Now that we’ve had our fun with Christmas, it’s time to face the implications of Incarnation. Today, as we remember the baptism of Jesus (Mark 1:4-11), we change our spiritual menu from Christmas punch and cookies to an austere diet of locusts and wild honey. During Christmas we celebrated the coming of a messiah. Now, in the weeks following Epiphany, we reflect on the nature of the messiah who has come and what the messiah’s coming means for our lives.
Only one of our four gospels gives us a Christmas story. Mary’s Magnificat; the journey to Bethlehem; the no-vacancy sign at the inn; the child in a manger; the angels’ announcement to the shepherds – these are found only in Luke. Matthew gives us nothing about the birth but jumps directly into the world’s response to it. Mark and John leave it out entirely. The fact is, Christmas is unnecessary to the gospel; the gospel begins with John the baptizer’s call to repentance and with the Spirit of God being given to the adult Jesus of Nazareth.
So that’s where we are, at the inspiration of Jesus and the declaration of God’s pleasure with him. The very next thing that happens in the story will be the severe testing of Jesus in the wilderness to see if he’s ready for the task before him, to see if he’s ready for what God wants him to do. Will he counter the world’s pushback with God’s embrace? Will he meet the world’s degraded condition with God’s respect and love? Will he embody the Spirit of the living God in the way he lives in the world?
Could that be where we are in our story today? Every one of us who’s a member of the church has been baptized with water. But have we been inspired? Have we received the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:10; Acts 19:2)? Are we consciously and intentionally active – not passive but active – partners in the ministry of reconciliation God has entrusted to us (2 Cor. 5:19)? “As the Father has sent me,” Jesus told his first disciples, “so I send you”; then he said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:21-22). Will we live as if we also are sent into the world as Christ is sent, for the ministry of reconciliation, equipped by the Holy Spirit?
Today we’re being tested again. When Jesus’ forty-day testing in the wilderness was finished, Luke tells us the devil left him “until an opportune time” (Luke 4:13). Jesus faced recurring tests throughout his life, right up to his time on the cross. And we who follow him are not exempt from any of his experience. Our test today, as his was then, is this: How are we going to embody the reconciling work God is doing in the world, “reconciling the world to [God], not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor. 5:19). How are we going to be the people in whom the good and the evil, the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt. 5:45) are embraced and gathered – all of them – under the wings of a loving God (Matt. 23:27)?
Last week, one of the most tragic in American history, right-wing extremists, incited to action by our own president and his cohort, committed insurrection against our nation’s government and our way of life by invading the Capital Building, interrupting the business of Congress, and forcing its members to retreat to safety. That mob was dispersed, and Congress completed its work, but conflict is still brewing, and the threat to our way of life is still strong. The passions that stirred yesterday’s insurrectionists have not been dampened.
When those passions erupt again, as they seem likely to do, not only in Washington next time but in our own cities and towns and villages, we will be tested: to see if we are the church; to see if we are the body of Christ; to see if we have received the Holy Spirit; to see if we are ready to bear the ministry of reconciliation that has been entrusted to us; to see if we will not be conformed to this world but will be transformed by the renewing of our minds, so that we may discern the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Rom. 12:2).
I don’t know if the church will pass this test. I don’t know if I will. Some of us will show we are conformed to the world. Some of the faithful will deny who we are three times before the cock crows (Mark 14:29-31, 66-72). Some of us will strip ourselves of the costume of faith and run away into the night (Mark 14:51-52).
And some of us will have the courage of our convictions. Some of us will have the courage to love, to embrace even our enemies, to forgive without limit (Matt. 18:21-22), to be merciful as God is merciful (Luke 6:36). And whenever we are in Christ, a new creation will be born; everything old will be finished and gone; everything will become new (2 Cor. 5:17).