Sunday, January 22, 2017

January 8, 2017 - Baptized for the Wilderness

So today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus, and by extension our own baptism. In a nutshell, baptism is that act in which we pour water on someone’s head, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and thus invite God to claim the baptized person as God’s own child, beloved, as Jesus is. Baptism is not our act, but God’s act. It is not even our decision, but the decision of the Holy Spirit moving within us, bringing us to want baptism, either for ourselves or for our children. And it is God who is the primary actor in baptism. Anyone can pour water on someone’s head, and anyone can say those words, (and by anyone, I truly mean anyone. Each of you here has the power and authority to baptize someone in an emergency, and it will be a valid baptism), and God will enter into that moment and make it holy. God will establish an unbreakable covenant with the one who is being baptized - that God will always and forever watch over the baptized, that God will always and forever love and forgive the baptized, and that God will always and forever consider the baptized to be God’s beloved child. Without question. Irrevocably. Done, and done. Above all else, our baptism is our assurance and our comfort that no matter what we do, and no matter what is done to us, we are God’s children, and brothers and sisters of Christ, brought into both his death and his resurrection, and we will be reunited with God in the end and with one another, come what may.

I could go on about the the benefits and blessings of baptism for hours, actually. But, as mature Christians––and I mean that in reference to you all having been in the church for so long, and not in reference to your age––as mature Christians, we cannot overlook that the baptism of our Lord, in the Gospel of Matthew at least, was immediately followed by his time in the wilderness. The very next verse says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.” And if you’ll remember, he was first tempted to make himself bread, because he was dying of hunger, and then tempted to use his divine power to save his own life, and then tempted to worship the devil and rule the world. And Jesus refused all of these temptations with the reply that it is God who feeds us, God who saves us, and God who rules us. And the devil left. 
Now we don’t know what the connection is between baptism and these temptations in the wilderness - whether they are the result of being baptized, or whether everyone experiences them whether or not they’re baptized, but there is one. Baptism, and then the wilderness. We don’t know whether God sent Jesus, or whether God sends us into the wilderness, or we find our way there on our own, or the world just thrusts us there through random events. The Gospels themselves present different viewpoints, and theologians since then have argued strongly about which one it is. What we do know, though, is that baptism is, for Jesus and thus for us, both the entrance into the wilderness and our protection in that wilderness.

The wilderness is, of course, all of those times and places where we are tempted––with self-preservation. Where we are tempted to protect ourselves, to survive, to ensure that we make it through. Jesus was famished, and was tempted with bread. He was at the mercy of wild animals in the wilderness, and was tempted with power. He was a vulnerable human, and was tempted with the Devil’s power to be strong. We, too, are tempted with these things. We are tempted to put our own bodily survival ahead of others, we are tempted to use power and authority and influence to make things go our way. We are tempted to align ourselves with others who are more powerful, so they can protect us.
And, to be clear, these are not inherently bad things. Wanting to feed ourselves, and wanting to help others, and wanting to be protected, these are not bad. It’s just that self-preservation is not actually the goal of the Christian life. The goal of the Christian life is to follow God, which by extension means following Christ. The goal of the Christian life is to act so that God, not us, receives the glory for all the successes in our lives.

But the devil likes to tempt us away from God and to ourselves, “curved in on ourselves,” as Luther liked to say, and so we are most often tempted by those things that we think we would be particularly good at. Jesus would have been great at feeding the world with bread. He would have been fantastic at ruling the world, and at establishing justice and fairness with a wave of his hand. But Jesus knew that that was not God’s plan for the world. And so Jesus put aside his own capabilities in order that God would be the one doing all this, so that God would receive the glory, and not Jesus. And this is what we are called to do as well, in times when we are asked to do what we are best at, to consider whether we are doing these things for our own self-preservation and our own glory, or for the benefit of the world and the glory of God. Because usually, since we have been baptized and we are now in the wilderness, we act for our own self-preservation and glory.

But it is so, so important to remember that, in the end, Jesus turned away from these temptations. Jesus chose *not* to use his power, so that God’s power might shine more clearly. Jesus chose to abandon all of his power, actually. Jesus chose the completely powerless path that led to his own death. So that God’s power might shine forth most brightly in Jesus’ resurrection. Although the wilderness story in the Gospel of Matthew lasted only forty days and forty nights, in a real sense, Jesus’ wilderness experience lasted all the way to the cross. Every day of his ministry, he was tempted with the power to choose to live, rather than to submit to death. Until that very moment when he breathed his last, he was in a wilderness where he was tempted to choose self-preservation, just as we are. 

But he didn’t give in to that temptation. And neither do we. Because he, and we, are children of a covenant with God. Jesus, actually, was a child of the covenant through Torah and his Jewish circumcision, as all Jews are. Jesus was covenanted with God before his baptism. But we, who are not Jewish and so not beholden to Torah and the law, are covenanted through water and the Word - through our Christian baptism. Which means that Jesus, and we, do not need to strive for self-preservation. We do not need to give in to the temptation to save ourselves because God is going to do it for us. God has a better plan in mind for us than simply existing. God’s plan for us involves something new. A new life that we cannot possibly imagine, one that exists for us and for others. God’s plan for Jesus, and for us, is that even though we die, we live. God’s plan is to involve us in a demonstration of God’s glory that extends far beyond simply our existence, but into something truly better, something glorious, the fulfillment of our baptism.

We are always tempted with decisions in our wildernesses––we will, in a few weeks, as a congregation, be tempted with a decision in this particular wilderness of survival. On an individual level, we are all tempted with our own personal wildernesses, ones that are always, at their heart, about self-preservation and survival. But God has already prepared us to resist these temptations by baptizing us. God has already claimed us as God’s own beloved children, and thus assures us that we are “preserved” no matter what happens to us. God has already chosen us, and taken us by the hand, and kept us, as our reading from Isaiah says. Despite the temptations we face in the wilderness, we cannot be harmed. The devil, you’ll notice, was not able to harm Jesus during his time with him. And the devil cannot harm us. Death is not harmful to us. By virtue of our baptism, because we are in an unbreakable covenant with God, not even death will harm us, because God will watch over us. We may die, to be sure, and we will all die eventually, but God keeps us and brings us to new life.

Just before I was ordained, I got a tattoo of a cross. I got it as a permanent reminder to myself that I am baptized, and that no matter what, my baptism, and God’s love that goes with it, can never be removed. It’s on my back, because I was too chicken to get it on my forehead, which is actually where it should be. Each one of us who is baptized has a cross, made with water, permanently “tattooed” on our foreheads. Each time we look in the mirror, each time we look at one another, we should see that cross there. Each time we wonder what decision we should make about something, we should look in the mirror, and look at one another, and see that cross and remember that our lives, and the lives of those we love who are baptized, are protected by God. Preserved, not through our own actions, but through God’s. So we can face the wildernesses we are in, and we can and will make the right choices, because of that cross. Because we are baptized, in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, claimed and kept by God. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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