A Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent
Over the Christmas holiday, I finished reading a novel called Piranesi about a man who had lived as long as he could remember in what he called the House, a building that stretched farther than he had travelled, and was always always partially submerged by the ocean. This man didn’t remember his name, or couldn’t remember having a name, and was one of only two people alive in the House, the other being another man that our protagonist called “The Other.”
Piranesi is really a story about identity, and the role that virtue plays, that it must play especially when you have no memory, or when your memory is impaired. I bring this novel up today because as I was reflecting on the readings appointed for the first Sunday in Lent, I was struck by the water imagery and the way the readings tie together memory, conscience, and virtue with water and baptism. And that juxtaposition of water and memory and virtue called to mind Piranesi, especially the way the protagonist endured a sort of baptism and exile of his own. But I’m getting ahead of myself mentioning all these things already.
With a couple exceptions, we’ve been hanging out with the Gospeller Mark since early January. Two weeks ago, I drew your attention to the otherworldly character of Jesus in Mark. Unlike the other Gospels, Jesus is always running to and fro, and folks can’t seem to keep up with him. Mark’s favorite word, it seems, is “immediately.”
Indeed, Mark moves so quickly to the next thing, the next story, the next miracle or teaching that it’s common for the reader to move too quickly too, and miss the significance of one of the moments in Jesus’ ministry and teaching.
Take, for instance, his baptism and sojourn in the wilderness.
You might ask yourself, “Why does Jesus get baptized anyway?” But before you can even get the question out, we’re already in the wilderness where Jesus will be tempted.
To our modern ears, material in the beginning of a story can often seem like filler, but I want to slow us down, because Mark leads with the baptism for a reason. He’s not just setting the stage. He’s leading us down this path, and not another.
We’re going this way because the path is everything when we’re talking about a journey. We’re on a journey that begins with baptism, Jesus’ baptism, because this journey has everything to do with Death, Exile, and New Life, and not just Jesus’s death, exile, and new life, but ours as well.
Hence, the 40 days of wilderness prefigure our annual 40 days of Lent.
Spiritually, Lent is one of the most important seasons in our calendar. It returns us to our roots. We see that in the readings for today. Across the four Scriptural excerpts, we encounter creation, sin, death, temptation, forgiveness, life, and promise.
Capturing all these themes, the primary imagery today is water.
This is how the story of created life begins. With water.
We hear about the waters of the flood and the waters of baptism. But especially from the descent of the Spirit in the form of a dove at Jesus’ baptism, we can infer the waters of creation, when the Spirit hovered over the primordial inchoate waters. God then divided the Waters. God brought dry land and vegetation from the waters. And we learn from this symbolic mash-up God is not the God of chaos and death, but the God of creation and life and recreation and new life.
Just as easily, however, water imagery suggests death. In the story of Noah, just several chapters after the creation story, the world’s population—save 8 humans and the animals on the ark all drown. While the scale of death is horrific, we’re not surprised to see water play this role. We already knew that the water of Genesis 1, the waters that needed to be separated from Dry Land for there to be life at all, we already knew that that water is nothing without God.
An aside about the Noah story, I wonder what we make of God here. The flood deserves its own homily, or series of homilies. We need to unpack the tragic state of humanity in Noah’s day, the cruel and murderous way of life they had adopted, the ways they had withdrawn from each other, from God, from Life itself. But even at a quick glance, we see that the story of the Flood is a cautionary one, not about God’s anger or punishment, but about what we do to ourselves when we turn away from life.
The Physical act of baptism depends on the dual imagery of death and life in water. John preached a baptism of repentance. What is repentance but a kind of turning away from self, turning our backs on the hollow craving to fulfill selfish desires that harm myself and others? How better to symbolize that turning away from such narcissism and dysfunction than the imagery of dying and then rising again from the water?
John’s baptism of repentance, however, depends on my initiative, my energy, my commitment.
But my initiative and energy have about as much vitality as the waters in Noah’s flood story. Sure, I’m head strong, but that’s more likely to drown me than lead me to a flourishing and happy life.
John tells his followers that the one who could come after him would baptize them in the Spirit, that Spirit who hovered over the waters, that Spirit who brought forth Life from the inert water. The Spirit given in Jesus’ baptism makes happen what John’s baptism couldn’t. A life that exceeds our selfish initiative and failing resolve. The Life of the Spirit does not destroy us, but perfects our life by giving us that life that we desire but aren’t able to achieve on our own. The Spirit brings a life of fulfillment by opening me up to God’s initiative. The Spirit invites us into this Life, and opens us up to others, to our neighbors, to those that with us make up the Body of Christ.
But we can’t have that fulsome, flourishing, opened life until we die to ourselves, that is, until we turn away from our intense drive for self, for power, our appetites and inertia that serve only ourselves, and not others.
In fact, Jesus’ life helps us to see the human story more clearly. Immediately following Jesus’ amazing, spectacular baptism, he abandons the popularity promised by the supernatural phenomenon of his baptism, and he runs to the desert for forty days.
And during those 40 days he undergoes temptations.
Now, in hindsight, we all know he would never have succumbed to those temptations. So you might wonder, what’s the point. Why subject himself to them in the first place. Is this simply a futile gesture?
But take another look. The temptations show us how Jesus has already died to self, how Jesus had already abandoned any sense of self-advancement or self-preservation; he’d given up on power, comfort, influence. Jesus walked through the waters of baptism and rose out of them committed to others in love, to telling them the truth, to opening the gates of the Kingdom of God wide to all. Jesus, empowered by the Spirit and his Father, lives a life turned toward the Kingdom of God.
The 40 days Jesus spent after his baptism weren’t wasted; they demonstrate to us the kind of self-denial that should mark our lives, the kind of self-denial we should practice with a renewed intensity during our own 40 days, during the Season of Lent. This is the self-denial that reflects a life renewed by the Spirit.
Lent brings us back to the basics, as I said earlier. And by the basics, I meant living our lives in the wake of our own baptisms, dying to ourselves, and rising again empowered by the Spirit, to live lives that are transparent to Christ.
If you haven’t been baptized, I invite you to become one of God’s children. Reach out to me or any other Christian and ask to be baptized. I promise, you’ll be shaken up, you’ll have to repent, but you won’t be disappointed.
If you have been baptized, then you have already died to yourself. But you will find yourself attempting to resuscitate those old ways. Let them go, friend. They’re dead, and you have died. But you also have been called to a new life. You have been given the Spirit of New Life. Let go of what’s dead, and Live!
Living this New Life is only the beginning of our faith.
There’s more, so much more.
But somehow, mysteriously, everything is contained in the waters of baptism.