A sermon, based on Mark 1.9-15, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, in the 1st Sunday in Lent, February 18, 2018
Jesus is baptized. The heavens are torn apart; a sure-sign of a soon-coming divine communication. God’s Spirit descends. God’s voice speaks. All unambiguous confirmations of Jesus’ commission as God’s servant.
Have you ever felt, believed you were called to do something, to be someone other than what, who you had known? A call perhaps beginning outside of you through another’s request or demand, a momentous occasion or urgent circumstance. A call that felt like being plunged into water, coming up gasping for air, blinking your eyes, breathing in, looking at a new reality. A call that conferred a new spirit, a new sense of direction.
So, for Jesus, soaking wet, stepping up on the bank of the River Jordan, determined, destined to follow the Spirit, Who leads, drives, shoves him into the wilderness.
Unlike Matthew(1) and Luke,(2) Mark, in his characteristic bare-bones style, doesn’t tell us about Jesus’ forty-day-and-night fast, his conversation with Satan, and the specific temptations. What matters is not the particulars, but only that Jesus was compelled by the Spirit to confront everything without and within that denied, defied God, so to come out of the wilderness with a clarity of vision and mission.
This experience being commissioned and tested is a common element of many biblical stories – Abraham, Moses, Ruth, Deborah – and our stories.
I don’t remember seeing the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending or hearing God’s voice, but when my brother died and later, my father, I was called to care for my mother, afflicted with Alzheimer’s disease; a commission that, until her death, daily grew in the enormity of necessity and difficulty.
I don’t remember torn heavens, descending spirits, and the vox Deus, but I recall, years ago, becoming, being painfully aware of the increasing partisan conflict in the world and the church, and hearing a call to be open, to engage, with love and respect, “the other” – those with whom I disagree – and to be tested by the inevitable discomfort of such encounters.
Every call, every commission comes with testing. Baptisms we enjoy, but not the bleak, barren wilderness. Yet the wilderness is where Lent calls us again to enter and to encounter our wild beasts; for me, my haunting memories of unforgettable mistakes and impulsive inclinations that undermined my highest, most honorable hopes, my hurt and anger about unmet need and unresolved pain.
I confess that I’d rather try, at least, most of the time, to wear the mask of my polished, practiced persona of good cheer. The mask behind which I seek to hide my spiritual poverty, my sometimes lack of clarity of vision and mission, my sometimes ignorance in answering, “I don’t know”, to those fundamental existential questions: Who are you? What are you doing and why? Where are you going? Yes, I’d rather wear the mask, trying to fool you and myself.
But here in Lent, I hear God’s voice calling me and you to a prayerful, purposeful walk into the wilderness of our souls, where we can see ourselves “just as we are without one plea.” The wilderness where we can face Satan, all that is within us that denies and defies God, so to know ourselves “just as we are poor, wretched, blind.” The wilderness where we also can hope to find our Savior, the One who accepts us just as we are “though tossed about with many a conflict, many a doubt, fightings and fears within and without”, thus, the One to whom, in relief and release, we can say, “O Lamb of God, I come.”(3)
Lent is here. Jesus journeys to Jerusalem. The journey inaugurated following his call and commissioning at his baptism and his testing in the wilderness. The journey that we, as his followers, are to take, not merely symbolically as we read and reflect on his story, but rather daily, literally, for Jesus’ journey of call and commission and test is that journey we call “life.”
Illustration: The Baptism of Jesus, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1618-1682). Note: Murillo depicts Jesus receiving the baptism of John the Baptist (who is shown, in the tradition of 17th century art, wearing the red robe of a martyr and bearing a staff with a scroll scripted with the wording “Ecce Agnus Dei”, “Behold the Lamb of God”, which was John’s testimony about Jesus [The Gospel of John 1.29, 36]) whilst the Holy Spirit, in the form of a dove, descends.
Endnote: Concerning the sermon title, with apologies to David Allan Coe and Johnny Paycheck, writer and singer, respectively, of the song, Take This Job and Shove It (1977).
(1) Matthew 4.1-11
(2) Luke 4.1-13
(3) From the hymn, Just as I am (The Hymnal 1982, #693); words by Charlotte Elliot (1789-1871)