Led by the Spirit – P. Khalil Haddad

Mark 1:9-15
The Spirit Sent Him Out into the Wilderness
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

In Lebanon before 2020, we used to say, “Oh these good old days… when the family was more connected”. Or “when one Lebanese lira used to talk”, meaning a great many things one could buy with a lira before to buy the Lebanese Civil War, an amount that is essentially worth nothing today. After all we have gone through people say now, “At those good old days! When the 1 USD used to be 1,500 LL” Or, “when we were able to connect with family and friends more often.” Everything has changed!
In the text of Mark 1:9-13, the writer starts by writing: “At that time”, what days? In the time that Jesus was born, there had been no prophets for 500 years! No Nathanial, no Elijah, no Amos… There was no one to be a mediator between God and the people. No one to hold those in authority accountable. In those days, Jesus came. He came for a reason, he came for a change. These few verses in the gospel of Mark invite us to re-focus our lens through the season of Lent.
In the gospel, Jesus is traveling from Galilee and comes to the Jordan River where John the Baptist is, as his name suggests, baptizing. There is no conversation. Jesus goes straight up to John to be baptized. John the Baptist was preaching his one sermon with one title: repent! And the response, the sign of their repentance, was immersion in water. As the believers emerge from the cool water, they gasp for air – as if they had been born again, their first breath of a whole new life.
John’s baptism of water was a metaphor for new life in repentance, whereas Jesus’ baptism was a baptism of spirit. As we read in Mark 1:8, “I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

History tells us about a pagan practice called Taurobolium, or bull sacrifice, first used in the Mediterranean region around 160 AD. The popular ceremony, in worship of the Great Mother of the Gods, may have been introduced by the Roman emperor. It was similar to sacrifices made in the worship of other gods, such as Mithra. But by 300 the ceremony had undergone a significant alteration. The sacrifice maker would lay in a pit covered by a board with holes drilled into it. Above, a bull would be slaughtered. As the individual was showered by the blood pouring down, it was believed that they would be tangibly connected to the Great Mother of the Gods. It is a violent image.
Here once again we see the clear link between immersion and connection. How powerful then is it to read the story of the baptism of Jesus. After emerging underwater by John the Baptist, a voice from the sky says, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” God speaks and the Holy Spirit appears above Jesus, the visible sign of connection between God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit.
The next link we can see in the gospel is between the concept of baptism and wilderness. After Christ’s baptism, according to the Gospel of Mark, we see the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness, where he is tempted by Satan and wild beasts… But why did the spirit lead Jesus into the wilderness? Does the holy spirit want to tempt Jesus or put him under temptation? The spirit led Jesus into the wilderness and not into temptation as a time of preparation for what was to come, and another reason is to show that Jesus was sent as a suffering servant and not as a conquering king. Wilderness in our lives is normal and so is temptation but the fact that Jesus overcame temptation is an example for us to overcome temptation, perhaps a more helpful question to ask is: how was Jesus led in the wilderness? Will wilderness be an opportunity to overcome temptation and become stronger by the power of the Holy Spirit that guides us?
In the same way that a blood bath connects the worshiper to the Gods in the Taurobolium, Jesus was baptized by the spirit, connected to God via the spirit. He was led by the Spirit of God to the wilderness, to prepare Him to spread the Kingdom of God, the rule of God, and the attributes of God by the Holy Spirit.
Christ spent 40 days in the desert. 40 is a meaningful number in the Bible, frequently connected with wilderness – places of “in between”, often between life and death. Elijah was persecuted for 40 days in the wilderness, seeking death for himself… Noah suffered 40 days on the ark, balanced between drowning and staying alive. Moses… 40 years in the desert seeking the promised land, also caught between starvation and God’s sustenance. Wilderness is a time of danger, of temptation, but also a time of critical change. In each of these stories, it does not matter so much why these people were drawn to the wilderness, as much as how? Were they led by the Spirit of God through the wilderness and the desert. Was the Spirit of God among them?
Today, at the start of the fasting season of Lent, we have a challenge before us. The challenge is not if we successfully pass the 40 days of fasting, how we will. Are we passing these 40 days, a journey between death and life, with God’s spirit? Are we going to ask for God’s spirit to be with us and among us? To be immersed in God’s spirit? To be changed?
In the end, we discover that we have a much bigger role to play, which is spending more time focusing on Jesus and asking for God’s spirit to accompany us through times of wilderness. “At that time… of wilderness” we shall remember that the Holy Spirit was with us through the Lebanese Civil War, through COVID-19, through the financial crisis. Today, through the war in the South of Lebanon, do we see God’s Spirit sending us and leading us? Even more so, are we connected to God by the Holy Spirit? The spirit sent out Jesus into the wilderness, who is sending us into the wilderness of our lives?
Glory be to God, Amen.

Khalil Haddad
February 22, 2024

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