There’s a lot going on in Jesus’ baptism in Matthew –personal confirmation of who Jesus is, public acknowledgement of his identity, the role of the Spirit – but this time around I am drawn to the wilderness.
Jesus is baptized and then is led into the wilderness.
It is a place that may sound deserted and lonely - But its really communal.
Wild beasts dwell there, and according to Matthew, angels and demons and the devil himself, Not to mention the memory of the crowds who are Left standing at the river Jordan as Jesus is driven away.
These crowds are present in the wilderness too- standing invisibly at Jesus’ shoulder wondering- who are you, Jesus? And making Jesus wonder about that too.
Because the wilderness is communal The wilderness is also the home of the unexpected.
Untamed, Unforeseen, In a word- Wild!
You never know what will happen there.
Why does God send Jesus into the wilderness And us with him?
We are sent into these wilderness times of our lives not to test our loyalty to God. Not to tempt God’s commitment to us. Not to get us to turn on the Spirit. No.
Exactly the opposite is true.
God leads us into the wilderness In order to encourage our mission of helping others- Which is God’s mission too.
Being baptized and then being thrown into the wilderness for us is about faith lived in community, which can be exciting- but also wild and unpredictable.
When we allow other people into our lives, Who knows what will happen next?
Our baptism propels us into community Even when we think of baptism as being about our individual salvation.
If ever we rely on baptism as only that which simply safeguards our own individual eternal salvation or sense of self worth we have misinterpreted Matthew’s story and we have seriously devalued baptism.
Baptism is not a Sam’s Club or Costco ID card Which God stands at the door And checks as we enter the huge heavenly warehouse.
Baptism is not entry into a form of membership- a sort of country club of the holy.
As the first Sunday after Epiphany, We are reminded of the promise that Baptism brings – the promise that even in the wilderness, even in spite of it, and sometimes even because of it, our call to bringing about the Kingdom of Heaven is meant to be manifest to all.
That’s why the last three promises in the Baptismal covenant Don’t mention God- And they are not about us- They are about neighborhood, Community, And service.
In a few moments I’ll ask:
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?
And Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
Hopefully you will answer-
I will with God’s help.
Community, and being neighbor and the service that follow on that calling isn’t always easy-
It can be wild- Like the beast and the demons and even the angels Who crowded around Jesus in the desert After his baptism.
But in that crowd is an epiphany for us- A new light that dawns among us-
In community is our mission. In the wild and unpredictable crowd is our salvation- Our own salvation and also everyone else’s.
Famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton made this discovery for himself one day in 1958- fifteen long years after he first entered the Kentucky monastery which became his home.
He called this experience his personal epiphany- Or manifestation of God.
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers.
It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness…
This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud…
I have the immense joy of being human, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. Now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”