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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Sunday, March 01, 2009

Water and Wilderness

Mark 1:9-15, NRSV

9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”


I have been hearing people saying that we are in a time like no other time that they can remember. A year ago, no one wanted to say the word “recession.” Some were afraid that the mere mention of the word would somehow cause the recession to happen. Others would not say it because they did not believe it; they were confident that the economy would soon return to steady growth.

Still, the signs of trouble continued to appear, until in a shocking turn of events, we began to hear about large banks and corporations on the verge of collapse. A snowball effect followed, as lenders foreclosed on houses, businesses cut back, people lost jobs, consumption dropped, and credit tightened. Today the economy continues its decline, and people all over this congregation have been effected.

What people were timid to call a recession a few months ago has now begun to look like a depression. Yet former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said on the radio yesterday that he does not know what to call this economic situation. It is clearly like a recession, but not like other recent ones which resulted from rising inflation and high interest rates introduced to slow it down. By contrast, current interest rates have been cut to the lowest level recorded. It also shows signs of a more serious economic downturn, what has been called a depression, and unemployment is rising. But even as it has gone up significantly, it is less than one-third the percentage of the workforce that was reached during the Great Depression. This time is not quite like any time people can remember. Reich said that maybe our situation needs a new name. He joked that we could start calling it liverwurst, basically using a nonsense word, for lack of a better term. It wasn’t much of a joke, and it’s not a situation that is easy to laugh about.
Whether or not there has been a precedent for the times and conditions we face in these days, whether or not we have an accurate name for what we are going through, we will continue to face uncertainty. We will need to do some careful budgeting and belt-tightening. Some may decide it is time for polishing up the résumé and considering what is around our house that we can do without.

When the income and assets are running on the thin side, when a steady job no longer seems guaranteed, when the neighbors are packing up because they can’t keep up with their house payments, when a brother or sister needs a place to stay while laid off, then we might want to say that the place we are is kind of like a wilderness. Wilderness is an unknown place. It may be desolate, or it may be thick with vegetation, but it is a wild place. We are not used to the wilderness, and we do not know what to expect. We may not be alone, but we are not sure who our company might be. Whatever is there is watching us, even if we can’t see it. We may not know what to do next or where to turn next in the wilderness.

In a wilderness we may find ourselves to be in a situation not unlike the one Jesus was in according to the text we read from Mark’s gospel. Jesus at one time probably had a pretty steady carpentry business in Nazareth. He was the oldest son in the family, so he probably had to provide for the rest of the household, especially if Joseph was no longer living, as most readers of the Gospels believe. But by the time of the events in this passage from Mark read today, Jesus had been doing less carpentry and more traveling to talk with his cousin, John, and some dabbling at teaching and preaching. He was starting to get a reputation.

When he met John at the Jordan River, he was indicating to all who cared to pay attention that he was setting out in a new direction. The carpenter from Nazareth was becoming the itinerant prophet and teacher. It was a decision fraught with risks. Maybe he had worked out arrangements for taking care of his mother and siblings, but that must have remained a concern. He also knew how well John had borne the task of prophetic preaching, and he probably wondered how well he would take to his new work. But God the Father rewarded his faithfulness on that day with words of assurance and encouragement, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased.” The Holy Spirit gave a sign of a descending dove. No doubt at that moment when the loving relationships among the three persons of the Triune God were so vividly displayed, no doubt Jesus’ heart was filled with hope, peace, and joy about his determination to fulfill his Messianic calling.

What a blessing it is in those moments when we stand in the favor of our loved ones or our friends. What a blessed time when God’s favor is poured out toward us. Luke tells us that as Jesus matured toward his task in life, he grew in favor with other people and with God. This day of his baptism was a day of being surrounded by the favor of God and of the people gathered by the river. We need these moments to keep us going when the times get hard. We need them to drive us forward toward our high calling. God has work for each of us to do, and God is ready to love us all the way through that work, to supply our needs, to assure us when we are discouraged. Thank you, Lord, for all your blessings.

However, by Mark’s account of this story, and similarly in the other Gospels, Jesus did not have long to bask in his glorious moment. It says that immediately the Spirit drove him out into the wilderness. Jesus went from this moment of intense affirmation to long loneliness, a time of testing, a season of strengthening his resolve for the challenges ahead. He went out into the wilderness for forty days.

The gospel writer has packed this story with typology and allusions. Jesus went down into the waters of baptism, and he passed through them just as the children of Israel had passed through the sea under the care and the power of God. He came out of the waters to go into the wilderness, just as Israel had gone into the wilderness on their journey out of Egypt. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness, corresponding to the forty years a generation of Israel spent wandering and waiting to enter the land of promise. This time of preparation, this trial and opportunity, would make Our Lord ready for the days and months ahead. And just as Israel had endured a season of preparation and trial, Jesus now would reenact their struggle, recapitulate their pilgrimage toward the service of God. Jesus had much to face, and he would need all the strength a human being standing in the grace of God can muster.m

But the story of Israel’s road to liberation is not all the we find coming alive in Jesus’ story. Mark says he went into the water, then spent forty days among the wild beasts. Like the faithful Noah and his family, Jesus faced a daunting task. Forty days of rain and more time of waiting among the wild beasts was no vacation cruise on the ark. It was not Carnival or Princess or Royal Caribbean. Jesus’ trek into the wilderness was no easy time for him, either.
Cooped up in an ark for forty days and more, Noah certainly had time to take a long and deep look at himself. Jesus also faced his personal turmoils during these days in the wilderness. Other gospels describe some temptations that he faced: self-serving use of power, manipulation of crowds, and selling out for worldly gain. Jesus was tempted in all points like as we are, but, glory to God, he endured without sin.

