First Sunday in Lent

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."
The story of Jesus baptism and temptation works apparently at several levels. Over the years, I've heard many ideas advanced as to why Jesus was baptized. The most recent I have read that Jesus fulfilling the role of the true Israel in that repentance precedes restoration. This role of faithful and true Israel continues in his encounters in the wilderness.

This element of the narrative may well be in the mind of Mark as he wrote and his early readers that were more steeped in the history and experience of the Jewish people. But what about the Gentile reader say in AD 123 who might have been quite far removed from the Jewish story? And what about me in 21st Century Southern California (and you where ever you are on the internet) perhaps reading Mark for the first time? The layer of the march of the history of Jewish faith would be not be obvious?

What comes before

Mark's account of the baptism is set-up by the preceding portion in vv. 4-8.

The ideas that jump at me are that John the Baptist proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin and the people responded to this by being baptized and confessing their sins. The people in this setting are indeed being obedient to God's message through his messenger! This message isn't a new one as many times in the Old Testament, the prophets would proclaim that the people have sinned and need to confess and turn back to God.

The puzzler for us is why Jesus got baptized. Jesus has no sin to confess. His mind is set on the Father already and has no need to "change his mind" (repent) and turn back to God. So why does Jesus do this anyway?

Some, as I have mentioned, have suggested that he was taking on the role of the faithful and true Israel. All well and fine and good. But one might say, he is taking on the role of the faith and true human being also. He is fulfilling what Israel failed to do. He is showing me what I have failed to do but also opening the door to follow him to do what I should do.

For Jesus, the baptism is an outward demonstration of the inward reality: my relationship with God is important, in order to help others, I will demonstrate the importances of repentance and confession of sin by partaking in the baptism.

Thus, for disciples of that time, the baptism is an outward statement of the inward reality: my mind has been changed and instead of rebelling against God, I am now dependent on God to forgive my sins so I can be restored to relationship with him.

The common ground is the relationship with God: Jesus has it and is showing the way so we could have it to.

What comes after

The matter of relationship rises up from the portion of the Scripture immediately after the baptism: "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.'"

I recall Pastor Darrell Johnson saying (I'm paraphrasing as I don't have specific transcripts of sermons on hand), in the heart of God is a relationship. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit are in relationship with each other. Humans, due to sin are in broken relationship with each other and God. Jesus, God the Son, steps into history to help restore relationships.

Professor Fred Sanders described it as: the happy land of the Trinity. And the work of salvation is to bring us into this relationship.

And so, immediately after the baptism, we see this happy relationship:
You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased ...
the Spirit descending like a dove on him ...
By extension, if we repent and confess our sin and turn toward God, we experience a restored relationship with God. John 1:12 says, "Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God."

What comes next

After Jesus is baptized, we get a glimpse of the loving relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And after that, we are brought face-to-face that Jesus has a mission and it starts with a dramatic test: 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.

Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13 describe the temptation in greater detail. But even from the comparatively terse account in Mark, we have some idea of the scale of this trail.

40 days ...
The number "40" does show up a lot in the Bible and it maybe literal here and in those other occasions. One would prefer to avoid any suspicious numerology about the figure 40. Suffice to say, literal or not, the key point is clear: it was a long time. This was no brief challenge. This was no trivial ordeal.

tempted by Satan ...
This name comes straight from the Greek, "adversary (one who opposes another in purpose or act), the name given to the prince of evil spirits, the inveterate adversary of God and Christ." Thus, not only was the wilderness experience a lengthy one but also against a powerful spiritual enemy.

with the wild beasts ...
Satan was the danger from a spiritual realm, wild beasts were the danger from the physical realm. What might there have been out in the wilderness during those 40 days? Perhaps, lions, bears, wild ox, crocodiles, and hippopotamus or leopards, wolves, caracal, and snakes.

Jesus faced this under the direction of the Spirit. First, the length gets at the character trait of endurance. Second, the explicit opposition of Satan gets at the sturdy steadfastness of Jesus. The Matthew and Luke accounts focus on the crafty challenges from Satan in detail. Third, the unknown variety of wild beasts that probably come out at night (no LED flashlights then!) reveals courage in the face of unseeable dangers. This experience shows the quality of this man Jesus!

the angels waited on him ...
This episode has implications for how we view difficult situations. We might prefer an easy life but we see here the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness for this test. And Jesus passed the test. He knew the Spirit was with him. He knew that he was beloved of the Father. He knew he was provided for as the "angels waited on him." Jesus knew that his journey to the Cross took a major step forward at this moment. He made it through this bout with spiritual and physical trails. There would be more physical and spiritual pain the rest of the way. And, of course, at the Cross, there would be even more.

Issac Watts in one of his hymns put it this way:
Was it for crimes that I had done
He groaned upon the tree?
Amazing pity! Grace unknown!
And love beyond degree!
The pain and suffering of the servant Jesus. Lent begins here at the temptation and God provided for Jesus. Lent concludes with the hot boil of the Cross and God vindicated Jesus at the Resurrection!

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