Into the Wilderness

Mark 1:9-15

St. Mark has never struck me as a guy who was exactly a barrel of laughs at a party.  His gospel is urgent and straight to the point; there are rarely extra details, no particular artistic flourishes.  In this gospel there's often a kind of tension between Jesus and his disciples that the other evangelists seem to soften a bit, and that tension tends to have the effect of reminding disciples in every generation that as often as not we have our eyes on earthly things, not heavenly ones; that we have an infinite capacity to fall short of God's glory, and Jesus' call. 

That being said, there's no doubt that what Mark wants to tell us is good news.  That's the way the whole thing begins: The good news of Jesus the Messiah, Son of God.  But this is serious good news.  It's so good it's outrageous.  It demands our attention and response.  This is not a passing amusement.  This is not the good news that you're ok and I'm ok, and if we're true to ourselves everything will work out fine.  This is the good news that God is doing a radically new thing.  That God has torn open the divide between heaven and earth.  This is the good news that the way things are is not the way they will be, regardless of our particular feelings about the current order. 

This good news begins with the prophets, booming out of the past, announcing the one who trumpets God's coming, the one who will prepare the way of the Lord.  Then John shows up, wearing camel skin and eating bugs and calling people to repentance, to have a heart transplant at the river's edge.  He shows up in the wilderness, outside and away from the establishment, off the well-worn path of sanctioned religious and political movements, and he bellows at folks to get out there with him; to wash off the dust of the way things are, to rise up cleansed of the grime that messes up their image of God selves.  He tells folks to get out there with him and be ready for the king of God's new world order, who will not just dunk them in the river, but who will light them up with consuming, new-life fire. 

By the end of the first eight verses, we ought to be on the edge of our seats.  Who is this One, this Holy Spirit-baptizing, world-inverting, Messiah King?  And here we get a hint that maybe Mark isn't completely without humor.  Because, without warning--without angels, or divine insemination, or even exotic stargazers--we get Jesus.  Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee--"a third class village, in a second class [region]" as one scholar puts it.  And I think there must be a glint of mischievous delight in Mark's eyes, as it becomes quickly clear that this is not what we had been expecting.  This is something altogether different.  This is serious good news.

Let's pray: Lord tune our hearts to you.  Open us to your Word this morning.  Comfort and convict, that we might be shaped by your seriously good news.  May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight.  Through Jesus Christ, our Rock and Redeemer, we pray.  Amen.

I'll grant that probably no one here today is all that surprised that it's Jesus showed up on the banks of the Jordan to be baptized.  Anyone who's been to Sunday School knows that the answer's always Jesus, right?  Whenever you're in church, Jesus is a good guess.  But, perhaps especially on this first Sunday in Lent, I think we ought to allow ourselves to be caught by surprise--maybe even shocked, maybe even offended at this good news that Mark seems to be so happy to drop on us.  Because, I don't think its challenge is very much different today than when Jesus first dipped his toes in the river. 

By giving us that little detail, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee (and remember: Mark isn't lavish with his details), he's underlining the world-inverting truth of this great good news.  Jesus is not from Jerusalem, or Rome.  He's not aligned with the way things are.  There's no evidence of his formal credentials.  Again, Mark doesn't even set us up to believe this stuff, by giving us angels and annunciations.  This good news comes entirely unexpected; it comes without concern for the proper and established order of things.  The prophets' hope takes an utterly unlikely shape.  This is first-order holy mischief.

And the trend continues as Jesus wades into the water and is baptized, without any of John's expected concerns voiced.  There are some subtle cues in the Greek that this baptism is somehow different than the crowds who have flocked at John's call. And the conviction of orthodox Christian faith, that our great high priest is without sin--that he is improbably the full embodiment of God's will and way on earth as in heaven-- is upheld, as there seems to be no confession, just his plunging into the Jordan. 

All we see for sure is his complete solidarity with the crowds, the dissatisfied and dishevelled, the ones sufficiently fed up with the way things are that they're actually ready for repentance, for a new way and a new heart.  As John lowers him into the water, we see that the power of this King is not power that will be grasped at and lorded, but surrendered and submitted.  As he disappears for a moment, from our sight, we get a hint at the shocking lengths to which this One, this good-news Messiah, will go to be with us and for us, who are lined up on the shore.

I think we should pause here, and take stock of any resistance that might be in us at this point.  Let's not rush through this, to the bigger stuff we know is coming.  Let's allow the surprise of what Mark is showing us to take effect.  He's set us up to see God's good news, to see the Lord whose way has been prepared, promised us that the One we're waiting for will bring a Holy Spirit revolution, world shaking word.  But this is not what anyone expected. 
Let's not let our familiarity with the story trick us.  This is not what we are used to, from those who promise to change and shape the world.  It might not even be what we really want in a Savior.  Accustomed to the current order of things as we are, we might prefer a Savior with a little more flare, a little more worldly authority, a little more merit.  Truth be told, I'd like a Saviour who looks a little more like I'd like to be, like I wish I was--and submissive and self-giving is not at the top of that list.  The Church has often struggled with the truth that we don't seem to be able to help but wish that God's good news were a bit more godlike: power and pyrotechnics would be a start.  But instead, what we get is Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee, plunged into the Jordan river.  What we get is not God high and mighty, God distant and powerful, but God come unimaginably, unceremoniously, breathtakingly close.

Except that we feel the shock of the moment, I don't think we can be sufficiently stunned by what comes next.  As Jesus comes sputtering out of the water, the heavens are torn open, like Isaiah prayed they would be, when God did what God was going to do--O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!  And we get the divine confirmation we could never have expected when he showed up on the river's edge: You are my Son, the beloved; in you I have delighted!  And the Spirit who hovered over the waters of creation descends, and we catch this glimpse of the delight that has been forever: God's full self revealed as only God could, Father, Son, and Spirit; heaven's joy on full display. 

