February 17, 2013

The Way: The Baptism and Temptation of Jesus

Today we begin a six week journey, following the footsteps of Jesus in which we are going to try to understand Jesus more clearly. We’re going to walk where he walked and we’re going to grow deeper in our own faith.

We’re going to start this morning where Mark’s gospel begins, with Jesus’ baptism and temptations. Our first stop on this journey is the village of Qumran, which was a monastic village overlooking the Dead Sea. It was here that the Dead Sea scrolls were composed. And it was there in all likelihood that John the Baptist was shaped and his practice of baptism was probably clarified. From there we will go to the Jordan River where Jesus was baptized not far from the Dead Sea. And finally this morning we will visit the Mount of Temptation where Jesus was tempted by the devil for 40 days and 40 nights.

Our journey starts in Qumran on the banks of the Dead Sea. The people who lived in this monastic community were known as the Essennes. In all likelihood they heavily influenced John the Baptist’s own thinking. Perhaps he was raised here as a young boy. Now this community believed in ritual purification. So every day, multiple times a day they would step into these water baths, these baptismal fonts if you will. They would enter into these baptismal pools from one side unclean. They would step into the water and as they stepped into the water they would immerse themselves and presumably they would pray for God to purify them and make them holy and whole. Then they would step out on the other side through a set of stairs as a way of saying, “I’m different now. I’ve been purified.” The Essenes hoped that by their pursuit of holy living, they could usher in the coming of the Messiah. And this is probably the background to John the Baptists own work baptizing the people.

Around the age of 30, it appears that John decided to leave the monastery. He would go to the common people and call them to repent and seek to follow God as their King. He would prepare the way for the Messiah, the promised King who would usher in God’s kingdom on earth.

John made his way to the Jordan River (map) where he called the people to come and repent and be baptized. And the people came. They came from miles and miles around. The people streamed to this place and they were baptized there. The picture you see behind me shows the Jordan River which most bible scholars believed looked much the same as it does here in the days of John’s ministry. And Jesus, the scriptures tell us, came from Galilee, from his hometown of Nazareth made the journey to this place. And it was here that He was baptized by John the Baptist.

Now Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist not because he needed to be baptized, not because he was a sinner in need of saving. But instead as a way of modeling for us, as a way of leading us to follow him into the waters of baptism.

And the meaning of this baptism, there’s been great debate, what exactly was meant by the baptism that John observed. And of course part of what he was offering, as I have said, was a way for people to express their desire for God to purify them. So 1st century Judaism was used to this idea of the ritual purification. They were also used to an idea, that when someone was a convert to Judaism they would be baptized. The going into the water as a cleansing a purification from the old person they had been and then as they went into the water and came out of the water they were born anew, they were born as a child of Israel; no longer as a gentile they had been reborn as a Jew. And so there were these two images of a rite of initiation, a way of entering in to God’s people and this idea of expressing to God, “Lord I’m sorry for the ways that I’ve turned away from your path and of God’s cleansing and purifying.

And so the people came John baptized them and called them to repent. Remember the word repent means to turn and think differently afterwards, to have a change of heart and a change of mind which results in a change of behavior, and so there was this change. And it was symbolized in the water.

Now within the Christian faith even by the end of the New Testament period we find the apostle Paul's baptizing. And when he baptized somebody who was converting to the Christian faith it became a sign for Christians of the decision to follow Christ. It was a way of expressing, “I am a follower of Jesus. I am one who has repented of my sins and I’ve been claimed by God.”

So by the time we get to the end of the 1st century and 2nd century baptism was becoming identified then as a Christian equivalent to circumcision. A means of grace. A sign that those who were in covenant with God through Jesus Christ.

And so baptism was a sort of moving idea from John the Baptist and the ritual purification with the Essenes to the sign of repentance to the decision to follow, to what happened with Jesus when God claims him as His child to this idea of following Jesus finally to this idea of being in covenant with God through Jesus Christ. All of these ideas are present.

So today there are some churches who only baptize those old enough to express their own faith. And they have a way of making, and rightly so, the claim they are following one sort of example or meaning of baptism. Those of us who baptize infants, we’re following another one of the New Testament meanings of baptism. And you can find the richness of baptism that all of those meanings are sort of covered there. That’s why we say that baptism is not one of those things in which we as Christians would divide or fight or say somebody’s not a follower of Jesus. Because there’s a way for us to claim believer baptism. There’s a way for us to claim infant baptism; and we in the United Methodist Church along with the Presbyterians, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Orthodox find in infant baptism an appropriate expression, a biblical expression of our entering into a covenant with God.

Now I want to remind you of what the scripture says happened when Jesus was baptized. So when we turn to Mark’s Gospel we find these words:

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.” Now three things we see in what happened in Jesus’ baptism that I believe are also meant to be a part of our own baptisms.

