Today, on this first Sunday of Lent, we are reminded of our own journey of identity and temptation. When I read this story about Jesus’ baptism and temptation, I begin to realize that this is an old, old story which I have heard in other versions.
I remember the story of a good man who was chosen by God to be the progenitor of a new human race. He built a boat for himself and his family and representatives of all other living creatures. For forty days they went through the rainwaters of the great flood. Then the sun came out, the rainbow appeared, and Noah stepped out onto dry land. We are ready to hear how he went about laying the foundation for the new world order, and what we hear instead is how he succumbed to temptation and fell into a state of drunken nakedness.
Then I remember another story about later descendants of Noah who had fallen into bondage in Egypt. I remember the dramatic account of how they escaped to a new life of freedom through the waters of the Red Sea led by a fugitive named Moses. I am ready to hear how they entered the Promised Land and there enjoyed the life of which they had dreamed. What I hear instead is how they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, rather than forty days, wishing they had never left Egypt in the first place.
Now here is Jesus being baptized in the waters of the Jordan at the beginning of his ministry. I am ready to hear of the power and effectiveness with which he then carried out that ministry. Instead, I hear that he spent the next forty days in the wilderness being bedeviled. And yet did not fall into temptation like so many before him.
We all have our own experiences of baptism and the wilderness, of identity and temptation.
We think that life is really going to begin when we find the love of our lives and get married, or when the children are out of diapers or when they have all finished college or when we finally buy our own house or when we get that job promotion. But what we discover is that the life which begins at these places is followed by as much uncertainty and by as many problems as the life which preceded them. To our chagrin we find that we are in the wilderness, not the Promised Land.
What is worse, we often have this strong sense that it is not accidental. It is as though someone has put us there, and we have a strong suspicion about who that Someone is.
In Jesus’ case it is not a matter of suspicion. Mark says in verse 12, "The Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness." By "the Spirit" he means the Holy Spirit, God. And we begin to be aware, as we reflect on the whole story, that the challenges of the devil deepened Jesus’ commitment to the life to which he had been baptized. It gave him added strength to withstand the stronger temptations later at Gethsemane and to face the mob clamoring like wild beasts for his crucifixion.
The Israelites, as it turns out, were also in the wilderness for a purpose, the purpose of learning what it meant to live in a covenant relationship with God. From Mt. Sinai they were able to look back with more understanding to their deliverance through the sea and to look forward with more confidence to their life in the Promised Land.
We all live our lives with 20/20 hindsight, understanding our past is in some way preparation for our future.
Getting an early understanding of what parenthood is really all about prepares you for what may be more stringent parental challenges ahead.
To learn from the challenges of working with a boss whom you think is not as smart as you prepares you to be the not-as-bright boss of the next generation of workers.
It seems that when we put ourselves in God’s hands God sees to it that we get what we need rather than what we want.
James E. Dittes of Yale Divinity School makes the point this way:
"The meaning of goals we aspire to but seem to find thwarted, is far more than we can imagine until after we go through our own testing in the wilderness they bring. The unexpected and unwanted difficulties of adjusting to marriage, career, political action, child raising, schooling, whatever, may be gifts of the Spirit. They enrich our understanding of our own aspirations and our capacity to make the most of them."
If it is true that baptism without the wilderness is incomplete, it is equally true that enduring in the wilderness without baptism would be far more difficult.
Jesus was able to withstand the bedevilment and harassment because he knew that the Spirit who came to him in love and power at his baptism was with him during his wilderness experience as well. Our text puts it this way: "He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him."
The Israelites were able at last to enter the Promised Land against great odds because they trusted that the God who had brought them safely through the waters of the Red Sea would bring them successfully through the waters of the Jordan.
If you know that you belong to a loving, patient and powerful God, you can make it, scarred perhaps but intact, not only through forty diapers a week and an equal number of assorted demands; you can also make it through a later period when the one who was in diapers is now going through their own wilderness.
Finding our identity in our loving heavenly Father opens our hearts to the Spirit of God who is always with us, even in the wilderness.
If you know that you have been baptized into God, who is working out his reconciling purposes in the world, you can walk without anger and without despair through a desert in which your life may not be what you had hoped for.
If you know that yours is the heart where a spring of water is always welling up, you will have the courage and hope which you need for the forty days or forty years of wilderness which may stand between you and the Promised Land. In Christ we find both our identity and the strength to endure in the face of whatever our wilderness may be.