Water to Wilderness
Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 1:9–1:15
First Sunday in Lent
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
“Return from Exile: From Water to Wilderness”
You’re not strong enough.
I’m not talking about physical strength. You might be hardy enough to fight off illnesses and overcome injuries. You might be fast enough to win the race, or nimble enough to avoid the punches thrown your way. You might be muscled enough to carry the heavy load, or mighty enough to train your body to Olympic levels of fitness. But you’re not strong enough.
I’m not talking about mental strength. You might be smart enough to easily pass the exam and get the best grade. You might be clever enough to negotiate the big contract or outwit your competition. You might be savvy enough to find the best deals, or disciplined enough to get the job done every time. You might be tough enough to fight though pain and reach your goal. But you’re not strong enough.
I’m not talking about emotional strength. You might be determined enough to pursue a career that will see you accomplishing great things. You might be patient enough to take the time to listen to the person who disagrees with you. You might be loving enough to actively care for your family or friends, even if they don’t appear to appreciate you in return. You might be resilient enough to bounce back from trauma or tragedy. But you’re not strong enough.
The kind of strength that I’m talking about is that which is needed to resist temptation. Strength to overcome everything that would lead you away from God: strength against envy and greed, strength against anger and frustration, strength against despair and doubt. And above and beyond resisting temptation, we need strength for contentment, for patience, for hope, for kindness, and for self-giving love that doesn’t seek any repayment. In and of ourselves, human beings not able to live according to God’s design, because our human self wants to be the one in charge. Temptation is, in one way or another, a call for you to have your own way. And how can you resist yourself?
This world is broken by the sin that follows people giving in to temptation. Look around, and you’ll see reminders of that brokenness each day: in the mirror, in your neighbor, in the news. This week – on Ash Wednesday – yet another horrific act of violence took the lives of people going about their daily routines, stealing them away from their friends and loved ones. Evil was again made manifest through the work of human hands. We need strength to make our journey through this broken world. But how can anyone be strong enough?
In his account of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan River and his subsequent temptation in the wilderness, Mark points to Jesus as the one who has come to be strong for us.
There’s a fancy word that we sometimes use in theology: recapitulation. It means that something is the summing up of what’s come before, a restatement that can ultimately stand in for the rest of its kind. Jesus is the recapitulation of the Hebrew people – he takes their place in undergoing John’s baptism of repentance; their forty years of wandering in the wilderness are summed up in Jesus’ forty days being tempted and living in the territory of wild beasts. It’s why the Holy Spirit (literally translated) throws Jesus out into the wilderness: the one whom God the Father has proclaimed to be His beloved Son must go to do everything right in his people’s place. Jesus is your recapitulation, too.
Jesus “does it right” for us. At Jesus’ baptism, the Father showed him to be the Christ, the anointed one who had come into the world, bringing God’s rule and reign to bear. Jesus did what Israel, you, and I could not. Going from the water to the wilderness, Jesus overcame temptation, resisting the devil with the strength that belongs to the Son of God. Even without going into the details of Jesus’ time in the wilderness, Mark paints the picture of Jesus as the victor over all enemies. Jesus defeats Satan and rejects the temptation to have his own way instead of his Father’s. He dwells with the wild beasts and they cannot overpower him. Jesus brings God’s rule and reign into enemy territory. He is indeed a mighty fortress for everyone who trusts in him, who depends on him.
From the water to the wilderness, Jesus, man of action, acted for you. As the God the Son, Jesus delivers the full scope of the Father’s blessing to the people he calls his own. Jesus, who is our recapitulation, connects us with the One who said, “You are my beloved Son,” so that you get to share in God’s love. And that’s not only about you being in a restored relationship with God: that love pours out into the broken creation around you. Jesus acted so that you might have reconciled relationships with the people around you. He acted so that you might have all the strength that you’ll need for the journey.
The season of Lent is a time for getting ready. It’s a journey with Jesus from the Mount of Transfiguration to Jerusalem, where he goes to face suffering and death for you and for me. It’s a journey that moves us from the exile of sin and death – the world that we have known since humanity first believed the tempter’s deceptions – taking us instead to the promised land, the new garden, the restored life with God that Jesus makes possible through his life, death, and resurrection. That’s our ultimate destination, our return from exile.
As we look ahead to what’s coming in that destination, though, you and I are called to remember what Jesus faced as he took our place as the new Israel to overcome our sin. Christians aren’t meant to ignore the reality of our earthly journey or the challenges which we will face as we follow Jesus through life. Instead, we get to look to Jesus’ empty tomb and the new life that he delivers to his people, knowing that we do not make this journey alone.
The Lenten season came about as a time of preparation for Holy Baptism. During Lent, we focus in on the significance of Holy Baptism, recalling what God has done for us, remembering that through this great gift God has linked us with Jesus, who has done everything right for us. You’ll see the baptismal font moved from its regular place to the central entrance of the nave, as a reminder that it’s through Holy Baptism that you are made a member of the body of Christ. Through this means of God’s grace, you get a new day each day; not only during our Lenten journey, but every day of your journey through life. Contrition and repentance – consciously and actively turning your back on the things that would lead you away from God – might be more intense during Lent, but the strength to do all that comes from the new life that God gives you as His child in Holy Baptism.
This Lent, look to Jesus, who was and is strong for you.
You will be tempted to think and say and do that which isn’t Christ-like. You’ll be tempted to choose your desires over that which God desires for you. You will face times that try your strength of body, of mind, of heart. But by and through Jesus’ strength for you, you may persevere. You might be inclined to rely on your own ability or skillfulness – even without thinking – when challenges come. Instead of trying to make it through on your own, know that you can trust in the one who has done everything right in your place. The Holy Spirit delivers Jesus’ strength to you in his word, in Holy Baptism, and in Holy Communion. That’s why they place such a major role in our life together as the Church. The Holy Spirit is at work for you to give you what you need for your journey from water, through the wilderness, into the promised land of life with God.
You’re not strong enough. I’m not strong enough. But Jesus? Jesus is.