March 4 2006
A Sermon on Mark 1:9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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. And a voice came from heaven, You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, 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.
What I want to do this morning is look at some messages in the text, and then look more deeply at one which may speak to us.
Firstly, this story affirms Jesus. It makes very clear to the reader that He is God's Beloved. He is chosen by God. God directs him into the wilderness where he is tempted by Satan, and where he clearly overcomes Satan at some level.
"Forty days" is shorthand for a long time. It was also forty years Israel spent in the wilderness until it was ready for the Promised Land, which John's baptism was recalling by being done in the Jordan; that is, John's baptism was a call to people to return to the Promised Land of life with God.
The story shows us that the call, the challenge, and even the blessing of God, can lead to a wilderness experience until we are ready to live out the calling. The message of the forty days for me, is that it takes time to answer the call. It is not easy to answer the call.
The presence of the wild beasts and the angels in the wilderness says something about the basic, raw, existential nature of the temptations. They are real temptations. They are not some head thing, but a very real struggle between answering the calling of God, and the desire to go another way. But the struggle is in the presence of God; this is the message of the angels.
The "Satan" which opposes the call of God is also a real force. We may not choose to personalise the Satan in our time and world view, but we are making real choices when we choose to answer or ignore the call. It's not a game. And only when Jesus has conquered the temptations of Satan, does the Kingdom of God come near. Only then can he proclaim it.
When Jesus comes to be baptised, the heavens are torn open.
Bishop Spong says somewhere that Joshua parted the waters of the Jordan when the Israelites entered into the Promised Land. But when Jesus goes down to the Jordan and is baptised, he does not part the waters; the heavens are parted. This second Jeshua / Joshua / Saviour is much greater than the first.
How might this reading apply in our lives... in the lives of you and me who want to follow Jesus?
The story made it clear for the reader who Jesus was, but in the end, Jesus, had only his own experience to go on. Did you notice that in Mark's gospel it says he saw the heavens open, not everyone else. The voice from heaven speaks to him. This is where his authority comes from; ... his own experience of God.
He is not the Messiah because someone in authority in the church chose him, or gave him authority. He has authority from himself, and from his experience of God. When he stands before Pilate at the end, and whenever people oppose him on the way through, all he has is what God says to him at the baptism, and later. You remember... in his time of trouble, the disciples all fled.
This is us. Whatever confirmation and support we receive from our community or congregation, it is finally the same for us. When we are in crisis, when we are simply alone and tired, when we are busy, when people attack us- all we have is what God has told us.
We are not able to say "It's because Wilf told me to..." It's not going to be because our Dad went to church, so God must be true, or because our Sunday School teacher forty years ago told us a story. The power of the gospel is powerful because in it God has spoken to us....
"Well, I never went to the Jordan river. I can't remember my baptism. And I never saw the sky torn open, or heard a voice from heaven!" says Fred in the back pew.
It's pretty much the same for me... Although I was sitting in a bible study once, and I thought what people were saying was pretty weak, and I thought to myself, "What do you want me to do, God?" and a voice answered clearly. I was startled, to say the least! And late one night, out in the desert as, I was driving home, something took me over into a state of consciousness, where I've never been before or since. I was drunk on it for weeks; someone said to a friend, "I knew someone like him-he was on heroin."
But do you know... those things mean nothing now. They're too long ago. I'd have to look up my journal to find what it was the voice said. I can't really remember the feeling in the truck, and I half wonder if I imagined it all. Memories of God are not enough. The relationship has to go on. And, like Fred in the back pew, I wonder, some of the time, if there really is a relationship.
How do we go on when it seems everything is old memories, and other people's ideas... when God seems far distant, or a truth that never was?
Sometimes it helps to remember the things that have moved me and held me up in the past. But mostly I find I need to go back to my roots... back to the Jordan where we enter the Promised Land... and immerse myself in the water, and risk that when I come up there may be nothing there tearing the heavens open for me to see and hear.
I try and remember what is most important. Not what I have to do on Monday, not what I didn't get done on Friday, not my son's lack of a job, or the bills we have to pay, but what is most important. Why am I me? What are my deepest longings? What is truly necessary? What really matters? What moves me?
And I come back to love, truth, justice, compassion, my family... and the deep, deep well in me, that despite all the pain and rubbish of the world, all the injustice, the lack of peace and mercy, the hatred, and the fear and the emptiness... back to that deep, deep well that says "Yes!!" to life... and reaches out to be part of it... and cannot run away from it... and says "No!" when the temptation is to give up, and run away, and end it. That is God speaking. That is God calling me "Beloved."
It's in the listening, and the be-ing still, and in the remembering what is really important, that we will hear God, and find strength to go on. It won't really matter if we call it by some name that other Christians, or other people, approve of, or understand. It will simply be that we will find a presence. We will see into another country, and look forward into hope. We may never feel comfortable saying "God said to me..." or want to say "I saw the heavens opened..." but the flavour of God... of the Divine... will be about us. People will know. And we will find the strength and power to go on. Amen .
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.