One of Us

Mark 1:9-15 (NRSV)

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

It is the season of Lent, and this story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness tells us much about how to put sin behind us and grow spiritually, seeking holy alignment with God.

Not that Jesus, who was in a mysterious way fully divine and fully human, had sin in his life. He did have the potential to sin; he simply did not succumb to temptation, as we so often do as frail humans.

We often think of baptism as an act of repentance and a cleansing of sin, and these are accurate notions. We have to go a little deeper into baptism’s meaning, however, to comprehend what the sinless Christ accomplished at the Jordan River, and how it ties to our lives today.

When Jesus was baptized, a new alliance between humanity and God was affirmed. When we accept baptism as the key identifying event in our lives, we make ourselves part of that alliance, with ties that run as deep as the purest bonds of family.

The Father in Heaven affirmed Jesus’ sonship; in baptism, we too become children of Father God, siblings of the Savior Son. As the author of Hebrews notes, “The one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.”

Think of baptism as God lifting up his children, gazing upon them and claiming them as his own. God also kneels down with his children. Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness was God, through Jesus’ eyes, seeing life from our level. And what a painful place the wilderness can be.

In the other synoptic gospels (Matthew and Luke), the effort to tempt Jesus is described in greater detail. We hear specifically the lures old Satan dangled to try to convince Jesus to sin: You know you’re hungry; make bread from stones. Throw yourself from the highest point of the temple; angels will save you. Bow down to me and I’ll let you rule the world!

I also like the less-detailed account in Mark, however. It creates the possibility that Jesus faced the temptations most dangerous to me. I feel I can see him walking about in the chalky, sun-baked wilderness, hungrily praying about everything that draws humans away from God.

I’m also reminded of the need to find time apart for meditation and prayer. Folks, we’re really not very good at this in our culture. It is as if our goal is to fill every moment with something to tingle the ears or penetrate the eyes, as if time spent in unstimulated silence is somehow wasted.

We fail to do what Jesus did. We fail to go without so we can remember our fragility and dependence. That’s the real purpose of fasting. The act helps us become more conscious of the voids within us, deep depressions in the soul we too often try to fill with excesses in eating, sex, recreation or other diversions.

Having consumed the wrong kind of sustenance and thinking we are satisfied, we then fail to gather our strength through direct communion with God. That’s the great result of intense communal worship and private prayer: Those voids can be permanently filled with God’s Holy Spirit.

I don’t talk about our failures to make us despair, however. No, I point them out so we can, with God’s help, overcome them and be amazed at all that God wants to do for us!

Never forget that in the midst of what seemed like vacant, dry wasteland, a place of constant danger, there were angels ready to tend to our sibling Savior. Do you not think they will do the same for us, his little brothers and sisters in the family of God?

All around us there is a God-aligned spirit world ready to come to our aid. Its members stand between us and what tries to afflict us. They go to war for us against the forces of evil, if only we let them.

When the brokenness of this world overcomes us, the angels comfort us. They want to help, particularly as we, like them, work on God’s behalf more each day.

Yes, the Bible stories in the Lenten season remind us of sin. But more importantly, they remind us of the joy and power in a life redeemed from sin, a life connected to eternity by Jesus Christ.




Matthew 3:13-17 (NRSV)

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Just like John the Baptist, we can resist the idea of Jesus undergoing baptism. When we consider his divine perfection—his sinlessness—a baptism of repentance is difficult to comprehend.

We need to see Jesus’ submission to baptism as a gift, however.

Let’s consider all this from the perspective of people who want to belong to a group. If you’ve never wanted to belong to a group, you are an unusual person, a true lone wolf. For most of us, finding some sort of group identity can be critically important to achieving worldly success and happiness.

My mind goes to the high school and young adult years, that decade or so when we make an intense exploration of who we are. As we reject some groups and pursue membership in others, our identities begin to take shape. We continue to repeat these processes our entire lives, but the teen and young-adult years are called “formative” for a reason.

