Mark’s gospel does not begin with Jesus’ birth. There is no annunciation, no shepherds, no manger, no wisemen. There is no flight to Egypt, no journey to the temple in Jerusalem. Mark’s gospel begins with an adult Jesus being baptized by John in the river Jordan. Mark tells us about John in the verses preceding our reading for today. John is the messenger sent to prepare the way for the one who is to come. Mark writes “And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John was not the one. Yet they came to the water and to the wilderness. Crowds gathered. Scribes were curious. Pharisees plotted. They came Longing. Hoping. Expecting. Seeking. Preparing for the “One”. Then he appeared, Jesus of Nazareth. We can imagine Jesus wading out into the shallow waters of the river to where John was baptizing those who had come from the surrounding areas wishing to repent. Surely Jesus had nothing to repent so why was he here for baptism? His baptism is Jesus’ anointing—his preparation for service—his empowerment. Jesus’ identity is confirmed by this event when the voice from heaven marks him out as not only a man of great worth and note, but as the very offspring of God. And Jesus’ baptism marks a turning point. John’s ministry is ending and Jesus’ public ministry is beginning. Baptism, according to Peter, is not a “removal of dirt from the body” rather it is a sign of a change of identity. For us, our baptism is a sign that we are made new; we are now identified as children of God.
So too do we become the beloved as sons and daughters of the Father. Through baptism we have a new identity, an identity in Christ. We too have been baptized with water and the Spirit. Most of us were baptized as babies, so our parents and godparents made those Baptismal promises for us. We confirmed them at our Confirmation and renew them at the Easter Vigil. They too mark our ministry as Christians. For Jesus and for us, baptism marks the beginning of ministry.
Now imagine Jesus rising from the water, dripping wet with the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And what does the Spirit do? The Spirit immediately drives him out into the wilderness. And for forty days and forty nights Jesus is tempted in that wilderness and in coming out of that wilderness, Jesus is strengthened for his ministry. And just as Jesus entered into the wilderness, so we too must journey through the wilderness. The temptations that Jesus met in the wilderness are also our temptations, drawing us to a selfishness that prevents us from showing love and respect to others, pressing us to manipulate the world into the form that we want rather than that which God intends. But we are not alone in our journey through the wilderness.
Throughout the Bible, we see our spiritual ancestors spending their time wrestling with the wilderness. The wilderness is a place of refining and self-discovery, but our ancestors never faced this wilderness, this desert alone. For forty years God journeyed with the people of Israel; for forty days, God watched over Noah, for forty days God stood with Jesus and now as we travel through our wilderness God stands with us. For each of us most confront our own wilderness. For almost a year now, we as individuals, we as communities and we as church have been traveling through a wilderness. Our wildness is where we are forced to see ourselves as we are, we are forced to change and it is where we wander and wait to encounter the holy. We need the wilderness. Our church, our community, our world—now more than ever—needs the wilderness. We need to spend the time looking at ourselves in order to find new life, new ministry, and new ways of being the people of God. Throughout the time of covid with its accompanying political dissention, racial tensions and economic hardships and adding to that our recent weather we have been confronted with isolation, fear, depression, and loneliness. We long for things to go back to the way they were. We have been faced with learning new technology in order to do church, we have been challenged with new ways to be church, changes in how we minister to others, in how we maintain our own needs for community. We are tempted to fall into despair, to give in to loneliness and fear, but no matter the pain we’ve experienced, are experiencing, or will experience, Christ has been there, is there, and will be there. We are not alone. God is with us. We enter into the wilderness because we can no longer be as we have always been.
Jesus was baptized, he journeyed through the wilderness and went forth to do His Father’s work. We have been baptized, we have entered the wilderness and we have work to do. And I have seen this work being done during this weather crisis– neighbors helping both neighbors and strangers. Here in Marfa, the grocery stores donated food which was prepared in the school cafeteria for those who needed a hot meal. St. Paul’s provided a warm place, coffee and tea for those who had no heat. My daughter in New Braunfels has told me about people with power opening their doors to those without. Neighbors are sharing firewood and water. In Alpine the water system is controlled by phone – very convenient until the phones are out. During our recent freezing weather, their phones went down. To ensure water for Alpine, the water department crew went to each and every tower and pump to check water levels and to make such the pumps were working. They climbed the towers and they made any needed adjustments manually. Every tower and pump was checked every two hours. They had a job to do and they did it. We too have a job to do. Our job is to serve the needs of our communities, to help the poor, to heal the sick, to comfort the grieving, and to save the lost.
This Lent let us review our baptism, move through our wilderness and commit ourselves to our ministry as sons and daughters of God for Christ is with us and there is work to do. The Rev. Carl Daw, an Episcopal priest and hymnist, wrote these words in response to 9/11 and they apply today as well:
Till all the jails are empty and all the bellies filled;
till no one hurts or steals or lies, and no more blood is spilled;
till age and race and gender no longer separate;
till pulpit, press, and politics are free of greed and hate:
God has work for us to do.