4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (NRSV)
|Dramatic Skyscape by velodenz. Creative commons image on flickr.|
Where is your ideal place to get away from it all?
A cabin in the woods? A white, sandy beach? A fishing boat? Curled up in a chair with a good book?
In today’s Gospel, a large crowd of people have left Jerusalem and the surrounding towns and villages for the Judean desert. They follow a man named John, who dresses like a caveman and eats locusts and wild honey. They are baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins.
Then along comes Jesus, and he, too is baptized by John. As he comes up out of the water, he alone sees the heavens torn open and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove upon him. And a voice from heaven declares, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Here and now, God has arrived in Jesus Christ. Here in the desert, in this vast expanse of nothingness, the entire cosmos is at a turning point. Salvation has come.
But still, I’m curious: who are these folks who are baptized with Jesus? Why are they all the way out here? What are they seeking? Wasn’t there enough good religion in Jerusalem?
I’m sure some of them followed John because they were poor and had nowhere else to be. Some may have ill or broken-hearted. Some may have been ostracized from their communities, perhaps because of something they’d done. A few may have left many good things behind. But here’s what they all have in common: John spoke God’s Word, and they followed him. God drew them out of daily life into the desert for a baptism of repentance that will be the turning point in their lives.
Here’s something else they have in common: they are you and me. At some point, you will find yourself in a desert or wilderness experience.
It happens when all normalcy crumbles away. You find yourself rejected by your community because of something you’ve done, or simply because you don’t fit in. For some, you enjoy all the best of what this world has to offer—but something is missing.
If you’ve ever thought, “how did I end up here? How could things get like this? Where did I go wrong?” you’re in the desert. If you’re questioning your long-held beliefs about God, you’re in the desert. If you’re going through the greatest trial in your life and you’re losing hope, you’re in the desert.
It is part of the normal, Christian experience to find yourself in such a place and time where your sins and weaknesses are exposed; where your illusions of greatness and control vanish; where worldly treasures and pursuits fail to bring life; where all other supports give way.
But in such a place and such a time, God appears. God will continue what God began at your baptism: God will tear the heavens open, give you the Holy Spirit, and reclaim you as a beloved daughter or son. God knows who you are, warts and all, and loves you anyway. Because you are baptized, there is a permanent breach in the heavens, so that the Gospel of Jesus Christ will be fulfilled in you by faith.
Heavenly grace will descend into your worldly hell. God’s forgiveness will free you from sin’s deadly grip and you will be clothed with the righteousness of Christ. God’s mercy will heal your wounds; God’s peace will calm your fears.
Instead of trusting in worldly treasures or the power of your flesh, God will prove worthy of your trust. Traumatic endings become new beginnings.
Which leads to my final point: every wilderness experience is temporary. Jesus’ certainly was. You’ll go into it broken; but you will come out a new creation. You will have a new faith to greet God’s faithfulness. Wherever you go, God will be working in you the power to heal and transform this world.
So we ask: now that God’s torn open the heavens to reveal Jesus, what else may Jesus be tearing open or tearing down that binds God’s people to poverty, alienation, and fear? What else will God be breaching and breaking into? What truths about you is God bringing to light? What opportunities exist to do God’s work?
I think of everything our town of Leechburg has been through recently.
I think of everything you are going through right now: cancers; rehabilitations; grieving; trying to raise your children and grandchildren right.
I think of all the struggles we as a congregation face right now, with all the empty pews and the budget deficit. Meanwhile, there are children all around us who are hungry. People aren’t hearing or experiencing God’s gracious love because chaos, fear, and desperation are ruling their lives.
The desert is deadly without God. But in Christ, it is redemptive.
God is tearing open the heavens today, because God isn’t finished baptizing you or this world with redeeming grace. So be ready for God’s love to come down. Be ready for God to speak and the Spirit to inspire. Be ready to meet your God.