Sunday’s Readings – On Saturday
Tomorrow’s Gospel basically begins with Jesus’s ministry beginning: baptism, temptation in the wilderness, and gospel. So know that you are God’s beloved, be filled with the Holy Spirit, face down Satan, trust the tending of angels among the wild, and go out into the world to proclaim that the new reality of God has come and people should finally grow up.
That is a pretty straight forward sermon, right? I had good friends who asked me where I would start if I was to form someone as a new Christian, and my answer was that I would want them to know that they are loved by God, beloved of God, God’s own child. That sounds really liberal, but the reality with that is to see your self as you are called to be means immediately to see how far you are from God’s reality. I am a failure in that regard, seeing myself in the mirror of God’s image; the technical term I grew up with was “total depravity” or “sin.” The problem is you cannot start with breaking someone down.
God is Abba, or so Jesus says and compares God the Father with a loving parent, not a psychopathic rage-monkey. I might hate some of the things my kids do, but I don’t set about reforming them by beating them down. Not if my goal is to have healthy loving children in the end. Neither does God. Jesus begins at the river being baptized, a humble act of obedience and submission to God, and the heavens are opened, the Spirit descends on him, and calls him “my son, beloved.”
Identity is crucial to self-understanding. If you begin understanding your defeated, worthless, nothing, a source of rage, then you have already set a course of failure. But if you begin in submission to something larger, to a larger identity that has a claim on you, you begin a quest, a journey toward wholeness, a search for vision. That comes by the Spirit.
You can, and some do, read this story as the incarnation moment of Mark’s Gospel. Rather than the reality of his birth to Mary by the Spirit, Mark emphasizes that this is when Jesus is God’s son. This also points toward something that shows up in the Gospel pictures of John and Jesus: John’s baptism is about forgiveness of sins whereas Jesus’ is about the baptism of the Holy Spirit. As Christians we are not baptized merely for the cleansing of sin, though we believe that our sins are forgiven. We are baptized into the life of the Holy Spirit. We become God’s children at baptism through the power of the Spirit, though we continue to grow into that reality. We also use the language of the body of Christ, dead to sin and alive in Christ.
Take a moment and let that sink in. We don’t really focus on the ontological difference between the unbaptized and the baptized because we live in a pluralistic world where we like to emphasize the work of God in the whole world and God’s relationship with all humanity. The question becomes for us, “What does our baptism into the Spirit mean for us?”
This is vital. We will face temptation and are to have a mission and purpose, but none of that means much without knowing who we are in Christ. I believe that the message of the Gospels is rooted in several images, but one of the central ones is that Jesus replaces the temple as the location of God’s incarnation and inbreaking into the world. He takes upon himself the failure of the sacrifice system and becomes the whole system (this is clearest in John’s Gospel). In various ways they also show that we become Christ’s body in the world, bringing his presence, gospel, and healing to others. We are the incarnation of the Holy Spirit in this realm, whereas Jesus has gone to heaven bodily and is no longer here, in the flesh, except through us.
Writing out this cosmology is cool, but it also shows how far away our theology often is from the Bible. Our sin is a pretty small part in all of this, important, defining of us as we begin, but put into its proper place as we take our place in the body of Christ. We are supposed to be agents of God’s forgiveness and grace.
Now, I know that. I teach that. I believe that. I trust that. And I fail at that really often. I am supposed to see others as God’s beloved children and treat them the way that God has treated me. I am to provide from God’s bounty for them, offering peace, healing, and aid whenever I can. That sounds nice, no? But I am not so great at that, and I try.
My life often feels like a wilderness, and I find it easier to believe that the wild animals are God’s beloved more than many people. I struggle to give my wife and children the benefit of a doubt and easy grace and forgiveness. I grasp after what I need and cling to old things that I probably never really needed. I want to be appreciated, respected, adored. (None of which actually is possible to work for.) I want to have power. Those three temptations of Jesus I know well at home and at work, though I have to interpret a little. I haven’t wanted to be a third world dictator in a while.
But temptations come, and they usually pull me away from my identity in God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. They definitely pull me away from any sense of purpose and mission. My ego is surely one of the devil’s primary tools. But I am not a victim, really, and haven’t been in my life for any length of time. That isn’t my trap. I have learned that many people who have experienced victimhood, real or imagined, have what I can only call a shadow ego that doesn’t suffer from my temptations, but other ones. Whereas we can often see the desire for power and control, it is often harder to see our powerless passivity as a temptation to sin that just as much takes us out of the mission and purpose of God.
Do you know that you are God’s beloved? I had this moment years ago on a hike. I was several days out away from the city in the Sonoran desert along the cliff of a small hill where I had set down my pack and just sat on a rock in despair. It was a red desert day when the colors take on the ochre shades of shadow and the shadows overlay the land in strips of blue as the sun began to enter its last watch of the day. I was tired in a way that went far deeper than my bones, and my stomach rolled over my belt buckle and I could feel every grain of sand from every step I had taken for five years. My pack was too big and my burdens I had packed myself. I was alone and I was afraid that at any moment everyone around me would see that I was a fraud. My depravity had become a companion to replace all others, and he held my hand all the time.
But then, in that ochre landscape among the chaos and beauty of the cacti and the blue sky darkening into pinks and purples, my companion was obliterated as a light shone from somewhere above me. I won’t say that the heavens were opened, but the Spirit certainly descended that evening. I was alone with God, and my fears and my sins were taken away again as I sat with God in the desert’s breath and the symphony of lights that is the Arizona sunset. I knew God in that moment, and I saw that God knew me, and he called me beloved. Not because I had done anything other than be born.
I wish I could tell you some magical formula for knowing God. Baptism, yes, and wilderness, and waiting, perhaps. But I also join old Paul in saying that it really is a mystery, this righteousness of God, the turning aside and stooping down to smile with unearned favor among the rocks and cacti. So what is the gospel that I came out of the wildernesses of my life with?
Grow up. The Rule of God is at your fingertips. It dances just outside your willingness to sit down and be still. Set down your baggage and face your reality. And know God, God knows you and loves you right now.
The other side is that God loves the people around you too, even me with my various kinds of bloat. God wants you to be baptized and join the body, bringing his Spirit, grace and forgiveness to a world that still needs the incarnation of Christ in you.