Sermon 01-10-21: “Hope in Our Wilderness”

January 13, 2021

Scripture: Mark 1:4-11

I came home from work last Wednesday, not having watched the news or paid close attention to social media during the day. Like everyone, I was deeply troubled, sad, even angry. Several fellow clergy online were posting their thoughts and speaking out. And I thought, “I have nothing to say that will be helpful right now.” One clergy friend posted on Facebook, “Well, I guess I’ll have to rewrite my sermon now!” And that made me angry—I thought, “How were you able to write your sermon before Wednesday in the first place? You’re just rubbing it now!” 

But seriously, I thought, “I hope that the gospel is good enough for this Sunday. I hope it’s relevant. Surely it is.” Some of Paul’s final words to his young protege Timothy in 2 Timothy are these: “Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” 

I don’t know if, in light of last week’s events, the gospel is “in season” or “out of season,” but it’s all I’ve got! I wholeheartedly believe that the gospel is what we and our world need now more than ever. So I hope you’ll understand and appreciate that in this sermon I’m going to preach the gospel.

I’ve seen the memes on social media in light of last week’s news: The year 2020 is talking to the year 2021, and he says, “You can’t be any worse than me!” And 2021 says, “Hold my beer.” While that’s funny and all, I don’t think that’s a Christian way of interpreting what’s happening in our world. In light of last Wednesday’s news, a lot of people who said “good riddance” to the year 2020 are now looking ahead to this new year with fear. And if that describes you, I want to encourage you with our heavenly Father’s words to Jesus in verse 11. After Jesus is baptized, we’re told that the heavens are “torn open,” the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus, and he hears these words from his heavenly Father: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”

The heavens are torn and the Spirit descends. The Greek word for “torn” in verse 11 only appears in one other place in the Gospel of Mark. In chapter 15, verse 38, the moment after Jesus dies on the cross. At that very moment, Mark tells us, “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” 

What does the torn curtain represent? 

Well, this was the curtain that separated Holy of Holies in the temple, from the rest of the sanctuary. The Spirit of God resided in a special way inside that room—so much so that it was dangerous for a sinful person to get too near. Only the high priest could enter that room once a year on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and offer a sacrifice for the forgiveness of sin on behalf of God’s people.

This curtain represents the fact that our sins have separated us from a holy God—that we can never be too close to God without his holiness destroying us. We see this many times in the Old Testament, but one famous example is when the prophet Isaiah has this amazing encounter with God in the temple, and he thinks he’s going to die: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

Like I said, our sin separates us from God. We sinners can’t get too close to a holy God without being destroyed!

But the reason that the curtain in the temple is torn in Mark 15:38 is to symbolize that just as the Holy Spirit came down into Jesus, so the Holy Spirit will come down into all of us who have faith in Christ.

And by the way, just in case you think I’m making too much of that little word “torn” that appears both here and in Mark 15:38… notice, in both today’s text and in Mark 15, the very next verse following this “tearing”: In today’s scripture God says, “You are my beloved Son.” In Mark 15:39, the Roman centurion at the cross says, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” In both cases, with the coming of the Spirit comes recognition of who Jesus truly is! That is not an accident! Isn’t God awesome the way he guided the authors of his Word to write what they wrote!

But how is that possible that the Holy Spirit could come and live inside of us? We sinners couldn’t approach the Holy of Holies before and now, somehow, it’s as if the “Holy of Holies” is in our heart! Which is what the Bible means when it says that our bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit.” What’s changed?

What’s changed is this: in God’s eyes, he no longer sees us as sinners. The death we deserved to die for our sins, the hell we deserved to suffer for our sins… Christ has died and suffered for us. In Romans 6, the apostle Paul says that this is what our own baptism represents. We are clean. Our sins are washed white as snow. We now stand before God as perfectly holy. God is as “well pleased” with us as he is with his only begotten Son. Why wouldn’t he be? We now possess not our own righteousness, but the righteousness of Christ. We are God’s beloved sons and daughters—through adoption—whom he loves every bit as much as his only begotten Son! 

