The First Word

A reflection on Mark 1:9-15 for Lent I.

Originally preached by Andrew Stephens-Rennie at St. Brigids Vancouver, an emerging Christian community rooted in the Anglican tradition.

It was there, on the banks of the river that we saw him.

We had been wandering in the wilderness for days, weeks, months…It seems like forever. It seems like no time at all. We’d been wandering the wilderness with John, the prophet whose famous look had been ripped to shreds by the street style bloggers after its questionable appearance on the the Sartorialist.

We’d been wandering the wilderness, far from the centres of power. We’d been a wandering people in search of a promise. In search of a promised land and a promising leader to guide us on our exodus from…from…well, look around you…from all of this.

Wandering, words were awakened within us that years earlier we scarce could remember. Words returning as whisper, growing to a murmur, and then gaining the momentum of buzzing chatter when prophetic poetics once more took flesh in the prophet John.

“Lo, I will send you the prophet Elijah” the prophet Malachi dared to proclaim, generations before, when the word of the Lord was not as rare as it is today. “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children.”

There he was with us, amongst us, John the Baptist, wearing Elijah with deep assuredness and confidence, speaking truth in a world that had long ago abandoned such antiquated notions as that. Resembling Elijah, that other old time prophet who had dared to take on corrupt kings and their false idols.

It was there, on the banks of the Jordan river some time later, that we saw the other one too. The one who would follow. The one who would increase as the other decreased.

Wading in the water like one of us. Approaching John, as one of us. Seeking baptism as many of us had done.

It was there in the waters of the Jordan; in this godforsaken valley of the shadow of death that we all committed, you, me, and yes, even he, to a new way, a new truth, a new life. Lives free, free, free at last from our imprisonment to the old.

Free from the shackles of debt and power and shame.

Free at last. Free at last. It was there we thanked God almighty. It was there we were freed at last.

Free from illness, possession, and pain. Free to be. Wholly unobliged to the principalities and powers, those forces of captivity ever present around us, amongst us, and within us.

It was out there in the wilderness. Out on the rim of a broken wheel. Out there on the edge of the galaxy, in a place no-one would suspect, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee. That is to say, he came from Absolutely Nowhere of Consequence, to be baptized by John into the Jordan.

We had seen baptisms before. But this one was somehow different. And so when I say that he was baptized into the Jordan, I mean it. It seemed somehow deeper, more profound. All-encompassing.

It seemed as though he had fully abandoned himself into this baptism. Diving in, head first, fully submerged, ready to embrace the rushing water and the very real possibility of death.

I can remember my own baptism. Perhaps you can remember yours, or what your family tells you about it. And while there had been a turning in my heart. A change in my ways. A commitment to this new way of life, there were times I still felt inklings of fear and guilt and shame.

Hangovers of shame from my own religious upbringing. Guilt for leaving my family behind. Fear of how I might be seen by friends back home.

And where these feelings continue to surface and resurface even still, it seems so clear that Jesus, in a way I can’t seem to muster – in a way bordering on the supernatural – abandoned himself to the radical way that John was offering him.

It’s hard. So very hard to follow the Jesus way. And yet, isn’t that exactly the path he invites us to choose? Isn’t the cross he will invite each of us to bear?

I wonder. I still wonder to this day. Did he ever doubt? Did he ever falter? If so, how? Were there days that he, like me, wanted to return home? Was he ever tempted to return to the relative comfort of a life free of these subversive thoughts and actions?

The way his story played out, you have to wonder how he went forward. How did he go on with such single-minded abandon? Because it was there, wading in that Jordan water, that Jesus immersed himself in a genuine act of repentance. It was there that he shed the shackles that bound him. It was there he shed the shackles that bind us all – heart, soul, mind and strength.

In that moment on the banks of the river, I had this overwhelming sense that a new plotline was emerging. Jesus of Nazareth would be the first word in the story of what might be.

It was there, in that moment that Jesus entered into true, unencumbered freedom. It was there that he seemed to abandon whatever disordered attachments he might have had. It was there, in the waters of baptism that he simply let go of anything that held him back from fully and vulnerably opening himself to the world, as he responded decisively to God’s call. I see that as our invitation too.

It was from that experience, or so I understand it, that he headed into the wilderness to face temptation.

Perhaps you can imagine what those temptations might have been. Temptations come in so many forms. And yet, at their core, they’re all the same. Temptations hold us back. They block and close us to the beauty, and the mystery, and the delight of God’s dream for how it all might be.

And so it is that we are invited once again to join Jesus in the wilderness of another holy lent.

With this invitation, an opportunity.

An opportunity to enter, with Jesus, into this season of self-examination, penitence, prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

An opportunity to immerse ourselves in the good news of Jesus Christ as we read and meditate on God’s word…

An opportunity to journey along this new path, this new story, God’s dream for how it all might be…

An opportunity to acknowledge, turn from, and shed all that encumbers as we open ourselves to the world in response to God’s call…

An opportunity to follow Jesus into the wilderness…

And as we do so, we are reminded that God goes with us. We are reminded that the spirit will minister to us. We are reminded that we are God’s children. You are God’s child. And with you – just as you are – God is well and truly pleased.


With thanks to Ched Myers’ Binding the Strong Man for new insights into Jesus’ baptism. Featured image used under a Creative Commons Zero license from

Andrew Stephens-Rennie on FacebookAndrew Stephens-Rennie on Twitter
Andrew Stephens-Rennie
Andrew is a writer, dreamer and organizer with a keen interest in developing leaders in faith, compassion and justice.

He currently serves as the Director of Missional Renewal for the Anglican Diocese of Kootenay on the unceded territories of the Sinixt, Syilx, and Ktunaxa nations. He previously served as the Director of Ministry Innovation at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, BC.

Andrew is cofounder and contributing editor at, and co-editor of "A Sort of Homecoming: Essays Honoring the Academic and Community Work of Brian Walsh" with Marcia Boniferro and Amanda Jagt.

Leave a Reply