As the veil between heaven and earth is torn we see, if only for a moment, the sure and certain promise, the divine assurance that this is how God will be: wildly self-giving, stunningly near, wholly, delightfully unexpected.  In the midst of the world as it is, we get a hint at the way it will be, at the way God will have it: all God's hope, peace, joy, and love, on earth, as in heaven.  In Jesus, God's delight is with us and for us, close enough to touch, dripping with the hope of a new way.

So, it is a bit surprising, even alongside all that's surprised us so far, that the Spirit who descended like a dove, all gentle, the One who ordered chaos into creation way back when, now immediately casts the hope of the world into the wilderness; drives him out of the baptismal waters and into the deep awareness that things are not as they should be.  And there's no doubt that we're expected to see a parallel between Israel in the desert for 40 years, being shaped as God's people, and Jesus in the wilderness for 40 days being shaped for his vocation.  But what's caught my attention this time around, what I think is particularly relevant for this season of Lent and our time and place, are the competing voices in the story. 

We get the divine announcement, God's perfect pleasure in the Son, the heavenly affirmation that Jesus' will and way is God's will and way for the world.  When Jesus comes out of the waters and we hear the voice, we are being told in no uncertain terms that the way of Jesus isn't subject to the way things are, to the official authorities--not to Herod, or Pilate, or Caesar; not to the Jerusalem elite, or the religious industrial complex; not to long established social convention, or the deep seated preferences of those of us who are quite comfortable with the established order of things. 

Jesus' authority is heaven's alone.  One commentator puts it this way: "His baptism is not only a religious act, but a political and economic assertion of God's lordship.  When he emerges from the waters of the Jordan River, Jesus is thus the first citizen of God's empire, completely free of obligations to anyone or anything but God and God's coming reign."  He is unbound by anything less that heaven's delight; perfectly free to love God and neighbor with everything he's got; perfectly free to cause all manner of holy mischief, come what may.

But, immediately, we get another voice.  While we're still basking in the wonder and hope of who and how Jesus is, of what it means that he's here with us, calling us, shaping us, we get another voice.  Mark tells us that immediately, Jesus was tempted by Satan.  In Greek, what we translate as Satan means "The Accuser."  Jesus isn't being chased around the wilderness by a little red fellow, with horns and a tail and a pitchfork.  He's facing down that voice, that presence, that power that distracts and dissuades us from the hope and promise of another way. 

He's locked in battle with the one that accuses, that reminds us--sometimes loudly, sometimes in a whisper--again and again that we ate that forbidden fruit, that our relationship with God and everyone and everything else is shattered, that another way is not possible, that we a trapped and bound in a hopeless cycle of brokenness and death.  The Accuser insists that the holy mischief Jesus is about, God's reckless nearness, the way of grace, and righteousness, and ferocious love, is a fool's errand.  The Accuser reminds us that we haven't loved God as we ought, and haven't loved our neighbors anywhere near the way we should, and the Accuser would have us believe that that's just the way things are.  We are doomed to brokenness, we are bound by the way things are, we are not strong enough or holy enough or selfless enough or brave enough, to live God's will on earth as in heaven.  It's too much.  It's too hard.  We're not cut out for it. 

Mark doesn't give us the details his fellow evangelists do, about the particulars of Jesus' temptation.  But I wonder if that's because he doesn't figure he needs to.  We know, like every disciple before us, all about that voice that distracts and dissuades and accuses (I trust I'm not the only one).  Although it's a bit startling, maybe it's actually not all that surprising that the two voices--the holy delight and the accusations--come in such quick succession.  It seems pretty well in line with what St. Paul has to say: when I want to do good, evil always seems to be lurking nearby, always close at hand. 

Still, I think this is really a wild bit of hope, an extraordinary promise right at the beginning of the good news--before we hear of crosses and costliness.  It's a bit of grace that we get to see Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, empowered by that most intimate of presences, that new creation force, not shying away or even protected from the Accuser, but facing him down.  We're reminded here, in the wilderness, in the company of Jesus, that while there may be two voices, one will be silenced.  We're reminded in the wilderness that though the powers of the way things are continue to ravage and destroy, they will be overcome.  We're reminded in the wilderness that while forces of irreconciliation and injustice continue to bluster, they will be laid low.  We're reminded here in the wilderness that in Christ we are called into the will and way of the One whose power even death cannot stop; the One who is able by that power to do more in us and through us than we would ever ask or imagine, except that we have that One's voice ringing in our ears, the divine hope echoing in our hearts. 

In this season of Lent perhaps the invitation is to enter the wilderness, the broken and beloved world we know, with God's voice ringing freshly in our ears, to hear the hope and promise again.  In this season we're reminded of our baptismal identity, the wild promise that in Christ, his identity is ours, we are named and claimed by the One in whose name and way we're created--by grace we are adopted daughters and sons of God, children of the kingdom, the objects of God's delight. And we are called, in the name we've been given, to make all kinds of holy mischief wherever the Accuser is blathering--to love extravagantly, forgive relentlessly, give lavishly, to lift up the weary and downtrodden, and bind up the broken hearted; to live in the freedom to be for God and for God's world, come what may; to do whatever we do, wherever we are, in nothing less that the will and way of Jesus for this world; to let God's voice ring in and through us: the everlasting promise that another way is here: the kingdom of heaven is at hand!

In this season, we're called to remember that we are dust, which is just perfect stuff for God to make us new.  Amen.