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After Baptism Comes the Wilderness

Jen Bloesch
Sun, Jan 08

Texts: Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3: 13-17

I believe it was because of baptism that I came to the UCC. You might think that sounds obvious, but you see, I was actually baptized Catholic many years ago in a church in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin. But my baptism never really meant that much to me until I chaperoned at a UCC confirmation retreat with a group of youth.

On this youth retreat, the theme was remembering our baptisms, similar to what we did here for Epiphany just this Friday. So, during the morning service, the pastor, Pastor Eric, pulled out the baptismal fount, and he gave us all a task. Somewhere on the retreat grounds, we were to gather a glass of water that later would be added to the fount.

In the afternoon, we all came back together, and our fount was filled with water from everywhere—from the sink, the snowmelt, and the lake. Pastor Eric then shared a brief homily. He reminded us about the sacredness of water—how much we rely on just the right amount of it. And he shared about how water is a part of our first moments of life—how after our birth we are washed in water. We drink our mother’s milk, which is full of water, and from the moment we are born, we are tied to this Earth through water.

Water, then, has incredible symbolic power, and so is it any wonder why we use it for our baptism? Baptism is a rite of passage, and it is our parents’ way and our community’s way of saying hello. “Hello, and welcome, child. You have now become a member of this Earth community, and with water, the universal symbol of life, we bless you and we mark you. You belong with us, and we will do everything in our power to protect you and care for you. And as Christians, we will teach you that, along the way, you will always have God and Jesus at your side.”

What a beautiful way of interpreting baptism, no?!? Maybe to some of you, this idea of baptism isn’t new. But to me at the time it was revolutionary. Growing up, I just thought that baptism was a way for someone to gain membership into the Catholic church. And I thought that the point of baptism was about protection from sins- even though we had to repent for our sins all the time. But Pastor Eric gave me a new way to think about baptism, and I think it was the first time I fell in love with the UCC’s theology. And that is why I say, because of baptism, I came to the UCC.

So today is the first Sunday following Epiphany, and we have the chance to remember the baptism of a very special individual. Our Scripture passage tell us of Jesus’ own baptism, performed by John the Baptist. I’m sure there is plenty to say about Jesus’ baptism, but funny enough what interests me today is not actually this passage, it’s what comes immediately after. In all three synoptic gospels, Mark, Matthew, and Luke, following his baptism Jesus goes into the wilderness, where he is tempted. Many of you know the story well—the devil bribes Jesus with power multiple times, but each time, Jesus is not tricked. He resists the devil in favor of God.

After Jesus’ forty days and nights in the wilderness, he emerges ready to begin his ministry. Again, in all three gospels the journey is the same, following Jesus’ temptation comes his ministry. Now this interests me because I’ve been taught that when something is repeated in the Bible, it is important. And here, the process for Jesus is the same in three of the four gospels—Jesus is baptized, he goes into the wilderness, and he comes out ready to begin his ministry.

Baptism, wilderness, ministry. What’s crazy about this journey is-- Isn’t that a bit like our own lives? We enter into this world, cute and innocent. We may be baptized as babies, our parents full of hopes for our lives. It seems God was equally a beaming parent when Jesus was baptized. As Jesus resurfaces from the water, God says, “This is my son, with whom I am well pleased.”

For the parents out there, isn’t that almost exactly the thought you had as you watched your child be baptized? Can you remember how pleased you were, standing up there on the altar, looking at your child, not being able to help but think that they are just the most beautiful child on earth and that they have the brightest future of all? Full of pride and love, you promise to help this child resist evil and to follow in the way of Christ.

And then wham! Baptism’s over and the terrible twos hit. And then the teenage years come, and all the parents who were so starry eyed at baptism start to wonder what happened to their kid! Truly, as soon as our baptism is finished, we each head into our own wildernesses. The same seems so with Jesus. I kid you not, in the book of Matthew, these two lines come one right after another, “And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil.” Sound familiar?

We all go through the wilderness in our lives. We encounter all the struggles and trials of life. Life truly is full of temptation! It seems sometimes that life is one big wilderness, and instead of forty days and nights, it is a lifetime long. Yet, with a bit of patience and willingness to learn from our mistakes, we can emerge from the wilderness with life’s wisdom. We come out ready to teach our children and our grandchildren about how to live life the best we can. Assuming we travail the wilderness with openness and courage, we surface as the responsible, composed, loving, and virtuous adults we all hope to be.