Times when we find ourselves in the wilderness can bring both trials and opportunities. I have heard people talking about the current economic climate providing an opportunity for the correction of dangerous trends and habits in the economy. The overuse of credit, purchasing of houses too expensive for a family’s income, inattention to savings and pension investments, no patience to wait to buy something until one can afford it—all of these patterns of behavior were growing like cancers. In the shock of entering the wilderness of an economic crisis, some people are realizing they are getting a wake-up call. They are getting a chance to evaluate their consumption and their provision. Time in the wilderness can help us reset our priorities. We may pull off the blinders or designer shades that have been impeding our vision and get a clearer vision of living sensibly in the light of God’s calling to love and serve.

Just because we think about our lives in the wilderness times does not mean that we will automatically arrive at a better place. Sometimes, faced with the reality of our mistakes and sins, we still find no resolve to leave them behind. We fix our eyes on worldly pleasures and status rather than on the author and finisher of our faith. For the momentary thrill, we forget about the joy that is set before us. Rather than endure hardship, we try to salvage our image and keep up our bluff. When we find ourselves in the wilderness, we had better get our hearts set on the Lord so that we can come out at the other end of our sojourn on the path God has set for us, not on the path to destruction we have lusted after.

All over the world, Christians are entering the season of Lent. Lent’s historic roots come from a time of preparation before Easter, a time of catechesis, of learning, of spiritual reflection, of discipline, and of penitence. In some times and places, it was the tradition to save up all the baptisms for the year to be celebrated at Easter. So Lent is associated with baptism, with wilderness, with soul-searching, with repentance, and with preparation for glory.

Every now and then it is important for a church to stop simply going through the motions of churchy business and churchy programs and churchy bickering and maneuvering to do some repenting, some reflection, and some preparation for what the Spirit is getting ready to do in their lives. We need to thank God for the opportunity to sort out our mixed up motives and desires so that the Spirit can get us aligned and renewed on the path that follows Jesus. What is the Holy Spirit doing in and for us in this wilderness time? It would be a tragic mistake to miss the opportunity to find out.

The gospel story tells us that after his forty days in the wilderness, and after the angels ministered to him, Jesus set out to work. Everything did not go right or easy. John had been arrested. Jesus knew that this was also a warning to him, so he left Judea to get out of Herod’s reach for a while in Galilee. But he did not hide out.

He announced that changes will be coming. He said that the folks who think they are in charge are not going to be in charge around here. He said the true King, the true Caesar, was not sitting in a palace in Rome or Jerusalem. He said this ought to be good news to the poor, the oppressed, the ones who have been locked away and forgotten. But that meant it probably was not such good news to people who were making their living and career out of keeping people poor, oppressed, and locked away. Jesus said they needed to repent. He spoke hard words and shook up the status quo. He was living dangerously, and he knew that there would be a price to pay for living the truth.

It’s important that we see this boldness of Jesus’ ministry in conjunction with his baptism. It is no secret in a Baptist church that baptism is a symbol of death, burial, and resurrection. To be baptized is to die to our old life, our sinful ways, our self-centered pride. It is to enter into the death of Jesus. We are baptized into his death.

An excellent theologian has recently written about the covenantal identity which we assume when we enter into baptism. Our brother Jay Carter says that entering into Christ is first an exit. We exit our old ways, our worldly identities shaped by race, class, gender, language, and nationality. Exiting those, we enter into the covenantal identity of those who share in the true Adam, the fulfillment of Israel, the new humanity, Jesus Christ.

Thus to be baptized into Christ’s death, our sojourn in the wilderness must show forth as we walk out of an old life and walk into newness of life. It is the covenantal life we entered in Jesus. What is that life? Mark has shown us.

It is pressing on into the work when enemies are trying to derail us. It is continuing without succumbing to fear when we see how power can destroy people, even those we know and love. It is telling the world that things are going to change around here. It is bowing to no Caesar but Jesus Christ, Our Lord. It is speaking good news to the poor, oppressed, and marginalized, even when that is bad news to the powers that be. It is accepting the danger of loving one’s neighbor in a dogfight world.

What will you make of this wilderness? Whether we focus on the economic wilderness of our time or the Lenten wilderness of repentance, God’s Spirit is offering us an opportunity to draw near to God that God may draw near to us.

Perhaps you have never exited that worldly life of trying to be your own master or to be the master of others. Now may be the time that you need to step forward in faith that the one who calls you is faithful. Respond to the call of Jesus to follow him, to enter into his death and resurrected life. Come receive Christ today.

Perhaps you have been wandering and muddling in the wilderness. Or perhaps you have been busy keeping on keeping on, barely taking time to eat or breathe, and forget about sleep. But in this season of Lent, Jesus is calling out to follow him into the wilderness. Face the trials and opportunities that God’s Spirit is offering to you. If you need to come today to offer yourself in repentance and renewal, there is no better time than now to share that commitment with God’s people who are gathered here.

Someone may be here who is not now part of a local congregation. Maybe your church home is in some distant town, and you need to be sharing your life with God’s people in the place where you are living. Maybe you have found yourself stuck in a wilderness with no clear end, and you need the nourishment and strength that can only come when we bind ourselves to one another in Christian love. You need to be in a community where you can live that new life that Jesus showed us when he left the wilderness and took up his task. If the Spirit is urging you to unite with this congregation, there is no better day than today.

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