The first is that God claims Jesus as His Son. Jesus comes up out of the water and the voice of God comes from heaven and says, “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased.” He’s saying Jesus was the unique Son of God in a way different from all of the rest of us are children of God. And so when I hold a baby in my arms and baptize them we remember that this one belongs to God. And so in your own baptism, even if you don’t remember it; you were an infant, God claimed you as His child and said, “You belong to me.”

The second thing that we see is the Holy Spirit coming down upon Jesus in the bodily form of a dove. He received the Spirit’s power. And again likewise we believe that when we are baptized the Holy Spirit begins to work, takes up residence in us and works in us.

That’s why once I have baptized someone whether an adult or an infant I will then say, “The Holy Spirit work within you, that being born through water and the Spirit, you may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.”

And then finally we see that the baptism was the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. So in His baptism He was commissioned. This was the beginning of His ministry. And so it is with you. When you are baptized, whether it is as an infant or as an adult once you’re baptized this is a commissioning and God has said, “Now you’re to go out and to live the gospel. You’re to go do the work of the ministry.” And so for us, as for Jesus, in our baptisms God claims us as His children, God fills us with His Spirit. And God commissions us to do His ministry and His work in the world.

I’d like to take a moment and have you remember your own baptism and remember that you belong to God. That the Spirit is at work in you. And that he has a mission and a ministry for your life.

I’d like to invite you to think about your own baptism. And if you’ve never been baptized to plan to be baptized.

Baptism is our response to God’s grace. Without God having acted first, we would be unable to move toward God. The good news is that in Jesus Christ, God has acted to make salvation possible. What God offers us must be accepted in repentance and faith. Remember the radical nature of God’s grace. Remember that the water takes away all that’s old and He makes us new.

Pour out your Holy Spirit, and by this gift of water call to our remembrance the grace declared to us in our baptism. For you have washed away our sins, and you clothe us with righteousness throughout our lives, that dying and rising with Christ we may share in his final victory.

Remember your baptism and be thankful.

“The Holy Spirit work within you, that being born through water and the Spirit, you may be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.” Amen.

Just after Jesus was baptized He was immediately driven by the Spirit to the Mount of Temptations. And this is often what happens to us. After we have our high pinnacle experiences in God we sense God’s presence, we commit our lives to Him. We are in covenant with Him. Or maybe we are converted to Him we immediately experience hard times or difficulties, challenges, temptations that might tend to lead us astray. And that’s what temptation is, the desire to do something that is straying from God’s will or God’s path. And that’s exactly what happened to Jesus. Intentionally He was led by God to be tested, tempted, and tried, by the temptation.

So let me show you the Mount of Temptations. The story takes place in the wilderness. Mind you, this is not the Blue Ridge Parkway, lush green wilderness. This is the desert: lonely, dry, sun blazing overhead, sand burning your feet. The only movement is the parched desert wind.

The Bible is clear that God considers 40 days to be a spiritually significant time period. Whenever God wanted to prepare someone for his purposes, he took 40 Days. You may remember Elijah went into the wilderness not far from where Jesus spent these days in order to hear the still small voice of God. For 40 days and 40 nights Elijah fasted as he was seeking God. And of course Moses was in the wilderness up on Mt. Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights seeking God. And the scriptures tell us that it was here in this eerie, threatening, and desolate landscape for 40 days and 40 nights Jesus stood face to face with temptation.

Jesus faced three temptations from the devil.

And the testing first comes to Jesus, through His senses, His appetite, and natural desires. It was the temptation to satisfy His physical need. Jesus had gone without food for an extended period of time, with perhaps only an occasional sip of water from a nearby stream. He must have been desperately hungry, and therefore most vulnerable at the point of his physical appetite. Satan tried to convince Jesus to use his God-given powers to satisfy his earthly hunger. The devil says to Jesus, “You know all you’d have to do Jesus is to break your fast. Yes you’ve committed yourself to fast for 40 days and 40 nights. But you don’t have to do it anymore. Just stop your fasting now. Just take this stone and turn it into bread.” And of course this was temptation because Jesus had the power to do just that. He could have worked some kind of miracle to feed himself and left His fast behind. Basically the proposition was this: remain true to God and suffer the bitter pangs of hunger, or disobey God, do the Devil’s biding, and satisfy your hunger.

Perhaps your physical need is a different one. Whatever it is, we all know what it’s like to be confronted with a physical or fleshly temptation. We certainly know by now that one of the greatest areas of vulnerability is our earthly, sensual appetites and desires. With us, just as it was with Jesus, the issue often seems to be clear cut: satisfy ourselves or satisfy God.

The devil then takes Jesus and shows him all of the kingdoms of the world in an instant. Probably from the top of the mountain where you could see cities all around. And perhaps it was from there that the devil said, “Look at Jericho. Look from here at Jerusalem. Everything there, all the wealth, all their power and glory. It has been given to me and I can give it to anyone I wish. If you bow down and worship me then it will be yours if you’ll just follow my path.”