Jesus, like us, goes through the wilderness before he emerges a wise man. So often it seems in the Bible that it is Jesus’ perfection that is emphasized. But you know? I’m not so sure. I mean, Jesus seemed to learn a lot faster than the rest of us. He was there only forty days and nights. Quick show of hands—how many of you feel like you made it out of the wilderness in forty days? Yeah, well, Jesus has a leg up on us then, doesn’t he. But that’s not the point. The point is, he went there. He knows what it is like. And even Jesus wasn’t prepared for his ministry until he knew what it meant to face temptation.

So often, I think Christianity focuses on how Jesus succeeded in resisting temptation, hence his perfection. And that makes the rest of us, still caught in the mire of our passions, to be sinful creatures with only a hope to be even half as good as Jesus. But that’s not what I hear in this passage. I hear of a holy man who knows what it’s like that life is not simple. I hear of a holy man who knows that life is hard. Jesus can sympathize with us, and he can be a role model and a friend as we go through the worst of it and as we make our mistakes.

Especially in these times in our society, I often feel that, collectively, we are going through the wilderness. Within a few days, two more mass shootings happened this week, and it’s an all too painful reminder of the dark jungle we find ourselves in. But I find the passage in Acts for this week to be at least a little comforting. The author reminds us that as Jesus healed people, he encountered the devil. But, God was with him. God was with him in the wilderness, and God was with him as he resisted evil. I take heart in this. On the days when I groan that God must be fed up with us humans, who continually insist on doing harm to one another, I remember that God has seen evil before. God was there before, and I dare say God is with us now in the midst of the evil we see today.

And here is where I believe there is a connection back to baptism. So frequently in the liturgy of baptism, there is some mention of a commitment to resist evil. Sadly, we had to postpone a baptism today, but had there been one, you would have heard Dan ask the parents if they will help their child resist evil. And isn’t it just the case? We are bound to face evil in our lives, bound to wrestle with our decisions between right and wrong, and sometimes the dividing line isn’t so clear. God knows this. And just as much as our baptism is a joyful ceremony to welcome new life, so is it a time when we receive God’s blessing as we go forward to encounter life’s challenges. By one version of Christian theology, God’s forgiveness is a benevolent, nearly altruistic grace, by which we are redeemed of our dirty guilt only through the glory of God. But I wonder, perhaps God’s forgiveness, inscribed in our baptisms, is God’s way of saying, “I know it’s hard, and I know in the process of becoming your best self, you will have to reckon with evil. But take heart, because it’s ok.”

I believe that Acts 10, our passage for today, also shares some wisdom with us on baptism. In doing a brief Lectio Divina with this passage, what stuck out to me were the words ‘witnesses’ and ‘testify.’ Both of these words are repeated twice in this short passage, which suggests they are worth paying attention to. The author of Acts wants us to know that it was important that Jesus had witnesses and that there are those who testify to his ministry and his divinity. And what I think is interesting in this passage is Jesus was important, not only because God ‘ordained’ him, but because people paid attention to him. They witnessed the good that he did. They were witnesses to his baptism and to his death. It was because of his disciples, and now because of us, that Jesus’ ministry really means something. We, through our watching, tending, and caring, give meaning, and create what is holy.

And so, I believe that baptism is significant because it offers the opportunity to all of us to be witnesses. We are called to be a witness for each other as through our baptisms we step under the wing of Jesus’ life and ministry and begin our own journeys into that wilderness called life. We affirm each other in our struggles, and we celebrate each other as we mature and become wise. In doing so, we give meaning to each other, and we give each other permission to struggle, to fail, to succeed, to be. We give each other permission to take our best shot at life, and we do so within the loving embrace of a community. What could possibly be a more beautiful task asked of us in baptism?

To me, baptism is a promise. It’s a promise that life is hard, but we are not alone. With our community of witnesses, we walk through the desert, knowing that when we falter, we have a family of people who understand. And our baptism is a promise that we have a companion in Jesus, who himself also wandered in the wilderness. And ultimately, our baptism is a promise that God is with us, understanding us, through every temptation, every step of the way. Amen.

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