How appropriate it is that we celebrate Caleb’s baptism today, the first Sunday in Lent. Lent is the church’s great season of formation and little Caleb is deeply into formation in this first year in his life. When Lent began it was the culmination of the preparation of adults for baptism that would take place in the early morning hours of Easter Sunday. It was a baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Caleb is also baptized today into Christ’s death and resurrection here, already, at the beginning of Jesus’ journey to the cross and empty tomb.
This formative season of Lent is patterned on Jesus’ formative journey in the wilderness. Jesus has just been baptized by John in the Jordan. The heavens have opened. God has spoken famous words from Psalm 2, the coronation psalm sung whenever a new king – a new messiah – is crowned. No wonder Luke says that Jesus is now “full of the Holy Spirit”. He is God’s chosen one, the beloved with whom God is well pleased. What comes next is, to say the least, surprising. Jesus disappears from view. The Spirit leads him away, out, alone “in the wilderness”. It is a forty day journey. Like Moses’ forty days on the mountain top. Like Elijah’s forty day journey back to that same mountain. Like Israel’s forty years in the wilderness. Lent is a forty day rehearsal of life in the wilderness. In the wilderness survival is tested. In the wilderness all manner of voices tempt, entice, test. The wilderness is not the promised land. But there is no arriving at the promised land without travelling through the wilderness.
That is one memory that you will carry with you from this day Caleb because it is the story that comes with your name. It was your biblical namesake, after all, who was one of only two adults to survive the forty years in the wilderness. Of the twelve spies sent to spy out the promised land only two – Caleb and Joshua – come back with confidence that it will be home. The other ten are so in awe of the power of the giants who live there that they are sure the promised land can never be home to the refugee slaves who have fled Pharoah’s chains. Joshua and Caleb do not doubt God's power to make a new future. Caleb, you are named for one whose life is lived with the people of God in the wilderness. And, Caleb, you are named for one who lives to see the promised land. I cannot imagine a more appropriate day for your baptism than this day, the beginning of our Lenten pilgrimage in this season when the church you are born into finds itself wandering in the wilderness, called to trust in God’s promises that we will yet arrive in the land of milk and honey, at the table of bread and wine, the feast of God’s kingdom come where God’s will is done.
But, little one, you are not only the namesake of Caleb, as wonderful as that name is. Through your baptism you also bear the name of Jesus. You are not just one of his followers. You are one with him. He is your companion, your guide, your strength. This is good news. It is good news because Jesus knows the way through the wilderness where the voices tempt, entice and test. Not only does he know the way, he knows the shape of a life that does not yield to temptation, that is not fooled by false promises, that does not flunk the test of remaining true to our true humanity. He has paved the path for us and given us the answer sheet so that we are ready when it is our turn to say “no” to temptation and “yes” to God, to neighbour, to our best-selves. Notice that there are three basic elemental enticements in the wilderness. The first challenge: Use a miracle to overcome your hungers. The second temptation: Receive great power in exchange for serving God. The third test: Attempt to prove God’s faithfulness. Jesus has been given a memory, a text, a story to tell and to live when offered an enticing counter-story. He has not forgotten who he is, how to answer, how to live - all of his answers he learned as a child among a people who taught him the story (his script can be found at Deuteronomy 8:3; 6:13 & 6:16). It is the reason we steep our littlest ones right through to our eldest elders in the story that counters temptation.
Today the story includes the imposition of ashes on our forehead to re-mind us that we are human, mortal. We are not gods. Much of our life is a pilgrimage through the wilderness. We are tempted, enticed, tested. In our mortality we often find the temptation too great, too enticing. We forget who we are, do not remember our script, we lose touch with a life lived in the Way of Jesus Christ. Instead we replace our baptismal identity with that of “consumer” or “achiever” or “winner” or “loser”. We idolize powers and programs and people. It means we worship them, we devote our lives to being like them, praising them. In other words we put them in the place that we intend to reserve for the God we meet in Jesus. Usually it means that we would rather not participate in the suffering journey through death to life. Usually it means we are hoping for a short cut through the wilderness. Usually it is a path of avoidance. It is the reason that Jesus teaches us to pray “lead us not into temptation ... save us from the time of trial.” He knows how difficult a journey it is.
Lent is a journey back to our true identity - our true humanity - in Jesus. When we receive the mark of the cross in ash it is a sign of our desire to live faithfully, obediently, wisely in the wilderness. It is also a sign of our frailty. It is a sign of our deep desire for forgiveness, for re-connection, for communion with one another and with God. This is the reason we receive the ashes at the font on our way to the table. Here we remember who and whose we are. Here we gather at the table of forgiveness. Here we come to receive the gift of manna in the wilderness. It is not an accident that the image for Lent in this year’s Christian Seasons Calendar is of the prodigal son - the lost child, the one who has not been able to resist temptation - coming home. This is the good news of the gospel. This is the story we are baptised into. In baptism we die to the false stories about our life that we had called the truth about us. Here we are born again into the gospel truth. At the font we begin a journey through the wilderness that turns out to be a pilgrimage to our true home here, at the welcome table, where God gathers in the lost and least and last. Welcome home.