Christ Lutheran Church Upper Darby
February 21, 2021 Worship Sermon - "Into the Wilderness with Christ"
Delivered by Rev. Stephen Keiser
Genesis 9:8-17; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Peter 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
I have some difficult news to share with you. I’m dying. And so are you.
Normally on Ash Wednesday, we gather in this sanctuary to remind ourselves that we are dying. We place ashes on our foreheads and hear the words God spoke to Adam and Eve after they sinned: “Remember that you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” Perhaps this year, we didn’t need the ashes to remind ourselves of our mortality. In our own congregation, death has hit close to home: we’ve had more deaths this past year than in any prior year since I have been here. And beyond our congregation, the newspaper gives us the death count every day. It reminds me of when I was a child during the Viet Nam war: every evening during the national news we would be told of soldiers who had been killed in battle that day. This year, since many of us couldn’t gather in person on Ash Wednesday, perhaps it is these daily death counts that best serve to remind us of our mortality.
“You will not die.” That’s the very first lie in the Bible. “You will not die,” the serpent promised Adam and Eve in direct contradiction to what God had said earlier. When Adam and Eve believed the serpent and disobeyed God, they may not have died in the sense that their hearts did continue to beat. But in a deeper, more tragic sense, they did die: the relationships that gave them life died; they were filled with shame about themselves; they turned against each other and against the One who created them in love. That poisoning of relationships is spiritual death and it is the legacy we received from our first human ancestors. It’s the scar that disfigures the image of God within us. Those ashes that we sometimes put on our foreheads at the beginning of Lent are just the visible reminder of that scar.
One of the themes running through our scripture readings this morning is baptism. Before we baptize someone, we always ask them: do you renounce the devil and all the devil’s empty promises. The biggest empty promise of them all is that promise the serpent made to Adam and Eve: you will not die. Like Adam and Eve before us, we would rather cling to this empty promise than face the truth about the spiritual death our sin had produced. We find all kinds of ways to shield ourselves from this truth; we distract ourselves with food or drink or busyness. But during the season of Lent, we put away these distractions, we recognize the emptiness of the promises we have been clinging to, and we stretch out our empty hands to God in hope of salvation.
This process of turning from the devil’s empty promises and turning toward the God of life is called repentance. Repentance is what Jesus proclaimed after he completed his own period of temptation by Satan in the wilderness.
On the first Sunday of Lent, we always read about the temptation of Jesus. What I like about Mark’s version of this story is that we get both the baptism of Jesus and the temptation of Jesus together in one short reading. And this reveals an important truth about the nature of baptism. Baptism does not shield us from the temptation to believe the empty promises. The story of Jesus’ baptism is this beautiful account of the Holy Spirit descending upon him in the form of a dove and the voice of God claiming him as God’s own beloved child. That’s the part of baptism we all love to contemplate. But in the very next verse that same Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness.
The wilderness is a place of temptation, but it’s also a place of transformation. When the people of Israel were liberated from slavery in Egypt, they had to journey through the wilderness before they could reach the promised land. As they journeyed through the wilderness, they were tempted again and again to return to Egypt: tempted by the fear of hunger; tempted by the fear of what might lie ahead of them. But the wilderness was also the place where they encountered God. God appeared to them on Mount Sinai and showed them the way of life. God continued to travel with them in the tabernacle and saved then, again and again, when they well into temptation. The people of Israel entered the wilderness as slaves; forty years later, they left the wilderness as free men and women.
When Jesus goes into the wilderness after his baptism, he has that same experience of temptation, but also of being ministered to by God. Jesus turns away from the empty promises of Satan and relies entirely on God for his sustenance. This forty-day period in the wilderness confirms what we heard about Jesus in his baptism: he is the Son of God, sent to break the power of Satan - the power of sin and death - and to initiate the reign of God. “The Kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus proclaims after his forty days in the wilderness. As he begins his ministry, Jesus reveals what the Kingdom of God looks like: he liberates people from demonic possession; he heals the sick and brings the dead to life; he challenges the unjust systems burden people and prevent them from enjoying the life God intended for them.
Jesus’ baptism in the river Jordan, his temptation in the wilderness, and his ministry in Galilee are all a part of one movement in which God tears open the heavens in order to breathe the life-giving Spirit into humanity, in order to lead humanity from death into life.
These forty days of Lent are our journey through the wilderness. Like the people of ancient Israel, we are not alone in this journey. As God traveled with them in the tabernacle, so the Holy Spirit accompanies us. Even more than that, Christ’s victory over sin and death has opened to us the way of life. In our baptism, we are joined to Christ, in his death and in his resurrection. The empty promise of Satan was that we would not die. The saving promise of Jesus is that out of death God brings life.