Pastor Tim Keller tweeted the following this week, which, in my opinion, perfectly captures this truth: “To be adopted means that now God loves us as if we had done all Jesus had done.”

Isn’t that unbelievable? It might feel that unbelievable, but I need you to believe it up here [point to head] even if you’re having a hard time feeling it. I need you to understand this because here’s what it means:

If you are in Christ, our heavenly Father is not angry with you. He has no wrath toward you. He is not disappointed with you. And he is not punishing you for your sin… because your sins, as I’ve said, have already been punished… on the cross. To believe that God is punishing you for your sins now is to believe that God has punished your sins twice. That makes no sense. That’s unjust! Therefore, the moment you believed in Jesus, everything changed in your relationship with God.

Isn’t that good news?

I hope so, because, to say the least, whatever God, in his sovereign rule over our universe, is up to in our world—including when he allows bad, or painful, or evil things to happen to us, or even to our country—whatever he’s up to, it’s not because he’s angry with us who are his children, or disappointed, or surprised by something that we’ve done. No, his Word promises that in everything he is working for the good of those who “love him” and “who are called according to his purpose”—and that is literally all of us who have been born again through faith in Christ.

Can I get an “Amen”? 

Now, I’ve been talking about punishment for sin, which is different from God’s discipline. God will discipline his children. The New Testament tells us that in a dozen different passages. And you may say, “Isn’t that the same thing as punishment?” No… he disciplines us so that we’ll overcome sin—which is bad for us… which ultimately prevents us from finding lasting happiness and joy. He disciplines us for our own good.

Look, like you, I’ve felt a little anxious in light of recent events in our country, and there’s no question that it’s forced me to my knees more than usual, it’s forced me to draw closer to God—and it’s exposed within me my own sins, which so often impede my ability to trust in God more. That is God’s discipline… and that is a good thing!

So God disciplines us so that we can identify sin in our lives. And when we recognize our sin, we repent. Even though God does not view us as sinners, we still need to confess and repent of sin continually.

Our problem is… we often misunderstand what repentance is… 

Here’s what I mean: We often feel convicted about our sins, we feel guilty about our sins—and godly guilt is good… We feel like God is calling us to change. And our first response is to ask, “What do I need to do differently? What do I need to do to fix this problem in my life? What do I need to do to get my act together? What do I need to do to make it right?”

And I’m talking doing good things. Like, “I need to pray more. I need to go to church more. I need to read the Bible more. I need to volunteer more of my time. I need to give more of my money. I need to witness more. I need to be more disciplined. I need to give up this bad or sinful or destructive habit or addictions.” These are all good things to do. Or maybe we feel convicted to take up a cause—in the church or outside of the church. “We need to fight for racial justice. We need to fight for the sanctity of life. We need to fight to stop human trafficking. We need to fight to save our planet. We need to fight for religious liberty. We need to fight for… well, fill in the blank.” Whatever it is, when we get convicted that we’ve failed, that we’ve fallen short, that we’ve become complacent—indeed, that we’ve sinned against God and we need to changeour first thought is often, “I need to do this and that and the other thing.”

The problem is, we begin to think of repentance primarily as something that we must do. We tell ourselves something like this: “God saved me. God forgave me. God gave me a new life. God gave me a new birth. God gave me a second chance—or a 2,482nd chance… I didn’t deserve it. But he did it. God did his part… So now I need to do my part. And God helps those who help themselves so… Here’s what I must do! ” And we Christians often think of repentance as something we need to do. It is “our part.”

But here’s the problem: if repentance is mostly up to us… if it’s mostly something that we have to do… guess what? We will fail.

