We are standing at the river’s edge, looking at the other bank. Part of a crowd, a parade really, crossing the river and clambering up the far bank, each participant in turn accompanied by the wild baptizer, John. Among us is a Galilean rabbi; as the wild baptizer takes his hand, something changes. An intensity appears in the rabbi’s face, and not just in his face, but around it, too. The air crackles with a sense of moment.
People have stood on the eastern bank of this river before. Twelve wandering tribes stood here long ago, and heard an exhortation to “choose life,” to continue faithful to the One who delivered them to the verge of the future after a long bondage in Egypt. Not, as the story tells us, “led astray to other gods.” “Choose life.” Alternatively, death by other gods.
“Other gods” turn out to be a big problem for those tribes. (And not just for them.) Generations later, Elijah will come to the end of a long struggle against those other gods, and from the eastern bank, a chariot will take him up into heaven. Elisha will pick up Elijah’s mantle, and, filled with a double portion of Elijah’s spirit, strike the stream, walk through it on dry feet and return to the land and the prophets of Israel’s true God.
Crossing this river from east bank to west bank brings this all to mind for the waiting crowd. This is the place where gods contest—Yahweh and Ba’al then, Yahweh and Caesar now. Always the God of Life with the authority of love, or the power of fear and the gods of Death. A new and decisive chapter in a very long story begins.
A Lenten wilderness
In these forty days of Lent we take the story of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness into our own lives—as persons, as communities. We find this story in Mark’s gospel (two verses) and in the gospels of Matthew and Luke (in considerably more detail). The story does not appear in John’s gospel.
Where it does appear, the wilderness follows “immediately” on the baptism of Jesus. It’s not just the next thing that happens, it’s the thing that has to happen. The wilderness follows the waters because the commitment that the Galilean rabbi makes in those waters will demand unrelenting wisdom and courage. The cosmos needs to see what he’s made of, to know if this is the first sighting of what the whole creation has been awaiting with eager longing, “the revealing of the children of God.” The universe is waiting for a complete human to show up (Romans 8:19).
Re-entry to the promised land
In 1995, biblical scholar Colin Brown of the evangelical Fuller Theological Seminary weighed into a longstanding discourse about the baptism of Jesus. He asked, “What was John the Baptist doing?” His answer is that John’s baptism was a ritual re-entry into the promised land, a renewal of the initial commitment of those 12 wandering tribes to live in that land under the sovereignty of the God of Life. No reader of Hebrew Scripture, or witness to the human story, needs any convincing that the subsequent story of those tribes includes as much failure as it does fulfillment, presents as much “led astray” as it does “choose life.”
Joining himself to John’s movement, Jesus at his baptism embodies a way of repentance, of walking out of an old life and into a new one. With the crowds, he walks out of a land in which spiritual and political leaders have made compromises with the power of fear and the sovereignty of death with the occupying Romans and their Caesar-god, in whose name the landscape is littered with the crucified bodies of those who resist his law.
And with those same crowds, he returns across the river into a conviction that the Kingdom of God has come near. Might this be what a baptism of repentance looks like? Do we wait in line with them for our own baptism? Do we pass with them through the Jordan, into the land where God is sovereign and the authority of love governs the life of the world?
What if we understood Lent as following Jesus out of our old lives, and into our new ones? What if in Lent we saw ourselves re-inhabiting our lives, as persons and as communities, as the new creation that comes into being whenever anyone is in Christ?
And so a season of testing and preparation for a life lived utterly according to the Kingdom of Love and its God of Life. Already beloved, not needing to earn what can only be received as gift. Three tests that will tell the watching cosmos (and us, watching along) what it longs to know. Is this the complete human it has been waiting for?
First, stones into bread. But the stones are stones for God’s good reason, not to be made something more convenient or useful, not even your bread. They are in their own story, not to be converted into something I need for my story.
And so it is for living stones, for persons, who are not instrumental to my needs and wants, but subjects in their own story. Next, leap from the temple parapet. But, it’s not a “big reveal” of his special status that will sustain Jesus in his ministry as the first citizen of the Kingdom of God; instead, in the washing of feet and the bearing of pain, he lives as that servant citizen whose courage brings the centurion to gasp, “God’s son!”
Finally, worship the Adversary, who can give you the power to change the world. But this power to prevail comes from fear and the sovereignty of death, from the same toxic spring from which Caesar laps his power. It is the power to sustain violence, not to bring peace.
The complete human will not yield. The Adversary departs “until an opportune time.” And in that opportune time, as the horizon of death rushes toward him, Jesus will choose, as he has always chosen, to live as the first and faithful citizen of God’s kingdom, ungovernable by fear and the power of death. At the beginning of his public ministry, and at its violent and painful end, he will live (to quote a dear friend) “like he said he was gonna live.”
In all our seasons of testing, remembered and anticipated in this Lenten journey, may we remember the voice that calls us “beloved” in our baptism. May we stand again on the eastern bank, and step into the river of our baptism to re-enter our lives as citizens of God’s kingdom and creatures of the new creation. May we become for the world the complete humans for which this aching world longs.