Today’s Scripture focus: Mark 1:9-13
One of the great spiritual highs I have as a pastor is the privilege of baptism. It is such a powerful picture of our identification and connection with Jesus – going beneath the water to die to our old self and being raised up again to new life. It is so awesome to be able to lead people through this initiation into a community of people who are seeking to model their lives after Jesus of Nazareth. Sometimes during baptisms, I’m pretty sure that I can catch a glimpse of the heavens parting and the Spirit of God descending on those baptismal waters like a dove. I sometimes think that I can hear echoes of those words Jesus heard at his baptism, “You are my belovedchild, with you I am well pleased.”
The baptism of Jesus was surely a high point of his thirty or so years on earth. It was a confirmation of what the angel had told his mother those many years ago: “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” (Luke 1:31-33 ESV) It was a confirmation of his identity, his uniqueness, his calling.
Very quickly, however, we find that the Spirit has descended on him for another reason as well – to strengthen him for a time of temptation. Today’s scripture says, “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Now, I have to admit that there are a number of things about this one sentence that give me pause.
First, it says that this happened immediately following Jesus’ baptism. Was there no celebration? No time to bask for a moment in his sonship? No time to just hang out on this spiritual mountaintop? I know that when I baptize someone, I encourage them to make a big deal about – to throw a party, to take it in slowly and savor. It’s as if Mark is saying, Jesus didn’t come to hang out on the mountaintop, but he came for the wilderness.
That brings to the second thing. There is something about the wilderness in scripture. Moses fled Egypt after killing an Egyptian man and went out into the wilderness area. It was here that he met God in the burning bush. The Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty before entering the promised land because of their disobedience, but God cares for them and provides for their needs. Elijah meets God in a cave in the wilderness. It’s as though the writers of scripture are trying to tell us something – while there may be times that we meet God in the safety and comfort of the city, more often than not, we are going to truly have a life-changing encounter with this wild, untamable God in the wilderness areas of our lives.
This wilderness can take many forms – the wilderness of sin and temptation, the wilderness of loneliness and isolation, the wilderness of sickness, the wilderness of losing a job, the wilderness of a broken relationship, the wilderness of depression, the wilderness of addiction – the list could go on and on. The point is, whatever wilderness we find ourselves in, we should look around, listen closely, and pay attention because God may be trying to do something awesome in us through that experience.
Finally, I am struck that it says that “the Spirit . . . drove him out” into the desert. It’s the same language that we find in Mark 11:15 where Jesus “entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold and bought in the temple.” It seems, in a way, so violent – the Spirit driving Jesus away from this experience of love and affirmation, this spiritual high place. What does it mean that the Spirit would drive Jesus out into the wilderness to face temptation? I mean, seriously, didn’t Jesus himself teach us to pray, “lead us not into the temptation, but deliver us from evil?” Even if the Spirit is not the one directly tempting Jesus, this sure seems like the Spirit is at least leading him to a place where he will be tempted.
I can’t help but think of the words of the Apostle Paul to the believers in Rome when he wrote, “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Romans 5:3-5 ESV) I have to believe that, while the baptism of Jesus affirmed his identity, the temptation of Jesus solidified his character. It allowed Jesus to stare his humanity in the face, to see the enemy, and to win the victory, paving the way for us to follow.
I need to be reminded often that temptation is not a sin. Temptation is an opportunity to stand with Jesus in looking at my humanity, looking at our enemy, and surrendering to the power of Christ to overcome sin on my behalf.
Prayer: God, thank you for the wilderness areas of my life. Thank you for the times when all the excess stuff and distractions are stripped away, and I can honestly see my great need for you. As I face temptation on this lenten journey, let me throw myself on you and feel your victory coursing through my life. Amen.
* Note: This blog post is part of a series of reflections for Lent. The passages are based on a booklet Steven wrote for Ecclesia, the church he pastors in Fairview, NC.