**This post is from my sermon on February 22, 2015 (First Sunday in Lent) at Christ Church Cathedral, Lexington, KY**
"It happened in those days that Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John. And immediately as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending like a dove upon him; and there came a voice from the heavens, saying: "You are my son, my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased." And the Spirit immediately drove Jesus into the desert, and he was there for forty days, being tried out by Satan. He was with the beasts, but the angels were ministering to him."
--Mark 1: 9-14 (translation by P.H. Epps)
I'd like you to think of a graduation. Your own, preferably. Be it from middle school, high school, college, or grad school. Do you remember what that felt like, putting on a gown, walking across a stage in front of a bunch of folks, getting a fancy piece of paper, and then being sent out into a strange new world? And then what happened? You were sent out into a strange, new world. My most recent graduation was from seminary. My Mom, Dad, and sister all came up to New York City, one of the rare moments when the four of us were together. About 200 people crammed into the seminary chapel, and we sang hymns, knelt before our dean as our academic hoods were placed around our necks, and we got this big fancy diploma written in Latin—of which I can’t read a single word besides my name! We celebrated afterwards. But then, we actually headed off into the world. And while I don’t wanna speak for my anyone else, I was terrified. It was all so real now. I had to actually go out into this strange new world and do ministry. It was scary stuff. I wonder if any of your graduations were like that…
With my family at my graduation from General Seminary.
Graduations are moments when we are sent out into a new frontier, an undiscovered country, if you will. Sometimes graduations are treated as self-contained events, but really they are the start of something new, exciting, and often very, very scary. We have such ceremonies in the Church, of course. We call them baptism, confirmation, and ordination. And this is where we find Jesus today, at one such ceremony.
We are back at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, a place we found ourselves back on January 11 when we celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. But while, on that day, we ended our reading with those beautiful words from God, ‘This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased,’ we get the aftermath today.
What happens once Jesus is baptized? Well, he doesn’t go out to brunch with family and friends like some of us might. He is immediately driven out into the wilderness. In Greek the word used is eutheos, meaning straightway, forthwith, or instantly, and it is Mark's favorite word. There is no time to bask in the glory of Jesus' baptism; instead, in his first moments of earthly ministry, he is whisked away into the wilderness, the desert, the unknown, fearful world.
There once was a seminary student who was doing her clinical pastoral education, which is the piece of every clergy person’s education that requires one to serve as a chaplain for at least a summer. This student chose to do her work in prison ministry. She arrived her first day, received her badge and a quick rundown of the layout of her facility, was introduced to her supervisor and fellow chaplains, and was then immediately told, ‘OK, go do ministry!’ No warm up, no week of orientation. Just dropped into the middle of the wilderness.
Similarly, we find Jesus being dropped into the wilderness. Here he is faced with all sorts of temptations, all sorts of evils. The text says he is tempted, or tried out, by Satan, which is simply a Hebrew word for ‘adversary,’ and that he is out there for 40 days, again a Hebrew expression for a long period of time, not necessarily to be taken literally. The point, however, is that Jesus faced great difficulties out in the wilderness, and he faced them over a long period of time. So, right after this joyful occasion of baptism, Jesus, with no prior ministerial experience that we know of, has to go into a dreadful situation that, I suspect, none of us would willingly enter into ourselves. How does he do it?
He does it because the Spirit wills that he do it. The Spirit is the one that drives him to do it. The very same Spirit that descended upon him as he came out of the water, the very Spirit that spoke the voice of God and called him beloved, is the Spirit that sends him into the wilderness.
Brothers and sisters, in the same way, our baptisms confirmations, or ordinations, while joyful, celebratory occasions, were not self-contained events, but they were the beginning. And in the same way, the Spirit that descended upon us at those joyful ceremonies, the Spirit that has sealed us and marked us as Christ’s own forever, has sent us out into a world that is, quite honestly, very, very scary. Like a young person after a graduation, we have each had our ceremony, and now, as we find ourselves out in the ‘real’ world, God has told each and every one of us the same thing that that prison chaplain was told, ‘OK, go do ministry!’ I don’t know about you, but when I think about that, when I REALLY think about that, it seems too big, too much. How? How can I, how can we, possibly do this?
I suspect Jesus thought the same thing out there in the wilderness. Still, the Spirit continued to sustain him during his journey. Not only that, but we are told, as Preston Epps translates it, that the angels ministered to him. What a beautiful image?! The angels surrounding Jesus, lifting him up, supporting him. See. He didn’t have to do it alone. And neither do we. Look around you and you will see God’s angels, God's messengers. You will see those who will minister to you, with you, for the sake of the Good News. They are in your church, at your work office, in your home, and out on the streets. They are everywhere! Ministry may seem like a monumental task and, believe me, it is. Feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, preaching love to those who have never heard such a thing, yes it is monumental. But it is never done alone.
This season of Lent is a time to prayerfully remind ourselves of the call that God has issued to each of us, a call that we will reaffirm with the neophytes—the newly baptized—at that Great Vigil of Easter. The Spirit has blessed each of you and called you beloved in your baptisms, your confirmations, and your ordinations, and the Spirit is driving you out into the wilderness of this world to proclaim that the Kingdom of God has, indeed, come near. There are temptations, worries, and fears, and it will be very scary. But be not afraid, brothers and sisters. The Spirit is your guide. And God’s angels are ministering to you, with you. You are, we are, never alone.