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Baptism and Temptation
The Jordan River and the Wilderness
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased." At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. (Mark 1:9-13 NIV)
Baptism and Forgiveness
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. (Mark 1:4-5 NRSV)
The Jordan River, where John was baptizing, was an eight-hour walk through the desert from Jerusalem. Yet Mark tells us that many from Jerusalem made the trek to hear John preach and to be immersed by him in the Jordan. Why did they walk eight hours, some more, to answer John's call to repent?
John dressed in the garments of a prophet. He spoke powerfully. People came believing that God had sent this man, and that his message was from God. He called the people to repent and to be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins. What John offered at the Jordan was God's forgiveness and a chance to begin anew. Which of us doesn't long for this at times?
She was in her thirties and had lived a hard life. She began attending our church, yearning for a new beginning. She had come to be baptized, and I spoke with her about the meaning of this act. In my tribe (Methodists), baptism has a kaleidoscope of meanings. Among these, it is a dramatic sign of God's grace and mercy—his willingness to wash us and make us new. It is an outward sign of God's forgiveness.
As she approached the baptistery she had tears in her eyes. She asked, "Pastor Adam, does God really forgive all that I've done? I've done a lot of terrible things." I assured her that as she came to God, repentant, he would forgive it all. And I reminded her that Christian baptism is a sign not only of God's forgiveness for sins in the past, but a promise of forgiveness when, in the future, we stumble and need his grace. And thus, with her baptism, she began a new life.
Do you ever feel a yearning for forgiveness and a new beginning? Every morning as I step into the shower, I remember my baptism and ask God to wash me and make me new. At times I feel a profound sense of my own sin and my longing for his grace. At other times I simply know that there are ways in which I have not lived up to his calling on my life. Either way, I recall with gratitude God's forgiveness and his claim upon my life.
If you have yet to be baptized, speak with your pastor about this profound act. If you have been baptized, remember your baptism each day as you bathe, inviting God, once again, to wash you and cover you by his grace.
Lord, in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done and what I have left undone, I have sinned against you and others. Remember the promise you made at my baptism, and wash me anew. I call upon the grace you offer us in Jesus Christ. Amen.
Fruits Worthy of Repentance
[And John said to them,] "Bear fruits worthy of repentance." ... And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?" In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise." (Luke 3:8-11 NRSV)
Repentance involves the entire person: head, heart, and hands. The word in Greek, metanoia, means literally to "think differently afterward" and signifies a change of thinking that leads to a change of heart that leads ultimately to a change in behavior. It is not enough, John said to the multitudes who came to be baptized, to step into the water. Repentance is accompanied by a change in life—there must be fruit born of repentance and baptism.
It is interesting to note that in Luke's gospel, when the people asked what this fruit looked like, all three of John's responses were economic in nature. Fruit worthy of repentance involved a person who had two coats sharing one with a person who had none (verse 11). For tax collectors, it was making sure not to overcharge people when collecting taxes (verse 13). And for soldiers, it was refusing to extort money through false accusations and being content with their pay (verse 14).
John's list wasn't comprehensive, but it was interesting nonetheless. If you and I are seeking to live as those who are repentant sinners—as those who wish to live for God—then we'll share with those in need, we'll be fair in our business dealings, and we'll be content with our pay.
My experience is that people who live this way—who are generous and giving, who seek to be honest and fair, and who are not focused on constantly yearning for more—are happier in life and usually more successful. Who do you admire more: people who are generous or people who are greedy? Who would you rather do business with: people who only look out for themselves or people who have your best interests at heart? Who would you rather have as a friend: people who are never content and slander others or people who are content with what they have and speak well of others?
Reed lives by John's list. A banker and a member of the church I serve, he's one of a thousand people I know like him. Reed carries his success with humility. He is genuinely interested in his clients and puts their needs before his own. And if he saw someone who needed a coat, he would give it without being asked. Reed isn't perfect, but to me he exhibits the economic fruit of repentance John called for.
Are you producing the fruits of repentance? Are you regularly giving to help those in need? Are you fair and honest in all your dealings? Do you speak well of others? And are you cultivating contentment with what you have?
Lord, help me to produce fruit in keeping with repentance. Help me to be generous, honest, and content with what I have. In Jesus' name. Amen.
The Baptism of Jesus
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?" But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:13-17 NRSV)
Jesus was intentional about beginning his public ministry by coming to his cousin, John, to be baptized. This was a kind of ordination and unveiling for Jesus.
But why would Jesus be baptized? Why would he need a "baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins?" This is a question Christians have wrestled with since the first Gospels were written. Matthew raises the question for us by citing John's words to Jesus: "I need to be baptized by you, and you come to me?" (Matthew 3:14 NRSV).
In choosing to be baptized, Jesus was identifying fully with humanity. He stood publicly with those who felt alienated from God and in need of grace. He waded into the water with the broken, the guilty, and those who felt far from God. This was a foreshadowing of what he would do in his ministry, when he befriended sinners and tax collectors, and ultimately when he died on the cross.
I'm reminded of Joan Osborne's 1995 song, "One of Us," that famously asked, "What if God was one of us / Just a slob like one of us." When Jesus stepped into the Jordan River to be baptized, he was "just a slob like one of us." He was showing himself to be the "Son of Man," a phrase that appears eighty-one times in the Gospels to describe Jesus.
But even as Jesus showed himself to be the Son of Man, the heavens opened, the Spirit descended, and he heard the voice of God say, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased" (Matthew 3:17 NRSV). He was not only the Son of Man. He was the beloved Son of God.