If you don’t believe me, go to a gym in the month of January. What do you see? You see that it’s crowded; it’s busier than normal. Why? Because people like me have made a New Year’s Resolution. “This year, I’m really going to do it. This year, I’m really going to get in shape. This year, I’m going to get those washboard abs. This year, I’m going to get swole.” But I said that last year, and the year before that, and the year before that.

But despite my best intentions, despite summoning all the will power I can—if history is any guide—let’s face it: I probably won’t be successful. And when I go to the gym in mid-February, and I see that—surprise, surprise—it’s not nearly as crowded as it is now, then I’ll know that most everyone else has also failed to keep their promises to themselves, failed to live up to their best intentions, failed to keep their resolutions, failed to have sufficient will-power to do what they wanted to do.

In today’s scripture, people are coming out into the wilderness to be baptized by John as a sign of repentance.

More than a few commentators point out the symbolism of John’s actions here. God is using John, in other words, to make a connection to perhaps the most important event in Israel’s history: the exodus from Egypt. God rescued Moses and the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and brought them to freedom. And how did he do that? By bringing his people out into the wilderness and through the waters of judgment and death—the waters of the Red Sea—thereby destroying the enemy that was trying to destroy his people, and setting his people free. 

In today’s scripture, God is saying that he’s about to do something similar—only infinitely better! The new covenant of salvation through faith in Christ looks back on the old covenant that God established with Moses. What God did on a small scale to rescue his people from slavery and death, he will do now on a cosmic scale through Christ. And baptism symbolizes this: it symbolizes people going out into the wilderness, being delivered through the waters of judgment and death, into freedom from the slavery of sin and death and Satan Because… just as God defeated the Egyptians, so he defeats our enemy, which sin, death, and the devil.

Our own United Methodist baptism liturgy makes the connection between the Exodus and baptism in the baptismal prayer:

When you saw your people as slaves in Egypt,

you led them to freedom through the sea.

Their children you brought through the Jordan

to the land which you promised.

So let’s talk about the people that John is baptizing… 

Don’t you just know that most of these people went with the best of intentions to change. Most of them went with firm resolve to live differently from now on. Most of them went, summoning all the willpower they could muster—praying something like this: “This time, God, I’m going to do it. This time, God, I’m really going to get in shape, spiritually. This time, God, I’m really going to turn over a new leaf. This time, God, I’m going to study your holy Word every day. This time, God, I’m going to go to synagogue every week. This time, God, I’m going to tithe my income. This time, God, I’m going to kick that destructive addiction. This time, God, I’m going to live a life of sexual purity. This time, God, I’m going to do better… I’m going to be better… I know I failed miserably last time, and the time before that, and the time before that. But this time…”

I suspect many of you know exactly how that feels.

My point is, if God were simply using John’s baptism to tell his people, “I’m going to establish a new covenant with you, and it’s going to depend on you and your faithfulness in order to be successful,” that wouldn’t inspire a lot of confidence, right? You can go back and read the Book of Exodus—and literally any book from the Old Testament—and see how badly God’s people failed to be faithful—in spite of the fact that God rescued them from slavery through the waters of the Red Sea. 

So what’s going to be different this time? After all, all of these people who were coming out to the wilderness to be baptized by John were going to fail to be faithful to God—in spite of their best intentions, in spite of their willpower, in spite of their resolve to change. 

So what’s going to be different this time?

Only everything! Everything will be different this time! Because Jesus shows us what’s going to be different this time. Look at verse 9: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”

If you’ve paid attention to today’s scripture, this should bother you. Why? Because of what verses 4 and 5 say: John’s baptism “proclaimed” repentance and forgiveness of sins—and the people getting baptized were “confessing their sins.” But if that’s the case, why on earth is Jesus getting baptized? Indeed, John himself understands the problem in Matthew’s account of this same event. In Matthew, John objects: “I need to be baptized by you! Why on earth are you asking me to baptize you?” In other words, he’s saying, “You’re the perfect, sinless Son of God! You don’t need to repent!”