This second temptation is the temptation to compromise. Jesus knew that one day all of these kingdoms would be his. But he also knew that his journey included a cross. So the devil was offering him an easy way out; a way to short-circuit the process. Why spend three years of difficult ministry and end up hanging on a cross when you can have it all and more - all the glory, all the authority, all the splendor right away, here and now? But this offer also had its price. That price was that Jesus would have to compromise his beliefs. He would have to compromise who he was and bow down and worship the devil.

We all know about the temptation to compromise. We are conditioned to want to take the easy road, to follow the path of least resistance, even if it means compromising our beliefs and standards. Every one of us struggle with that temptation. I mean every one of us. In my own life I find how easy it is to be tempted to pursue the dollar, to pursue power and wealth. And not to pursue the kingdom of God. The temptation not to give to God what belongs to God and instead to hold on to it for myself. How easy it is to make the dollar our god.

And so in this temptation the reason why I’m grateful for it being in the gospels is because we find that Jesus was tempted by the very same things we’re tempted by in 21st century America we’re tempted for this desire for more and not putting God first in our lives. So Jesus wrestled with this and yet He resisted this too.

The third temptation was perhaps the toughest, because Satan even used Scripture to suggest to Jesus another way to achieve his purpose. Satan takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the temple and says, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself from here, for it is written God has given his angels charge to watch over you and they will catch you so you won’t even so much as stub you toe on a stone.”

This is the temptation of pride, fame, and glory. It is the temptation to exalt one’s self and not to trust God. And here He was tempted to work some kind of miracle that was indisputable. You know if He would throw Himself off the temple, He could prove first to Himself that He was really the Son of God. And then to everyone else. Jesus would have certainly made quite an impression, jumping from the temple and floating to the ground cushioned on the wings of a legion of angels. The devil was saying in effect, “Since you are God’s Son and he will protect you why not presume upon God’s love and win a following. Use God’s love for your own benefit and exaltation.”

We all struggle with this same issue. Each and every day we are tempted to exalt ourselves, to place ourselves first, to place ourselves above the Lord. Maybe you’ve had experiences like that when you’ve sensed God’s presence and you knew God was real and you trusted in Him. But then the further away you came from that experience the more you began to doubt and wonder. And that’s where Jesus was.

But what’s interesting in every one of these temptations Jesus’ response to them was to quote scripture. Each time Jesus responded with a scripture quotation. Which tells us that Jesus had scripture buried in His heart. He had studied the scriptures. He knew the scriptures. And he knew the one way to resist temptation, and to counteract the whispering of the devil in His ears was to know the scriptures and to know how they speak into our life situations, and to respond by quoting them to ourselves and to the devil.

That’s why it’s so important to me and to us as a church that we have these Bible studies and small groups or in other ways to encourage you to be reading and studying the scripture every day. So that you know the scriptures so when you hear the devil whispering something that you know is completely counter to the scriptures you’re able to say, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Or “You shall worship the Lord and Him alone shall you serve.” Or, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” Jesus knew the scriptures and was able to respond with them and in that way He resisted the devil and his temptations.

But of course that wouldn’t be the end of the devil’s temptations of Jesus. He would undoubtedly throughout His life experience that whispering of the devil calling Him to leave the path that God had laid for Him and to go another way. Yet all the way to the end, all the way to that night when He was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. when He said, “Lord, please take this cup from me.” Jesus refused to give up on God’s path. His answer was always the same, “Yet not my will, but Thy will be done.”

And that’s my hope and prayer for you. That this might be your prayer everyday. That you might know the scriptures so well that when you hear the devil whispering for you to do something that’s counter to the scriptures and counter to God’s will, you can instantly say, “I know that’s not right. And here’s what the scriptures say. But more than that, that you would make your prayer, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.”

That’s what we take away from this first leg of our journey on The Way with Jesus. And during these 40 days of Lent when together we’re remembering these 40 days that Jesus was tempted we recognize our own humanity, our own tendency to sin, and our need for a Savior. Because the truth is, other than Jesus, no one of us will ever say “No” to temptation all the time. I don’t and you don’t. And I don’t know how even in the last week you’ve succumbed to temptation; you’ve listened to the devil’s whispers and you’ve said, “Yes.”

And part of the reason why Lent is a time for us to remember Jesus’ 40 days of temptations is because we’re tempted and because we won’t always resist we’re in need of a Savior. We are in need of what the climax of Lent is, Jesus hanging on a cross and giving His life for us, for our forgiveness and grace.

My hope and prayer today is that you’ve been blessed as we’ve looked at the baptismal story and we understand more clearly what baptism means. And that maybe today you might remember your baptism in a special way. That you might remember that you belong to God, and that the Holy Spirit is working in you, and that God has a ministry for you.

And that you might remember in the temptation story the fact that Christ was tempted just like we are. He understands how we wrestle with temptation yet He was without sin; He didn’t succumb. And because we are not Christ and because we succumb to temptation Christ gave His life that we might have forgiveness and grace.

May your prayer today and everyday be, “Lord, not my will, but Thy will be done.”