John looked pretty rough. He dressed in whatever he could get, a coat made from camel hide, held in place with a leather belt. When you saw him, it was like you were looking at a prophet who had stepped out of the old books of scripture. It is likely that John had spent at least part of his life living in a religious community in the desert at Qumran – this community placed a lot of emphasis on baptism. In the Jewish religion, baptism was carried out for people who were converting, but it was not a regular part of the faith. But John offers baptism to all Jews, as a way of repenting from sin and being forgiven by God. And in his preaching, he talks about the coming of a great spiritual leader who will connect people with God’s Holy Spirit.
And then along comes Jesus. John baptizes him in the River Jordan, the river that separates the wilderness from the promised land. Baptism was about entering the promised land spiritually.
We believe that Jesus was sin-less, so why was he getting baptised as a sign of repentance and the forgiveness of sins? Right from the start, Jesus was identifying with sinful humanity. He stood in the place of sinners at his baptism, and this points forward to the cross, when he died in the place of sinners. He took on the sin of the world and plunged with it into the water of cleansing. Then at the end, he takes that same sin onto the cross, where it is killed with him, and taken down to hell. So Jesus’ baptism is very much a part of his work of redemption.
He identifies with us right from the start. And when we are baptised, we are identifying with him, and we take on all that Jesus stands for: the kingdom of God, mercy, love, forgiveness, service of others.
So Jesus is dunked into the river, and as he comes out of the water, three things happen: firstly, the heavens were torn apart. When heaven opens up to earth, that’s when God’s will is perfectly fulfilled. It is a sign that Jesus is operating in God’s way; everything he is, everything he does, everything he stands for opens the door between heaven and earth.
Then the Spirit of God appears in the form of a dove, hovering over him. This picks up the prophecy of John the Baptist about the one who would baptise with the Holy Spirit. The dove is the sign that Jesus has the endorsement of God’s Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is with him and he brings the Holy Spirit to the people who turn to him.
And then there’s a voice speaking, and it’s coming from nowhere, and they realise that it’s God talking, and he’s saying to Jesus: You are my Son, the Beloved, the only one, and I am so pleased with you! God is confirming who Jesus is. God is confirming Jesus’ mission – he’s doing the right thing. God is saying: Jesus, go for it, get alongside my people, save them from their sins, show them how much I love them.
After the Baptism, before he starts his formal ministry, Jesus is compelled by the Holy Spirit into the desert. There was wisdom in this. When you dash into action without reflection, you often end up acting without focus. Going into the wilderness meant a time to reflect and pray. And when you do that, you find yourself thinking through the “how” of doing things and not just the “What to do”. It meant exploring the different ways of carrying out the job entrusted to him. And inevitably, this led to some dead ends. Mark’s Gospel says that Jesus was tempted by Satan. The other gospels, Matthew and Luke, give a fuller account of three temptations, but here in Mark, the temptation just gets a brief mention. It was certainly about Jesus’ mission and ministry, about his motivation, and the manner in which he would work. If he was a modern leader, he would be thinking about the values he needed to live up to and encourage in others. And Jesus had to reject the values and approaches that were not God’s way of doing things. The way we do things matters, not just what we do.
But in being tempted, Jesus was also entering into solidarity with sinful humans. It continued the work started at the Baptism. Jesus knew what it was like to be human because he lived it through and through. Mark tells us that Jesus was with the wild beasts – which is a very vivid image of what temptation is like, facing the wild beasts both inside us and outside us.
Temptation happens to us all the time – we barely even notice it. We are tempted to cut corners, to lash out at someone when we feel they are getting at us, to show people how displeased we are, to say an unkind word. With social media, there are more opportunities to give in to temptation and send off the angry tweet or put someone down on facebook. And it’s no good saying, “I don’t go on Social Media, so I’m all right”, because you are surely being tempted in other ways. Every time we say the Lord’s Prayer, we say “lead us not into temptation”. Lent is a time when we look at ourselves and try and understand the ways we are being tempted, so that we can build up the resilience to resist.
Jesus knew what it was like to be tempted, and he will help us, when we turn to him and ask for his help.
At the end of the story of Jesus’ temptation, Mark tells us that “the angels waited on him”. May the angels guard us and protect us this Lent, and give us peace and refreshment when we struggle with our own wild beasts.