“Washed in the Wilderness”


January 7, 2018: Rev. Dr. Buz Wilcoxon

You’ve heard it before, when it comes to real estate there are three things that matter: location, location, location. The same could be said for our scripture lesson this morning. At first this may seem like a simple, straightforward story about John the Baptist’s preaching and Jesus’ baptism. It shows us that some folks were expecting Jesus’ arrival and that from the beginning of his ministry he was “ordained” by the Holy Spirit. Those are important truths, but when we pay attention to some of the details in the text, especially as they relate to locations, it opens up for us even more truth and deeper meanings.

First, of all, where this story takes place matters. John the Baptist is in the wilderness, in no-man’s land, the middle of nowhere. And yet, that description of wilderness is somewhere—somewhere that mattered a great deal to the history of Israel throughout the centuries. The wilderness was a place of great importance. Long before, over 1,200 years before Christ’s birth, the Hebrew people had been slaves in Egypt. They in a series of events that would forever change the world, God set them free from their taskmasters. They fled through the waters of the Red Sea and then wandered as nomads for 40 years in the wilderness…in the Wilderness. For the Ancient Jewish community, the wilderness was the birthplace of their national identity and their covenant relationship with God. The wilderness is where they received the 10 Commandments and the other laws that would shape their ethical worldview. The wilderness is where they ate manna from heaven and learned to trust in God’s providence. The wilderness is where they first experienced the gift of Sabbath, the rituals of Passover, the teaching of Moses, and the hope of a Promised Land. In other words, when John the Baptist goes out to the Wilderness to preach he steps into the old old story to proclaim a new word about what God is up to.

Next, notice the locations that his audience comes from. They travel out into the wilderness to hear him, but they come from “the whole Judean countryside” and from “all the people of Jerusalem.” That’s like saying they come from the backwoods and the halls of power. From the sticks and from the capital city. They come from rural farmlands and the urban centers. We so often divide those locals, those sectors of our society in our minds, especially around election times. And yet, in our story today, they both come. Masses of people leave their homes in both locations to go out and hear what John has to say.

And what he says, it turns out, is some pretty powerful, life-changing stuff. He is dressed up like one of the ancient prophets from Israel’s past, channeling their spirit of dynamic calls to action, speaking truth to power, calling for repentance, for turning around what is backwards and misdirected in our own lives and in our social structures as well. He was preaching about forgiveness of sins, about God’s grace. And it sure seems like his message hit home because crowds respond: Yes! Yes we need to confess where we have failed, yes we need to repent of our hard hearts and unjust systems. Yes we need to feel God’s forgiveness and the gift of new life. Yes! They cry, what must we do. And John leads them to the water, the baptismal water, the water of the Jordan River. Yet again, this location matters. The Jordan River, where John does his baptizing, is a place of memory and transition. Centuries before, the children of those freed slaves finished their 40 years of wilderness wandering and they crossed the waters of the Jordan river into the Promised land, where they would make their home as the people of Israel. The Jordan River was the place where God’s promises became a reality. Where the homeless nomads found a home. And now, John invites his audience, invites us, to dip our toes into the flowing water of this holy memory, to touch the current of God’s covenant with our outstretched hand. To feel on our forehead the wetness of God’s claim on our whole lives through baptism.

We do not wade into this river alone, for it is here in these waters of baptism that we are gathered together into the family faith—some of us baptized before we ever knew about God’s love, some of us in response to experiencing the power of grace in our lives. Here in these waters we are bound together and bound to God as our beginning and end. As we read in our story today, it is here in these waters that we meet the promised one, Christ who has also come to be baptized.//

Baptism Stories:

-Ezra Spaulding last week pulling Anna’s hair.

-Wilson spitting up in front of the congregation.

These imperfect moments and memories serve a role to remind us of God’s perfect love, which is all that truly matters in these waters.

The gospel of Mark is an older and a much briefer book than the other three gospels. Throughout Mark there is one lingering set of questions: Who is this Jesus, really? And what has he come to do? There are many details or entire stories that Mark does not record, including any account of Jesus’ birth. Instead, this gospel begins to answer these questions of identity and action here with his baptism. Jesus coming to the Jordan to be baptized by John is the dramatic introduction to his presence and his purpose. It is the shot heard round the creation. For while Jesus is still dripping wet from his wilderness washing, the heavens are torn apart and the Spirit of God descends upon him. And then, the climax, a voice from heaven reveals Jesus’s true identity proclaiming, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

But here’s the thing, though these words are spoken to Jesus directly, we hear them too. This love between God and Jesus catches us up in its current. We too go through our lives asking: Who am I, really? And what am I here to do? In the waters of baptism– with him–dripping with the same grace and love of God, we hear God call each and every one of us by name and say, “You are my beloved Child.” We too receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, poured out so freely upon us, reassuring us in darkest of times, and empowering us to go out and do the work of ministry that God calls us each to do.

From those waters of baptism, Jesus leaves the Jordan, that particular location and goes out to the rest of the world to begin his ministry. So too do all the others in the crowd. All the rest of us. They went back to their locations as well, back to the Judean countryside and back to the city of Jerusalem. Back to the sticks and back to the halls of power, back to work, back to family, back to the broken systems and the lonely neighbors, back to places of poverty and places of greed, back to communities hungry for justice and leaders gorging themselves on power, back to their own personal anxieties, doubts, insecurities, and back to all the voices that have told them that they aren’t enough, that they will never be enough. They go back, dripping wet from their wilderness washing, claimed as God’s beloved children, the family of faith running throughout the ages. The go back with the reminder that God’s grace is all-sufficient, all they need to follow their true calling in life. They go back, we go back, empowered to turn around whatever is twisted in our world in our lives. We go back ordained by the Holy Spirit to follow the one who has come to keep and fulfill God’s promises and to usher in the kingdom of God here on earth as it is in heaven.


Mark 1: 4-11

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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

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