And that’s true. But by submitting to John’s baptism, Jesus is saying something like this: “Two thousand years ago, when God rescued his people from slavery and delivered them through the waters, they failed; they were unable to be faithful to me. Indeed, every human who’s ever lived has failed to be faithful to me. So now, I’m going to do for you what you were unable to do for yourselves. I’m going to go into the wilderness and cross through the waters of judgment and death, and live that life of perfect obedience to my Father that you are unable live. I’m going to succeed where you failed. I’m going to do it for you. My righteousness will become your righteousness. I’ll give it to you as a free gift.

“And while it’s true that I haven’t sinned, on the cross I’m willingly going to be treated as a sinner; I’m willingly going to receive the punishment that your sins deserve; I’m willingly going receive the judgment, the death, the separation from God that your sins deserve. Because I love you that much. And I want to save you.

“So you’re right, John… Because I haven’t sinned, I don’t need this baptism. Except I’m showing you, and I’m showing the world, that I’m taking your place—and I’m taking the place of sinners everywhere. And I’m showing you that I’m willing to be treated as a sinner—so I can suffer your punishment, suffer your death, suffer your hell… so that you don’t have to.”

That’s the good news that verse 9 points to! That’s the gospel: Jesus did for us what we were unable to do for ourselves. 

So with that in mind, let me say one final thing about repentance, let’s go back to the Exodus event for a moment. There’s a remarkable conversation back in Exodus chapter 33 between God and Moses. I preached on this in the fall, but it’s worth revisiting—and I invite you to read this chapter on your own time. But after Israel commits idolatry with the golden calf—while Moses is up on Mt. Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments—God is righteously angry. And he tells Moses that he’s no longer going to accompany Moses and the people into the Promised Land. He’ll send an angel to lead them instead. God tells Moses, in so many words, “I’ll give you and the people everything I promised to give you—I’ll give you land, prosperity, military success, protection from all your enemies, protection from dangerous wildlife, protection from plagues… You can have your ‘land flowing with milk and honey.’ I’ll solve all of your worldly problems. I’ll meet all of your physical needs. I’ll bless you with every blessing you could possibly want… Except… you won’t get me.

And Moses said, in so many words, “In that case, God, let me die here. Because I’d rather die here… right now… with you… than live and prosper and enjoy every blessing this world has to offer… without you. It’s not worth it, Lord. If I can’t have you, I don’t want anything else. Nothing takes the place of you. There’s no adequate substitute for you. So, God, let me die here with you… than live over there, for even a moment, without you. You’re worth more than everything else the world has to offer.”

And I can’t help but hear an echo of Paul’s words in Philippians 3:8: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ.”

I can’t help but hear an echo of Jesus’ words in Matthew 13:44 to 46: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy, he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.”

Do we treasure Christ like that? Is he our greatest treasure, such that all earthly treasure is garbage in comparison, such that we’d rather die than live without the treasure, such that we’d literally give everything in order to receive that treasure?

See, that’s where the problem starts… Our biggest human problem isn’t what we fail to do. Our biggest human problem is what we fail to desire—it’s whom we fail to desire.

Repentance isn’t mostly saying, “I’m sorry, Lord, for what I did… or what I failed to do.” Repentance is mostly saying, “I’m sorry, Lord, that I don’t desire you more, that I don’t want you more, that I don’t treasure you more, than all these other things with which the world, the flesh, and the devil tempt me.”

True repentance begins there… If only we could learn to treasure Christ above everything else, to find satisfaction in Christ above everything else, to find joy in Christ above everything else… if we could only do that, suddenly we would also find new power to change our sinful habits, our sinful thoughts, and our sinful behaviors.

If we could only learn to treasure Christ above everything else, how would that not solve any problem we’re facing?

Dear Lord, hear my prayer! This is not a problem I can solve through my will-power, or by “trying harder,” or by having the best of intentions: I need your Holy Spirit to work in me, to change me, so that I can treasure you more than anything else! Amen.

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