Jesus was called "Beloved" by the Father. The Greek word is agapetos, and it is a term of great affection. I think of the love I have for my daughters and my wife, who are beloved to me. The apostles came to use the word as a way of addressing their fellow Christians. Again and again in the letters of the New Testament, the apostles addressed Christians as "Beloved." Who are they beloved by? They, and we, are beloved by God.
We believe that in our baptism God claims us as his beloved children, just as he did with Jesus, his only begotten Son. When we remember our baptisms, we remember our identity, and we remember that God has a deep affection for all of us. We are God's beloved children.
As you reflect upon Jesus' baptism, remember his humility in choosing to identify with broken and sinful people. Remember the Father's claim, in his baptism, that Jesus was his beloved son. But pause for a moment to remember your own baptism. Know that God has claimed you as his beloved child.
Jesus, thank you for identifying with our human brokenness—that we might identify with your divine sonship. Help me to believe that I really am one of the Father's beloved. Amen.
Tempted by Food
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread." But he answered, "It is written, 'One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.'" (Matthew 4:1-4 NRSV)
I weighed myself this morning. I was one pound heavier than yesterday. How did that happen? Ugh! It's a constant battle in my life. Do I eat that extra piece of pizza? Do I grab a handful of dark chocolate peanut M&Ms from the jar by my desk? Do I super-size it, or accept the smallish regular size? And yes, I'll take my cake à la mode.
I struggle daily with the temptation of food. The percentage of Americans who are overweight tells me that I'm not alone.
Immediately after hearing the voice of the Father saying he was God's beloved son, Jesus left John and the Jordan behind and made his way to the wilderness to fast and pray for forty days. The wilderness of Judea is breathtakingly beautiful. It is a desert made up of mountains and hills and hundreds ravines cut by rivers that flow when the rains come. Caves line the walls of the ravines and the sides of the mountains. Once, thousands of monks lived in those caves; the few monks who still live there can be found in one of the handful of monasteries built into those mountainsides.
Jesus came to the desert to fast for forty days, just as Moses and Elijah had done centuries before him. Fasting is difficult because food is our most basic of needs. Our brains are wired to be looking constantly for the next meal. Fasting is a way of redirecting our focus from food to God. It is a way of reminding ourselves that we "do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God."
The devil came to Jesus near the end of his fast. I doubt that the devil appeared in physical form; instead, he probably came as he does when tempting and testing us, through a whisper or a thought planted in our brain that will not let us go. The temptation was for Jesus to break his fast and eat. It was food the tempter tested him with, just as he had tested Adam and Eve in the Garden long before.
Interpreters have seen much more in this temptation. The devil twice remarked, "If you are the Son of God ..." as if Jesus' struggle was whether he really believed what God had said at the Jordan River. This is precisely how the devil tempted Adam and Eve: "Did God really say not to eat the fruit of this tree?" (Genesis 3:1, paraphrase). Perhaps Jesus' real temptation was to use his power to alleviate the hunger he felt, just as later he was tempted to use his power to avoid the cross. Maybe the devil was planting a seed in his mind that if he could turn stones to bread, he might also win followers while bypassing the cross. All of these thoughts may have been a part of the temptation that day.
Ultimately, as I read this temptation, I remember that Jesus was tempted by the very thing I struggle with each day. He had the self-control to say no to the devil's whispers, to neither break his fast nor use his powers for self-preservation. Jesus reminded himself and the devil that we don't live by bread alone. We live by the words that proceed from the mouth of God. This, in the end, is the point of fasting.
Jesus, thank you for revealing the story of your temptations to the disciples, who shared those stories with us. It is good to know that you, too, struggled with temptation. Help me in my struggles with the tempter. Amen.
Suspending the Laws of Physics
Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, 'He will command his angels concerning you,' and 'On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.'" Jesus said to him, "Again it is written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" (Matthew 4:5-7 NRSV)
I love to be daring—not too daring, but just a bit. I like to ski, fast. I enjoy riding my motorcycle with the wind at my face and the pavement under my feet. I like to hike in the mountains, getting fairly close to the edge.
I enjoy taking mission trips to developing nations, hiking alone with a backpack across Israel, and traveling to retrace Moses' life even as Egypt is experiencing turmoil.
These things all come with risks. I try to calculate those risks and minimize them by, for example, wearing a helmet when riding my motorcycle or avoiding trips to locations that are too dangerous. But I'm also aware that there is some element of risk in almost everything we do. It's impossible to avoid completely. Every time I get in my car to drive, there is risk involved.
Do I believe that because I am a Christian, a pastor, a tither or because I carry a Bible in my back pocket every day, nothing bad will happen to me? No. Bad things happen to Christians, to pastors, and to tithers.
I knew a man who died while showing off driving his very fast car. His friends were angry, wanting to know how God could have let it happen. The man was in the prime of life, was the father of two children, and he was a follower of Jesus. But the laws of physics still applied.
This is part of what I think the devil meant when he suggested that Jesus jump from the pinnacle of the Temple. The devil even quoted one of the beautiful Psalms of promise: "Jump, Jesus, for the Scripture says he protects those he loves, and he'll protect you" (Matthew 4:6, paraphrase). In jumping, Jesus could prove to himself, and to all in the Temple courts, that he really was the Son of God. But Jesus responded, "It is also written, 'Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'" In other words, even Jesus wasn't expecting God to suspend the laws of physics if he jumped.
Jesus, at times I've been confused by the tragedies that happen in our world. I want you to suspend the laws of nature and protect those I love, and yet I see that even you did not expect this from the Father. Help me to live wisely, and to trust that in living and dying I will belong to you. Amen.
Excerpted from The Way 40 Days of Reflection by Adam Hamilton. Copyright © 2012 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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