hardship where nothing seems to be working, then I find that I label that time as “bad”. Or more often than not I’m ashamed because after 20 years of sobriety and a seminary degree, shouldn’t I really have it all together? So clearly I must be doing something wrong. Sometimes that’s true but sometimes … it’s just the wilderness. And I can promise you this. As much as I need to hear that I’m beloved and be surrounded by community and be made new, and we all need that, but as much as I need that, I never gained any wisdom from things going really well at The River. Because The River might fill the heart and that’s important, but it’s The Wilderness that brings wisdom.
I mean, I’d love it if spiritual wisdom was distributed in the Personal Growth section at Barnes and Noble but that’s just not the way it goes. It’s always been found in The Wilderness. Because if we look at the order of things – at The River Jesus is baptized and called God’s beloved, (before he even does anything cool or enlightened or special by the way) after which he’s cast into The Wilderness for a good long while. And it’s only THEN that he begins teaching and healing. See, Jesus doesn’t begin teaching and healing until after he’s gone through 40 days of Satan, wild beasts and angels. So why do I think my Wilderness to be a personal failure if Jesus’ Wilderness gave him what was needed to heal and to teach?
I think maybe because some of us have been taught a rather anemic view of God. That God is only found at The River times in life – only found in the moments of renewal and elation and blessedness. In other words, God is only close to us when we feel close to God. But that’s not true. Your feelings about God have precious little to do with God’s actual nearness to you. Because Sometimes God’s nearness to us is also found in the way that God creates wisdom out of our wilderness experiences. God’s nearness to us, is just as real in the blessings of The River as it is in the struggles of The Wilderness. And Oprah would kill me for saying this, but how we feel doesn’t really matter. Not in this case.
Maybe tonight you are struggling with depression, or unemployment or divorce or addiction. Maybe you are in The Wilderness of wild beasts and angels. But the wisdom is coming. And after that, The River so that your heart might again be filled. That’s the life of the baptized. The River, then The Wilderness, then The River. In other words, this whole thing has always been about daily death and resurrection.
Or maybe tonight you feel as though you are at The River experiencing community and God and new birth. That’s great. AND The Wilderness is surely coming – and when it does, God will be just as near you.
THAT’S the baptismal life of wild beasts and angels. Where we get to experience the Holy, the transcendent and the heart filling at the River. And we also experience the Wilderness of isolation and fear and uncertainty through which we gain wisdom and perhaps, perhaps like Jesus even the ability to teach and to heal. But regardless of how it all feels, God is present and wants to be known in all of it. The sheetcake AND the Wild beasts. Amen