To be made of dust and water
|Daniel Bonnell, The Baptism of Christ|
One Wednesday night in cold February, 2008, I stood in line holding my nearly six month old son on my hip as he sucked his little fist and clung to me with his other arm. In front of me was a dear 99 year old woman. I watched the pastor smear ashes on her soft, wrinkled forehead and say, “From dust you came and to dust you shall return.”
I felt my heart rise to my throat and the tears come to my eyes as I witnessed this and thought, not long now.
The pastor’s words felt very true as I watched this woman slowly turn to walk away, leaning heavily on her cane. The truth of our mortality, I thought, right before my eyes.
But I snapped back to attention when the next thing I knew, the pastor was pressing her ash-covered finger to my baby’s own soft, tiny forehead and saying the very same words to him, from dust you came and to dust you shall return. Then the tears did come. I didn’t want what was true for the old woman with a long, full life behind her and one foot in the grave to be true also for my tiny one, not long out of the womb with his whole life in front of him. But it ‘s true of us all.
And Lent is about telling the truth.
We’ve begun our 40 days of Lent, to mirror Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness. It’s the 40 days that lead up to Easter (minus the Sundays, which for Christians are always days of resurrection). And we begin Lent with these verses from Mark, that pack into a very small space Jesus’ baptism, his temptation in the wilderness, and beginning of his ministry – all in whirlwind kind of storytelling that leaves no room for details. Baptism. Wilderness. Ministry. Ready, set, go!
Jesus comes up out of the waters of his baptism, and the Spirit like a gentle dove alights on him, and the voice of God says, “You are my child, Beloved One. I am delighted in you.” And then, suddenly, violently, the same Spirit drives him, still dripping, into the wilderness.
The wilderness is a big motif in scripture and a big metaphor in our lives. Perhaps we think of wilderness as barren and lonely, and it often it is. Isolated, cut off from what gives you security, community, purpose and direction, wilderness feels somehow both wandering and stranded at the same time, with the very real possibility that you will not make it out alive.
But in Mark’s breathless and brief telling, the wilderness feels almost crowded and noisy, Jesus was surrounded by wild beasts and inundated by temptations delivered by Satan, and ministered to by angels.
And Mark says almost nothing about the temptations. The other gospels describe this in some detail, but Mark finds it sufficient to say he was tempted by evil incarnate, and leave the rest to the imagination.
Perhaps for Mark it doesn’t matter specifically what the temptation was; just that it was a real temptation. He wasn’t teased by the devil, or given a safe opportunity to flex his refusal muscles or assert his boundaries, like practicing a language, or doing a training exercise. This wasn’t a game; Jesus was genuinely tempted.
Tempted, like we are. Tempted to hunker in our corners and shout insults at the other side, rallying against our enemies. Tempted to give in to despair, or let anger swallow us up. Tempted to make our world really small and really safe and really pleasant and ignore anything that feels too big or overwhelming, especially the plights of others. Tempted to numb the pain – with alcohol, or medications, or pornography, or non-stop work or being sucked into the social media vortex, whatever dangerous addiction or mindless pastime we can find to help us not to feel bad, even if it means we wont feel much at all.
Temptation is real and all of us face it. Jesus did too.
And in the wilderness, stripped down to desperation, everything offered to him - each deal or suggestion or idea that evil incarnate held before him - seemed really, really good, and he was tempted to give in, to take the sweet relief offered and be done with the struggle. It was a fight within himself, a battle to resist, complete with doubt and second guessing and anxiety. Oh, and also there were wild beasts. Mark doesn’t elaborate on them either.
And then angels come and minister to Jesus in the wilderness.
And that’s all Mark has to say about them too.
But the story doesn’t begin in the wilderness; it all begins with baptism.
And so even as the sign of the ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday made visible, traced over the blessing spoken on us at our own baptisms, we begin Lent here, too, the place of our identity, belonging and naming, Beloved.
We begin at baptism. Today we will remember our own baptisms as we baptize little Rowen.
When God with us came into this life he took on death alongside us. Before his ministry begins, Jesus is plunged under the water symbolizing chaos and death, and pulled back into the light of breath and life. He metaphorically dies and is risen –and when we are baptized into his death and resurrection, we do the same.
We don’t do it very dramatically here- you should go home and watch the youtube video of the Orthodox priests in Georgia thrusting babies head first into water and then flipping them over and and dunking their feet, three times back and forth, head feet head feet head feet, in less than 5 seconds total, and then dropping them into an outstretched towel before these waterlogged little ones know what hit them and set up wailing.