You all know how this works. Once you’ve identified a group you want to enter, you have to figure out who the gatekeepers of the group are, and what they require for admission. You begin working on your application. It’s probably not on paper, but you’re going through an application process, nonetheless.

This process can be very healthy; well-run sports teams or academic clubs with principled leaders are good examples. This process also can be very unhealthy. Think of street gangs, where people who see limited prospects band together for survival, or ethically challenged business efforts, where profits supersede normal rules of behavior and concern for others.

Jesus, of course, is the gatekeeper for Christianity. But as he did so often in ministry, he turned the role upside-down.

Instead of us going to him for admission to the kingdom, he first comes to us. It is as if the coolest kid in school showed up at your door one day and said, “You’re going to run with me and my crew.”

Jesus’ baptism was an act of solidarity with humanity. Undergoing baptism signaled God’s intention to save us from our deserved eternal deaths. It also was in many ways his first step toward the cross.

Jesus also was saying he would handle the admission requirements for us. Only someone holy and pure could pass the test, and we didn’t stand a chance.

It is only because of Jesus’ work that we can undergo baptism ourselves to establish our eternal, unchanging identities as children of God. We ride our older brother’s linen coattails into membership in the kingdom of heaven.

And of course, like any group we desire to join, there are benefits. It is a truly beautiful thing when we gather to worship the one who saves us, remember who we are, and then behave accordingly.

A Holy Interruption

Luke 15:11-32

Let me talk for a few minutes, and then y’all help me with this one. Those of you who are reading this online are welcome to comment, of course.

We have before us what is probably Jesus’ most popular parable. The parable of the prodigal son, a young man we might today describe as a “wild child,” is a rich metaphor of God’s grace, a story we could unpack section by section for weeks.

It also is a good follow-up to last week’s Bible text and sermon, which reminded us of the need for vigilance in the face of sin. This week, we’re shown how God responds when we step away from sin and its sidekick, death.

You probably know how the parable of the prodigal son goes. The snot-nosed little punk wanted his way—now—and asked for his inheritance, implying to his father, “I wish you were dead.” Surprisingly, Dad complied; the son left to try a little “dissolute living.”

Any of you tried that? It’s fun until the money runs out.

The money ran out. The snot-nosed little punk was left with not so much as a hankie to his name, and ended up working at the nastiest job a Jew could perform, the feeding of pigs.

The reality of the pig sty was sobering; the NRSV says he “came to himself.” Hank Williams had not yet written “I Saw the Light,” but the filthy, mud-caked—wait, is that mud?—young man must have been humming a Jewish version of it as he headed home.

On the way, the rehearsal began. He had to let his father know he was sorry; he had to show proper repentance. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” I’m sure he practiced that act of repentance not once, but dozens of times, on the long walk home.

Rembrandt's Prodigal Son

Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son

God—excuse me, I mean, Dad—saw him coming from far away. That means God—whoops, there I go again—that means Dad was scanning the horizon day after day, seeking his beloved child’s return. Are you seeing this: The rude, filthy child finally turned toward home, and Dad ran to him.

The son tried to get the words of repentance out. He started them, but he never made it as far as his offer to work as a hired hand. Dad was already calling for robe, ring, sandals and banquet, presumably all to be preceded by a bath. A celebration was in order!

“This son of mine was dead and is alive again,” the father said. “He was lost and is found!”

There’s more to the story, of course. There’s an older brother, filled with anger and jealousy when he sees the father’s ridiculously gracious response. Today we’ll just acknowledge that such people are out there. Don’t be one, and don’t let them bring you down.

Let’s instead focus on this repentance interrupted, this grace that tackles us and wraps us in love before we can even finish our “I’m sorry.” We are all deserving of death. We’ve all been snot-nosed punks who at some point wanted our own way rather than God’s way. But God grabs us, God restores us. All we have to do is head for home.

When did you receive the ring, robe and sandals? What was your banquet like?

And if you’ve not yet gotten them, do you want them? Turn toward the risen Christ, and see him running toward you.