Driven into the Wilderness
Mark 1: 9 - 15
Some years ago, I read that good preachers often repeat themselves. Let me say
that again, "Good preachers often repeat themselves." If anyone still did not
completely grasp that thought, I am happy to say it once more, "Good preachers often
I can have fun with that thought, but there is some truth to saying that good
preachers often repeat themselves. There are good reasons for repetition, and I presume
that repetition is not done because of lack of creativity or originality or a desire to
limit knowledge. I know that when a minister delivered a talk to a kindergarten
commencement titled "Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten," there
were those who understood that certain basic principles learned in kindergarten were
applicable and appropriate as foundations for life, not that there was nothing worth
learning beyond kindergarten.
What is worth repeating? I think that if a thought or message is of basic and
foundational importance, that message is worth repeating. In fact, some messages may
require repetition if it is maintain importance. If a message ceases to be repeated, it
validity may come into question. A message of "I Love You" is nice on St.
Valentine's Day, but it has little validity if it is said only once a year or less. A
message not heard is often assumed to be a message not meant, and a message not heard is
assumed to be a message not true.
It is no wonder that good preachers often repeat themselves, for the message of
God is important and worth repeating. It is worth noting that God also repeats the message
of love and truth and forgiveness and hope.
With all this background on repetition, we should not be surprised to find that we
are hearing again about the baptism of Jesus. This is the second time in two months that
we hear the same verses about Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist, and we heard about
John the Baptist in the weeks before Christmas. There is something important in these
accounts of baptism that we are to hear again. Jesus comes to John the Baptist and is
baptized by John. Why? As Jesus comes up out of the water, the heavens are split open, the
Holy Spirit like a dove descends upon Jesus, and a voice from heaven proclaims, "You
are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." My understanding of the baptism
of Jesus is that baptism is something we must receive from someone else, indicating that
baptism is not something that we humans do, but is something that God gives us. The
splitting of the heavens indicates that through Jesus there is no separation between
heaven and earth. The voice from heaven indicates pleasure that Jesus, by seeking the
baptism of sinners, has taken the side of sinners. A new order in the relationship of God
with the earth is at hand.
So far, so good. Jesus is baptized and the Holy Spirit descends upon Him. What
happens next is surprising. The Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness for forty
days to be with wild beasts, to be tempted by Satan, and to be waited on by angels. Being
driven into the wilderness is surprising because we usually expect that obedience to the
will of God brings protection and safety, but that is not what happens. Jesus is with wild
beasts. That is danger. Jesus is tempted by Satan. Mark, unlike the Gospels of Matthew and
Luke, does not describe the temptations of Jesus, but they must be dangerous because a
real temptation is not a danger unless there is something attractive or seductive to the
one tempted. Jesus had taken the side of sinners, and he was exposed to danger and
temptation as sinners are. Christian doctrine says that Jesus did not sin, but Christian
doctrine does not say that Jesus could not sin. When Jesus returned from the wilderness,
He proclaimed the good news of God, saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom
of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news."
The Gospel of Mark tells us that something new began with the baptism of Jesus.
When Jesus came up out of the waters of baptism and was driven into the wilderness, a new
relationship between God and earth began. A new age has come, and this new age is a new
relationship with God through Jesus Christ.
Through Jesus, God begins a new relationship with the earth. This is repetition.
God has made new beginnings before. Early Christianity, beginning with some of the
writings of the New Testament, compared the new relationship begun through Jesus with the
new relationship God began with Noah after the flood. Early Christians thought of the
flood of Noah as parallel to baptism, not in washing away sin, but in another way. In the
story of Noah and the ark and the great flood from the rains of forty days and forty
nights, after the flood waters receded, God told Noah and his son that God is establishing
a new relationship with them and every living creature. Never again would there be a flood
to destroy the earth. Some think this means that God renounces violence. As a sign and
reminder of this new relationship with all future generations, God sets the rainbow in the
sky, pointed away from earth and toward God. What early Christians saw in the waters of
baptism was a sign of God's new relationship through Jesus Christ that was as new and as
wondrous as the covenant with Noah through the rainbow. I like to think also that as the
rainbow is the result of light shining through water droplets breaking white light into
separate colors as a result of the laws of physics, so the love and mercy of God through
Jesus is a natural result of the nature of God. These signs show us something of the true
basis of how God is at work in the world.
What I believe this means is that God tells us through Jesus that we are given not
magic, not immunity from danger or temptation, but the love, power, and presence of God
through Jesus and the Holy Spirit to face all danger and all temptation. In accepting the
baptism of Jesus, in accepting the love of God, we shall be led into places and situations
we might not choose on our own, but we go with God. We are not alone for the sign of God's
love and power is that Jesus was faithful unto death and rose from the dead. We are never
lost to God. The rainbow and our baptism are our signs pointing to the nature of God.
There is a Peanuts cartoon I remember of Linus and Lucy on a rainy day. Lucy
worries that it could rain so much that all the world would be flooded. Linus tells her
that this could never happen because God promised in the ninth chapter of Genesis that
never again would God destroy the world with a flood. Lucy listens, smiles a little smile
and says, "Thanks! That makes me feel better now." And Linus says very
earnestly, "Sound theology has a way of doing that."
Sound theology has a way of making us feel better. Sound theology has a way of
being repeated. We need to hear again the meaning of the rainbow, especially on rainy
days. We need to hear again that Jesus is on the side of sinners through baptism, even
when they are driven into the wilderness of wild beasts and temptation. We need to hear
again that God is love; we need to hear it often so that we may never forget its truth and
power. May the truth and power of the presence of Jesus Christ in our world, our lives,
and our wilderness remind us always that our world is God's world, that our lives come
from God, and that we are not alone in any wilderness. May these days of Lent lead us
again to God. May we hear again and again the good news that the kingdom of heaven is
near. Repent and believe the Good News. Christ is with us until the end of time. Amen and