First Sunday of Lent: March 5, 2006

Click here to read Mark 1: 9-15.

Boundaries are a fact of life, and for the most part, a fact we appreciate. Boundaries preserve and protect us. When you close and lock the front door of your house, you create a boundary that prevents unwanted guests from entering your home. When you drive down Pacific Coast Highway, you depend on the other drivers to mind the double yellow lines that separate the north and southbound lanes. The boundary between sound and silence is part of what makes music so beautiful. Even the foundation of the universe was accomplished by means of boundary-making; God separates light from darkness and water from dry land.

Sometimes the breaking of boundaries is tragic. Paint on the road cannot stop a drunk driver from drifting into oncoming traffic. We have seen images of the wreckage that happens when raging waters transgress the boundaries between land and sea. Violence breaks a multitude of boundaries—the boundaries of skin and trust and safety. We mourn when these boundaries are broken.

But then there are boundaries that are unjust, limitations that prevent Creation from embodying the will of God. The racist segregation laws in the American South were rules meant to be broken. The Disciples of Christ emerged as boundary-breakers on the frontier. The movement was fired by a Holy Spirit of protest. Thomas Campbell, one of the founders of the Restoration Movement, could not reconcile the practice of excluding people from the communion table if they didn’t accept the church’s creeds. If it is the Lord’s Supper, who are we to determine who gets an invitation?

The starkness of Mark’s narrative brings boundaries into sharp focus. The gospel of Mark is not like the coastline, with jagged edges and shifting tides and a wide expanse of sand that is sometimes land and sometimes sea. The gospel of Mark is like a map of the coast: “land here, boundary, water there.” (Breaking the Boundaries). Green land meets blue ocean, and there is no doubt as to which belongs where. Mark doesn’t give us a genealogy. Mark doesn’t give us a story of an unmarried mother and a census and a host of angels. There is no infant Jesus in the gospel of Mark. Here we have the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and he is all grown up and ready to dive in.

And dive in he does. Jesus comes from Nazareth of Galilee and is promptly baptized in the River Jordan by John the Baptist. The force of his baptism punctures the boundary separating the heavens from the earth, and a voice addresses Jesus: “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And Jesus is immediately pushed out into the desert, where he remains for forty days, withstanding temptation in the company of beasts and angels. At the close of the 40 days, Jesus passes his test and John loses his freedom, and the time has come for Jesus to proclaim, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.

Here we have a story full of contrasts and boundaries. The one who will prepare the way, and the one who is the way. River and desert, heaven and earth, Satan and angels. Some of these boundaries are emphasized. Over the course of those 40 days in the desert, Jesus triumphs over Satan by resisting every temptation set before him. When he comes out of that desert, there is no question that he is indeed the beloved Son of God, strong and Spirit-filled enough to rebuff the corrupt persuasions of the evil one.

But other boundaries are blurred, and some are fully broken.

Jesus is the Son of God. His deep communion with the Spirit of God means that he is holy—so full of love and light and compassion that there is no room left over for sin. John the Baptist is a magnet for sinners—men and women with heavy burdens of guilt. People flock to John the Baptist because they recognize their brokenness, and the last thing they do before John dunks them in the Jordan River is confess their sins and repent. The waters of baptism wash away their sins, and they ascend from the river with the assurance that they are forgiven.

So why on earth would the beloved one of God allow himself to be submerged in the river alongside sinners? Shouldn’t the Son of God protect his image? If he is supposed to be sinless, shouldn’t he be on the riverbank, acting as a sort of holy cheerleader? Certainly it makes more sense for Jesus to stay dry and comfortable on the sidelines, there to simply welcome the repentant sinners into the new life of baptism.

But this isn’t how Jesus works. The boundary separating the sinless Son of God from sinful humanity is torn to shreds when Jesus wades into the water and leans into the arms of John the Baptist. God doesn’t simply peer through the veil of heaven and wonder what it is like to be a man. Through Christ Jesus, God stands in the midst of the human experience, stands in the middle of a river surrounded by sinners, and loves.

And before we have a chance to catch our breath from Jesus’ startling baptism, God pushes Jesus out into the desert, and Mark takes us along for the ride. From the river to the desert, and we are still in the presence of the beloved Son of God. Jesus walks away from the voice of benediction, away from the river that teems with life, and crosses the boundary into the dangerous, unlivable wilderness of the desert.

This scripture shifted into focus for me a few years ago when I went on a camping trip to Anza Borrego, the State desert park in San Diego County. Growing up in green Ohio, I had never been to the desert. And I have to be honest with you, I didn’t particularly like it. The desert was vast, unbearably dry, too hot during the day and too cold and night. The badlands were parched and brown, and the vegetation looked like it was more dead than alive. The desert wilderness feels like an empty and abandoned place—abandoned by life, and perhaps even abandoned by God.

It is no mistake that in the letter of Revelation, John imagines the fulfillment of Christ’s reconciling work as a great gathering by a river. Water is a powerful, sacramental image. God’s abundant grace is as vital as rain and as boundless as the ocean. The moisture of baptism is a tangible reminder of the life-giving Holy Spirit.

And the desert, with its lack of water, symbolizes the absence of Spirit. One of my preaching colleagues noted that “the dryness of the desert matches the dryness of life separated from God.”

The gospel surprises us again. Why would Jesus spend forty days in the most godforsaken of landscapes? The beloved Son of God, with whom God was well-pleased, spent forty days in the presence of evil. Forty days resisting temptations that Mark didn’t dare attempt to imagine.

The Spirit wasn’t supposed to be in the desert. But once again, Jesus demonstrates that God will not be contained, that no place is too barren for the angels of the Lord. In the wilderness, surrounded by wild beasts and tempted by the enemy of God, a team of angels ministers to Jesus, sustaining him with gifts of water even in a physical and spiritual wasteland.

Just as Jesus refused to stand on the riverbank and coolly observe God’s broken children seek healing, neither could Jesus stay in the safe places where we expect to encounter the Holy Spirit. We encounter God in this sanctuary when we open our hearts for worship. But the God whose praises we sing is present even in the least sacred places, the places where the threat of death is fierce and persistent.

Through Christ, we learn that the Holy Spirit is present in the wilderness. The desert of the cancer ward? The Spirit is there. The desert of the AIDS clinic? The Spirit is there. The desert of Skid Row? The Spirit is there. The desert of Iraq? The Spirit is there.

Jesus comes out of the desert, and instead of a warm reunion with his spiritual brother, he finds that John has been arrested. In other words, this is a really bad time to follow the way that John the Baptist prepared for him. The same Public Relations guru who would have directed Jesus to refuse the waters of baptism and resist the Spirit that drove him into the desert would recommend that Jesus should go underground for awhile until the buzz about John tapered off. It was just a bad time for good news. But the Kingdom of God does not operate according to our time frame. The time is fulfilled, so in the shadow of John’s arrest, Jesus finally begins giving voice to his mission: to reveal the forgiving and ever-present character of God.

This is the good news: in this messy world, full of sin and death and a million different reasons to feel pain, God loves us so much that he sent his beloved Son to bear witness and share the burden. This Son will not observe the regulations that separate holy and unholy. He will not respect conventions that segregate God from his people. Jesus will heal on the Sabbath, touch lepers with his bare hands, and eat with a reviled tax collector. On this Lenten journey, we remember again the Christ who breaks boundaries and suffers the consequences, all because of a love that cannot be contained. May own hearts be broken and filled with such love. Amen.

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