The Gospel of Mark begins with Jesus’s baptism by John in the Jordan River. This formative event happens out in the desert, not in the confines of the temple, which would have been a shocking statement about where God was to be found.
Is God only to be accessed in the temples of the religious institution, or can God be found as freely as water?
Is God mediated through religious hierarchy, or is God the reality in which we live, move, and exist?
For John, and Jesus, God was the later–available, here, now.
The text indicates that Jesus’s baptism was a significant moment for him, a moment that gave shape to his understanding of both his identity and mission.
About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” [Mark 1v-11, CEB]
These words, “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness,” are the words every child wants and needs to hear from a parent. And this is our introduction to Jesus in Mark, the earliest of the canonical Gospels.
Before the healings and feedings,
before the exorcisms and walking on water,
before the teaching and prophetic demonstrations,
God affirms that Jesus is the beloved and that God is delighted in him.
Apparently, performance has very little to do with God’s estimation of Jesus’s worth.
This past week my son struck out for the first time this season. It’s his first year of actual baseball, and he’s trying so hard and doing such a good job. Yet, when he struck out, he looked at me on the way back to the dugout, as if to say, “I’m sorry I failed you.”
I walked over to him, put my hands around his helmet, and looked into his eyes and told him how proud I am of him. That he could strike out every time, and I would love him just as much, and be just as proud. His performance doesn’t matter to me. He does. And the only reason I could do that, is because my dad always made the same clear to me.
Back to Jesus. Jesus hasn’t done anything remarkable, yet God says, “That’s my boy!” This had to be a moment that Jesus treasured, even went back to on those long, sometimes dark, days.
But immediately after this scene, Mark tells us…
At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.
[Mark 1v12-13, CEB]
This is a retelling of Israel’s story; through the waters of the Exodus and into the Wilderness Wanderings. While Mark’s account is sparse (he only hits the need-to-know-high-points), Matthew fills in the details. In Matthew chapter 4, the Tempter comes to Jesus with three temptations: turn stones into bread, jump from the highest point of the temple, and bow down to the Tempter in order to receive world dominance.
It’s the introduction to these temptations, however, to which I want to draw attention.
The Tempter says to Jesus, ““If you are the Son of God…”
Jesus has just had this experience of God speaking over him his identity as the beloved son, and now, in the wilderness, that identity is being called into question.
Are you really God’s son?
Are you sure? Maybe you just think you are?
Does God really delight in you?
Then prove it. Do something to live up to your identity as the beloved. Be spectacular.
This is where the struggle begins for us, too, isn’t it? We have this experience of God’s love and delight, of our acceptance and inclusion into the Divine family…and then that identity begins to be called into question.
While I admit this text isn’t first and foremost about this, I couldn’t help but think of the way criticism works in our lives. I’ve experienced it, and I bet you have also. You have this sense of vocation and mission, you’ve been given some work to do in the world. Then you begin to do it, and it ticks somebody off, and they start criticizing.
It’s amazing how quickly you can lose your energy and enthusiasm in the face of criticism, isn’t it? Their words pierce like daggers, and you begin to question, “Who am I to say/do/be these things in the world?”
And it really doesn’t matter how many positives you hear, does it?
I regularly meet people who tell me that being part of MCC is a life-giving experience. They had given up on God, given up on the idea that it even mattered. Then they found MCC, and their doubts and questions have been welcomed, and they’ve found themselves being drawn toward God again.
And then someone on the internet posts something about how “certain Church leaders” (and everybody knows they mean me) don’t preach/teach/believe the truth, and all the good is swallowed up in all the bad. I begin to question my place, my identity, my calling.
But the critics don’t know us, do they? They don’t know our stories–our moments of “baptism,” when God’s love and delight of us is affirmed. They don’t know, and yet we give them way too much head and heart space.
And if Jesus listens to the Tempter, here, if he allows the Tempter to define him, then the world will be robbed of the gift of this remarkable God-bearer.
Yet, the same is true of us.
If we allow our critics to determine who we are and what we do, we are essentially robbing the world of the gift that we are and offer. There will always be critics–the nagging voices that cause us to question who we are and what we’ve been given to do in the world. But for every critic there are also people who desperately need us to be who we are, and for us to offer the gift we have for the betterment of the world.
We can’t let the critics determine our identity and mission in the world, can we?
Jesus doesn’t. He refuses the bait, and instead grounds himself more deeply into his identity as God’s beloved.
May we do the same.
May we trust that God loves us and delights in us,
may we lean and live into our identity as the beloved,
may we enter into the world to offer the gifts we bring,
and may we invite others to see their own belovedness in the process.