Raleigh Mennonite Church
March 5, 2017
During the summers that I lived in Palestine and Israel I spent most of my free time hiking. I had a couple friends who would take me with them on these weekend adventures, bushwhacking through banana plantations, scaling the plateaus to the Decapolis cities, threading the wadis to emerge at the Mediterranean Sea.
But we spent the most time in the Judean Wilderness. We’d wake up before the sun, racing south. During the morning hours we would scramble across rocky terrain, clambering to the tops of hills, exploring twisted rock shapes. But by midday we found shelter. The sun is brutal in the wilderness, and we could feel the energy being leeched from our bodies.
In this Lenten season, during worship, you’ll hear the murmuring of running water. It’s a strange symbol for today, the first Sunday of Lent when Jesus is in the wilderness, that vast rocky desert made up of scrub trees, chalk and brown stone.
Water is silent in this scene from the Gospel of Matthew, silent but present, unspoken in the background of the temptation of Jesus.
Today we find Jesus famished from forty days in the wilderness. He is tested, tested to see what kind of Messiah he will be. Here at the beginning of his public ministry, as he moves into the world, he takes stock. Will he be the Messiah who commands the elements, who rips apart the fabric of the natural world, who spins kings and presidents in the palm of his hand? Or is God planning something else?
Satan, finding Jesus, finding him vulnerable, initiates an internal struggle – Jesus in conflict with the Christ. If Jesus is going to be the Savior God intends, the one who reorders the cosmos, the one through whom the world receives redemption, he will have to let go. He will have to release his desire to make the world right. The temptation for Jesus is to say “well, we can set something up here, get something permanent going in the world, but we have to make a few compromises.”
In the desert Jesus is tempted, but I wonder if the language of testing is more helpful for us here. The testing within Jesus, here at the beginning, concerns who he will be and how he will do the work of God. The wilderness becomes an occasion of clarity, of figuring out, working through this call, finding out who God has planned for him to be.
It’s not surprising that this wilderness wandering is initiated in baptism. As Jesus comes out of the water, the skies part and the Spirit of God descends. A voice is heard from the heavens: “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” It is these words that form a river within Jesus, an aquifer, gathering water beneath those desert wanderings.
Everywhere we go on earth, there is water below us. Every time it rains or snows or sleets, water filters down into the ground, deeper and deeper into the earth. At places the water pools, gathering together into an aquifer. And if you dig deep enough, you get to a well, and it’s there that we can drink.
Sometimes the aquifers are deep within the earth, sometimes a thousand feet below the parched land. But water is always below the surface, even in places where you couldn’t imagine it is possible.
Today’s stories are scenes of contrasts. We quickly transition from one to the other – the abundance of water, the Jordan River, swarms of people ritually bathing, a brimming over of sound and smell, abundance everywhere.
And then, turn the page and there is desert. Silence. Bleakness. Absence. Hunger.
Jesus goes into the wilderness, without food, for forty days. He goes without food, but he cannot go without water. Human life can persist for a relatively long time without food, but only a few days, three maybe four, without water.
In the desert, Jesus drinks water. We assume it without thinking, a constant in the story, but a hidden, unspoken reality. Somehow water is there, likely through ancient cisterns, dug generations before into the rock.
This water is never a tool for testing Jesus. Satan never attempts to use it against Jesus, to offer water up as a bargaining chip. Water remains, it is always there, always giving Jesus life.
On Wednesday some of us gathered at Trinity Methodist to smear ashes on our foreheads. We were there with friends from Love Wins, gathered together to start Lent. We were starting these forty days, days that mirror the forty days Jesus spends in the wilderness, days of being tested.
Before our Ash Wednesday service in the sanctuary, we ate enchiladas around tables. I sat beside a man who told me his story, about his wandering in the wilderness.
He had grown up in a conservative church, and was still young when he started to discover that he was gay. He couldn’t believe that was true because he’d been told things about gay people, things from the Bible, things that were terrible. And he loved God and his family and his church. He couldn’t be gay, he thought.
So he wandered. He struggled to hide who he is. He struggled to stop being who he is. And it became harder. It became impossible. He thought about ending his life. He left home and lived on the streets.
And that’s when someone told him about a church that said God loved LGBTQ folks, just the way they are. He couldn’t believe it, too good to be true, so he went to check it out. As he was telling me all of this, his face lit up, and he pulled from his backpack books he was reading, books about ways to read the Bible that had been kept from him growing up.
But his voice was filled with sorrow as we told me about his family, how his mother and his aunts tell him he doesn’t fit into God’s plan — how there is something wrong with him.
I listened for a long time. And then he said, in a quiet voice, “I wonder what you think, pastor.”
I told him what I know is true, what Jesus discovered, about the water beneath everything, gathering even when we cannot see it. I told him, “You are God’s beloved.”
I cannot make things better for him. There is sorting out and sorrow ahead. There will be figuring out the questions of his life and his sexuality, more difficult conversations, more working through Scripture, more separation, hopefully redemption, hopefully healing.
Our lives are made up of this, figuring out, sorting out. We can’t get around it. We’re going to try and fail, to work at it again, to try and fail some more. Life is the time given to us to sort ourselves out. Sometimes that is painful work. Sometimes it is agony just to be who we are.
But underneath all of that, below the surface, so obvious it has been left unsaid this whole time, is water. Beneath it all are those words spoken by God, the constant within the searching and testing: “You are God’s beloved”—these words delivered through the waters of baptism, abundant and brimming with life. Because in the desert, Jesus drinks.
Lent is a season of reflection, of sorting out. But it’s also a time to plumb the depths, to see how far the grace goes, to see how far beneath the surface of your life you can dig and still find water, that even there, hundreds of feet below the parched earth, those words are in the water – You are God’s beloved.
Grace is like that – unpretentious, not making itself noticed, still and silent and deep. Grace is discovering that you’re loved, when everything else is taken away, when you’re stripped down of everything that makes you who you are. Grace is there, long before you got there, grace seeping into the ground below you, waiting for you when you find you can no longer sustain yourself.
The man who told me his story this past Wednesday came forward to receive ashes from me during our service after lunch. I made the sign of the cross on his forehead and said the words of testing, the words of sorting out that we all must do. “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” But before he left I added a few more word. “And,” I said, “you are God’s beloved.”
The ashes from that service have long been wiped away. But below them is another sign, another marking made on the flesh. It is the water, poured on your head in baptism. Ashes are a temporary mark; baptism is an eternal mark. The grace of baptism, of hearing “this is my beloved” can never be changed, never be smudged or erased. Nothing can call it into question. That can never be taken away.
Maybe we need to hear that more than ever, here in this season when we are remembering what Jesus did for us, that God sent Jesus to be with us and for us. It begins with water at Jesus’ baptism, but that never leaves. It is there, in the wilderness, below the water table, the deep, sustaining cistern of grace, grace that never leaves us.
If you need that reminder, the reminder of how deep grace goes, I’d like to invite you to come forward and remember your baptism. If you haven’t been baptized yet, you can see this as a foretaste, a sign pointing to a truth that is already inside you.
This Lent, let’s see how deep the grace goes. God sent Jesus into the world, to make a place among us. For you are God’s beloved.
 Phillip Pullman