The Great Pattern, Or, There Can Be No Disaster
It’s rather an ignominious start to Jesus’ ministry, but you have to read past the end of our gospel lesson to realize that.
When the curtain closes on our passage from Matthew 3 today, it’s a beautiful happy ending.
John baptizes Jesus “to fulfill all righteousness,” God declares him the beloved with whom God is well pleased, and end scene.
Sunlight, water, voices from heaven, the devoted John and the interested crowd—it’s a perfect set-up.
This is the debut of the Lamb of God on the world stage.
What’s he going to do next?
What intriguing sermon or salvific healing or jaw-dropping miracle will he do to kick off his earthly work?
Well, if you take a look at Matthew 4, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
The last sentence of Matthew 3, which we read this morning, is, “when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.'”
And the first sentence of Matthew 4, which we did not read this morning, says, “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished.”
That’s the climax of the start of Jesus’ earthly ministry?
There essentially isn’t a start to his ministry?
Jesus is baptized, you would think that all systems would be go at this point. Teaching, preaching, miracles, all of it.
Jesus immediately is driven into the wilderness, as Mark puts it, by the Spirit, and enters a time of loneliness, pain and darkness like he perhaps had never experienced before.
One thing that becomes clear about Jesus as you spend more and more time with him in the gospels and in prayer, is that every part of his earthly life has two significances.
It is meaningful first for what it meant in history, in the literal time and place as his actual personal life on earth unfolded that we read about today.
And it is also significant because the major patterns of Jesus’ life describe to us our spiritual journey.
Essentially, what Jesus went through, we have to go through, in order to grow spiritually.
We’re not going to be literally baptized in the Jordan and be driven out into a desert for forty days and forty nights, but you can jolly well bet it will happen in its own way in our lives.
The same is true for everything in Jesus’s life.
Finding friends for the spiritual journey, like Jesus found his twelve companions.
Learning to make nothing into something, to have faith in abundance and sustenance, like Jesus did with feeding the five thousand.
Learning to be a healing presence in someone’s life.
Learning what it’s like to be persecuted and misunderstood and abandoned.
Learning what it’s like to love and cherish the people that society hates.
And eventually, learning what it’s like to carry the Cross, to die to our old lives and selves and comforts and limitations, and to be resurrected—this is the great pattern of the spiritual life.
This is what the author of Hebrews meant when he called Jesus the “pioneer and perfecter of our faith.”
To be transformed, we have to walk in his footsteps, experience his peaks and valleys, his joys and tribulations, his cross and resurrection.
Remember, Jesus never told us to worship him.
He told us to follow him, and we have to do that in a way so real that it at times may almost be literal.
That is how we, as Paul says, are adopted into Christ Jesus.
And that is what we signed up for when we got baptized.
So consider this juxtaposition of peak and valley that we have right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.
He has the high of his baptism, in which the voice of God proclaims his belovedness, and then he is immediately driven out into a wilderness of hunger, loneliness, and temptation.
This happens to us in our own lives, but we always seem to resist it.
We have that high, whatever it is—a beautiful worship experience, our hearts warmed and opened by doing some service, the palpable presence of God in prayer or music or fellowship.
And we can’t help it—we cling to it. We can even tarnish it by holding on to it and trying to make it last.
But the reality is that it won’t last. That’s not going to change.
What needs to change is our relationship to that reality.
What would it be like if, rather than pushing away the wilderness experience and seeing it only as negative, we instead embraced it as the necessary other half of the mountaintop experience?
After all, the beautiful golden light at baptism wouldn’t mean much if it were constant, would it?
The stark emptiness of the desert is what makes the refreshing gush of the living water so rich and life-giving.
Our light is never complete on its own, and neither is our darkness.
They need each other.
This is the one of the great spiritual patterns that Jesus’ life reveals to us.
Immediately after his baptism, he is driven out into the wilderness.
Every time he heals someone or teaches some great truth, it is followed by the disciples missing the point or the Pharisees attacking him.
On the literal mountaintop at his Transfiguration, Peter makes the same mistake we always make, trying to cling to the glory by suggesting they build houses and live up there.
But Jesus takes them immediately back to the valley, to begin the work again.
But it’s not always a plunge from ecstasy to disappointment. The pattern works the other way too.
In fact, the ultimate pattern is a completion of the downward arc all the way back to the top of joy and new life.
That is the journey from the Cross to the Resurrection.
In fact, our whole earthly life is many little patterns of birth, death, resurrection cycling over and over in one big arc, from the Garden to the Cross and Tomb to Paradise.
And each of our little individual arcs are tiny cycles of the great pattern the whole Body of Christ is undertaking in the sweep of history.
This is even how our liturgical year works.
Right now we are embarking on the season of Epiphany.
It is a time of light and revelation, newness and discovery.
But we can’t stay here forever.
Jammed up right next to Epiphany in the church year is Lent.
We have a few weeks on our Epiphany mountaintop, but then immediately we are driven out into the Lenten desert, where we must examine our sin and mortality.
The question we must ask is how can we stop resisting this pattern but instead enter into it?
It is a rhythm, an ancient rhythm of light and darkness in harmony, and if we let ourselves be drawn into that harmony, we can harvest the richness of both.
But God knows us so well.
God knows we would always rather be standing in the sunlight hearing our belovedness proclaimed rather than stumbling through the desert alone and hungry.
God knows we may intellectually understand the value of the wilderness, but in reality we’d rather have an armchair and an aspirin.
So God always gives us a pinprick of light even in the deepest darkness.
We are never alone in our spiritual searching.
There is, in this season of Epiphany, a star to guide us.
The original ones who followed a star were called Wise Men.
They trusted the light to guide them, and they trusted the darkness to shelter them.
Sometimes the darkness and the desert seem like a disaster.
We travel through upheaval in the lives of our families, our communities and our nation.
We wonder if this journey really is going somewhere or we’re just flailing around trying to attach meaning to a meaningless collection of tragedies.
What is the difference between a desert and a disaster?
The word “disaster” comes from two Latin roots meaning “without a star.”
Disaster means losing our way in the darkness by forgetting whom we are to follow.
Jesus is our star in the bright black sky of the healing and cleansing desert.
We followed him into our baptism, we follow him into the desert, and we will follow him into the work of healing and serving and resurrected life.
So we know now that we can never truly be a people beset by disaster, because that would mean we are a people without a star.
We are the people of Epiphany, the people following a star.
So together we follow our star into the desert of baptism and the healing water of the wilderness, for one creates and enriches the other.
The cycle repeats, the pattern weaves itself ever onward, birth, death, resurrection, and Jesus, our Star, leads us home.
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