Here we just pour an almost tidy amount of water on the head.
But the intention is that it symbolizes our death and our resurrection, both our actual death and our death to all that keeps us from life –and a rising to life in Jesus’ own life and death, now to be defined by love, the Kingdom of God, the reality we choose to live in.
Rowen can’t choose this yet. He gets to be told later that God’s love was spoken and poured over him before he could do anything to earn or reject it. And that it will be the very last thing true about him as well. It never ends. Nothing he can do can make God stop loving him. This is what gets to define him now. Not any success or failure in his life, not anything anyone else thinks about him, or even what he thinks about himself. Only this: God naming him beloved.
Brittany and Jonathan, when you hand your son over to the waters, you are handing him over to the real reality. You are saying, Yes, death will come for him. But death is not the final word. The final word is life – love, resurrection, hope. And the first and last word of his identity is beloved, child of God, delight of God’s heart.
The most terrible temptations he will face, pure evil that is in this world, the wild beasts that will threaten to tear him apart, the lonely and barren places he will walk through in his lifetime, cannot separate him from God’s love, cannot change his identity, or his calling. Beloved, child of God in whom God delights.
This means Rowen can live without fearing death. He can live without dodging his vulnerability or hiding his weakness. He can live without avoiding or numbing pain, or striving to try to earn his belonging.
Rowen will be invited to live into his baptismal identity. From this day forward, he is called to discover what it means to belong to God and belong to all others – to let love be what defines him, to receive and give forgiveness, to join in the ministry of God always underway, and to know in the wilderness that he is not alone and that it doesn’t end there.
I wonder if the reason Jesus’ wilderness experience comes immediately after his baptism, is because to truly be human Jesus must come face to face with evil incarnate. Must experience despair, and fear, and temptation, and being ministered to.
To take in that God has claimed and chosen you to join in God’s reality and bring others into it too, brings you right up against your own complete inability to fulfill that calling, makes you face the despair at the futility of it all, if it is in your own hands.
Because if it is all in our own hands we are doomed.
It’s been a hard week. A school shooting brings to light the existence of absolute evil, and the terrible suffering we can often ignore, along with the culpability and failure of us all to be who we are meant to be and to love as we are meant to love, and the utter impossibility of protecting those who need protection and preventing horrible things from happening. Life is precarious and sometimes terrifying. And we rage and wail at it and wring our hands and try to overcome our limitations but we are just as helpless to create good and stop evil as we’ve ever been. The truth of our mortality is right before our eyes.
And yet, and yet, Jesus comes out of the wilderness proclaiming to the world that there is another way. That the time is right now. That God’s transformation of the world is already happening. And that you, and I, and everyone else, is invited us to trust in it, and join in it too. Because it’s not in our hands at all, this is God’s show.
In this time before Easter when we enter Lent, we endeavor to repent, and to trust in this good news, because normally in life, we are not very good at either one of these things.
And then we go with honesty into a kind of wilderness, where we face our fears and the beasts that threaten to tear us apart, where we name evil incarnate, and feel the temptations to numb or hide, or hurt, or hate, so enticing with their false promises of relief. We go to that place of wilderness honesty and vulnerability. We join Jesus there.
From dust we came and to dust we shall return, every single one of us, ready or not. Lent helps us tell that truth, but also the truth about death being real but not the end. Lent invites us to live into the absurd truth that in weakness and fragility, love overpowers and outlasts hate and evil.
Because we have looked at death without looking away, we will be ready to welcome life. We will be ready for the good news of the resurrection that opens wide our hearts when we let them be broken first by the truth of our mortality.
Only then can the angels minister to us, and only then can we come out the other side not only proclaiming but believing it for ourselves – that the kingdom of God has come near. That God’s love and salvation has come into the world, is coming even now, and will one day be all that endures. Only then are we ready to truly live out our calling – brave and vulnerable and real. On Easter we come out of the wilderness proclaiming to the world that there is another way. That the time is right now. That God’s transformation of the world is already happening. And that you, and I, and everyone else, is invited us to trust in it and join in it too. Because it’s not in our hands at all, this is God’s show.
Beloved, children of God, delight of God’s heart, this is the story that defines you, this is the identity into which you are called, this is the truth spoken over you, and this is the life into which you are sent. Baptism. Wilderness. Ministry.
Let us join Jesus there and begin again.