1st Sunday in Lent (B): Taking the First Steps
By: The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell
“You’ve taken your first steps into a much larger world!” -Obi Wan Kenobi
These are the words spoken by the wise old Jedi Obi Wan Kenobi to a young Luke Skywalker after the latter’s first Jedi training session in Star Wars (or, as time has forced us to call it, Episode IV or A New Hope). Luke, stretching out with his feelings and trusting his instincts, has just successfully used his lightsaber to ward off several shots from a droid while unable to see a thing. Obi Wan congratulates him. This is a huge moment for Luke, one that merits some sort of celebration. Yet there is no time for celebrating Luke’s accomplishment in this first Jedi training, instead he and Obi Wan must rescue Princess Leia, and later Luke must continue his training on his own after his mentor is defeated by Darth Vader (SPOILER ALERT!) This moment, though, is where it begins. These are Luke’s first steps.
Moments such as these are exciting and filled with so much promise. They are start of something new and exciting, yet also quite scary. We have such moments in the Church, of course. We call them baptism, confirmation, and ordination. These may seem like self-contained events, but they are merely the first steps into a much larger world. Our lectionary today places Jesus in the moments after one such event.
We are back at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, a place we found ourselves on January 7 when we celebrated the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. On that day we ended the Gospel passage with those beautiful words from God, “This is my beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Today we get the aftermath of that event.
What happens once Jesus is baptized? He doesn’t stop to celebrate or bask in his accomplishment. Like Luke, he is thrown into his call without warning, immediately driven out into the wilderness. That word, ‘immediately,’ is one of Mark’s favorite words. In Greek it’s eutheos, meaning straightway, forthwith, or instantly. Clearly, there is no time to bask in the glory of Jesus’ baptism. Instead, in his first moments of earthly ministry, he is whisked away into the wilderness, into an unknown and fearful world.
The story is told of a seminary student who was doing her clinical pastoral education, which is the piece of every clergy person’s education that requires one to serve as a chaplain for at least a summer. This student chose to do her work in prison ministry. She arrived on her first day, received her badge and a quick rundown of the layout of her facility, was introduced to her supervisor and fellow chaplains, and was then immediately told, ‘OK, go do ministry!’ No warm-up or week of orientation; no, just dropped into the middle of the wilderness.
Jesus, likewise, is dropped into the wilderness. Here he is faced with all sorts of temptations; all sorts of evils. The text says he is tempted by Satan, which is simply a Hebrew word for ‘adversary,’ and that he is out there for 40 days, again a Hebrew expression for a long period of time, not necessarily to be taken literally. Still, what a dreadful situation! Here is Jesus, right after this great, joyful, momentous occasion, with no prior ministerial experience that we know of, having to go into a frightening circumstance that, I suspect, none of us would willingly enter into ourselves. How does he do it?
He does it because the Spirit is the one that drives him to it. The very same Spirit that descended upon him as he came out of the water, the very Spirit that spoke the voice of God and called him beloved, is the Spirit that sends him into the wilderness.
Brothers and sisters, in the same way, our baptisms, confirmations, and ordinations, while joyful, celebratory occasions, were not the end, but the beginning. In the same way, the same Spirit that descended upon us at our baptisms, or at our confirmations or ordinations—the Spirit that has sealed us and marked us as Christ’s own forever—has sent us out into a world that is, quite honestly, very, very frightening. We, like Jesus, have taken our first steps into this larger, frightening world, and God has told us the same thing that that prison chaplain was told: ‘OK, go do ministry!’ I don’t know about you, but when I think about that, when I REALLY think about that, it seems too big, too much. How? How can I, how can we, possibly do this?
I suspect Jesus thought the same thing out there in the wilderness. Yet the Scripture tells us that the angels waited on him, or as Greek scholar Preston Epps translates it, they “ministered” to him. What a beautiful image! The angels surrounded Jesus, lifting him up and supporting him. The Good News here is that he was not alone. Jesus did not embark on his earthly ministry totally on his own, and neither do we.
God’s angels—those messengers who help bring us the Good News—are all around us. If our eyes are opened we will see them, those who minister to us so that we may minister to others. Our priests, families, spiritual directors, therapists, teachers, coaches, and so many others are there to support us as those angels supported Jesus. Proclaiming the Good News of God in Christ may seem like a monumental task; to be sure, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, preaching love to those who have never heard such a thing, and spreading the word that the Kingdom of God has come near are by no means easy endeavors. Nevertheless, we are reminded this day that such holy work is never done alone. After his death, Obi Wan continued to guide Luke, and he and his friends Han Solo, Princess Leia, R2D2 and others, managed to defeat the evil Galactic Empire. At no point, though, did they do it alone. In the same way, we are never alone once we take those first steps.
This season of Lent is a time to prayerfully remind ourselves of the call that God has issued to each of us, a call that we will reaffirm with the neophytes—the newly baptized—at that Great Vigil of Easter. The Spirit has blessed each of you and called you beloved in your baptisms, your confirmations, and your ordinations, and the Spirit is driving you out into the wilderness of this world to proclaim that the Kingdom of God has come near. It may seem daunting, but we have one another to minister to us and with us. We will face whatever comes; after all, these are merely our first steps.
The Rev. Joe T. Mitchell is Rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Asheboro, North Carolina. He is your typical Transformer-collecting, baseball-playing, theatre-loving, moonshine-drinking priest from the coalfields of Virginia. He runs the blog Father Prime (www.fatherprime.blogspot.com), where he wishes and works for a world transformed.