By the Reverend Nancy Emmel-Gunn
Our Gospel reading is found in the first chapter of Mark. This passage is immediately after the first verses of Mark, where we are introduced to John, who is doing the business of baptizing people. Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus has been up to this point in his now adult life. Other Gospel writers tell us Jesus’ earthly parents knew from divine visitations that that was a special baby, the very son of God. But we are not provided a history of Jesus’ home life or vocation.
We can, however, use our theological imagination. Perhaps Jesus was living with his parents, working in his father’s carpentry business, coming home each night to a nice meal cooked by Mom, spending time with his family and friends, and being a good, observant, young Jewish man.
Today, we learn Jesus goes to be baptized by this locust-eating character, John. All the people are being baptized and, like them, Jesus is immersed in the water. As he comes out of the waters of the Jordan, this remarkable thing happens. The heavens are torn apart, the Spirit descended, and a voice came from heaven “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” The voice is speaking to Jesus directly. No sooner does Jesus hear this, but the Spirit drives him out into the wilderness. Dripping wet, he hears this heavenly voice, and then is expelled into the nearby wilderness.
This Gospel contains one of those moments where Christ’s divinity and humanness are revealed: when he is being Jesus the man and Jesus the son of God in the same instant, cleansed as a human, and called as divine.
Jesus as human does not jump at the opportunity to take this wilderness trip. Mark reports he is driven there. Jesus follows the Spirit’s direction and remains in the wilderness for forty days. On the one hand, Jesus lives among the wild beasts and is tempted by Satan. On the other, he is waited on by angels. He encounters the earthly and the heavenly.
We might picture the kind of turmoil the human part of Jesus was experiencing. That it took forty days for him to come to terms with his mission suggests he had an ample struggle. What might he have had to let go of, what might he have had to surrender? Trading in his quiet life at home for an itinerant one, preaching instead of inheriting his father’s business, perhaps letting go of hopes of marrying and settling down. Jesus was living in an empire controlled by Rome, where the emperor was deemed divine. Surely, he appreciated what a tremendous threat his mission to spread the good news of love would present to Rome’s oppressive authority. There was too the knowledge that his preaching would shake his own Jewish community. And finally, this work he was commanded to do would lead to his premature, earthly death. We can assume he had an out with Satan to escape this danger. But Jesus refused the softer path and after this struggle in the wilderness, Jesus as human being accepted his call, and emerged ready to do his ministry.
Surely, we are called upon in this season to do far less in our forty days. When I grew up, we were asked what we were "giving up for Lent," this season of repentance and denial. Unfortunately, often our giving up was not always wholehearted. We returned to drinking soda, or rolling our eyes at our mothers, within a matter of days. You may have stuck it out and found in your sacrifice a light was shown on the meaning of giving something up. Changing ourselves, even just one single thing for forty days, is no small accomplishment.
This pandemic however, has given us a head start on Lent. We have had to give up hanging out with family, embracing our friends. We have had to do without our entertainments, going to concerts and plays and the holiest of St. Louis sports, Cardinal baseball. These though are small prices to pay for health and safety. Others have paid an incredibly high price in this pandemic: people of color with disproportionate adverse Covid health outcomes, poorly paid nurses’ aides who have faced this disease, those who have lost work and housing... but the inequity of this pandemic is another sermon. Our losses and limitations have paired down our demands and distractions. As the Bishop said in his sermon on Ash Wednesday, this pandemic has revealed what is important: those we love, those we serve.
Lent invites us to surrender even further those parts of ourselves that separate us from each other and from God, those parts of ourselves that remain despite efforts to improve ourselves.
It requires no deep reflection on my part to name what I have to surrender this Lenten season. I came here just three weeks ago as your transitional deacon, eager to learn and serve, but as always, tied to my desire to look good, to my perfectionism. This perfectionism is a demon of sorts for me. I recall the warning given by my trial advocacy professor in law school, “Never ask a witness a question you don’t know the answer to.” Never be surprised and never look ruffled.
But here I sit before you, serving as your deacon in these unusual circumstances that have produced bumps and lumps. I must ask questions when I don’t know the answer.
So rather than giving something up, I wonder if we might ponder, individually and as a community, what stands in the way of our service to God? In order to do this though, we must travel through the wilderness.
The twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous have some remarkable advice for us in this wilderness time. Having discerned the things that stand in the way of our service to God and one another, we seek to become ready to have God remove these shortcomings. This becoming ready is a powerful and disturbing spot. We see that we have paid a price for our shortcomings. We ask ourselves and God: "Is that behavior, is that way of doing things really worth it?" There is a suffering in becoming aware, inhabiting the realization of that cost.
I expect that for me, this round of wilderness will be another pass through the familiar closet of dress up, once again tossing out clothes of inauthenticity and perfectionism. I will ask, what intimacy have I lost in trying to appear capable? What would be available to me and others if I revealed my imperfection? When we complete our cost benefit analysis and admit that the price of our shortcomings has become too high, we become ready to surrender these things that divide. We surrender to God for comfort and cure.
Perhaps, like me, what stops you will leap to the surface. Or perhaps you will require a period of discernment to find what stands in your way. God calls us to do his work of loving him, ourselves and our brothers and sisters and we need to be in good shape, to be our best selves to be up to the challenge. If we accept and settle into the deep of the wilderness, we finally get quiet, and eventually we can hear a whisper from our creator “You are beloved.” And He will lead us to our place of healing.
In this journey within, we will encounter wild beasts. Wild beasts may take the form of people who think they have all the answers, or others that just plain challenge us. And there will be angels. Angels like you good people, opening your hearts and hands, feeding the poor and un-housed, and nourishing others of us with your goodness. We will imagine God’s work alive and abundant here on Arsenal Street, and go about readying ourselves to make Christ’s love a reality in our midst and in our world around us. Amen
The Reverend Nancy Emmel-Gunn is a transitional deacon in the Diocese of Missouri serving at St. John's.
Various members of the St. John's congregation contribute to this blog. For editorial suggestions, contact Jeff McIntire-Strasburg at email@example.com