In his book Transforming Mission, missiologist David J. Bosch famously pictured the church’s mission as “a ceaseless celebration of the Feast of Epiphany” with our life together, our prayers, our programs always “pointing to God, holding up the God-child before the eyes of the world.” We gather before the starlit cradle, where Zion’s light casts the promise of a new dawn on all peoples (Isaiah 42:6-7 and 49:6-7).
On Jan. 6, we celebrated that moment when the the promise of Immanuel begins to shine, from Bethlehem to the ends of the earth. It begins as the magi (pagan foreigners) step into the child’s light. The story continues over the next weeks as we, too, come to see more and more clearly what good news this baby proclaims.
We travel quickly from cradle to baptism. On Jan. 10, we remembered that Jesus walked to the front of the crowd, waded out into the river and gave his amen to God’s promise. It’s then that we begin to hear what God-with-us means: “You are my beloved Child; I’m delighted with you” (Luke 3:22). In some congregations, we dip our fingers into a bowl of water and remember our baptism, that moment we stepped forward with Jesus.
And then to the desert.
The lectionary pushes this episode to the first Sunday in Lent, but, as the Gospel writers tell the story, the voice at Jesus’ baptism never moves to become good news for the world (Luke 4:14-21) without walking this desert road.
In some ways, I feel we’ve already been in the desert with Jesus—not just for 40 days but for closer to 300. Like Jesus’ time in the desert, this past year has meant vulnerability, doing without, a mandatory restricting of life. Jesus went without food and human companionship, accompanied only by the devil, wild beasts and angels. In no small part, we shared that experience during 2020, left alone with ourselves, our devils, our God.
The desert didn’t blindside Jesus. Instead, as Sister Margaret M. McKenna reminds us in School(s) for Conversion: 12 Marks of a New Monasticism: “The desert is the place where the prophets of Israel were transformed by awareness of God’s presence and Word, and were sent out to proclaim it to the world.” Jesus chose to go there, chose to be changed. There, the promise and mission given by the heavenly voice were tried and tested, refined, pared back and purified.
The desert means embracing vulnerability, need, weakness. We come to know that it’s our very weakness that God declares to be “my beloved child in whom I am well pleased.” The desert means aloneness and exposure. But it’s right there that God’s promise to be with us becomes good news, light for the whole world.
When the desert does its work, we come back changed. Jesus did.
I wonder how we live this season of Epiphany this year, after so many months in the desert. I wonder how we remember those baptismal words differently, and how we see new light dawning for us and all the earth.
Josh Wallace is Mennonite Church Saskatchewan’s church engagement minister.