Carlos Wilton, January 8, 2012, Baptism of the Lord, Year B; Mark 1:4-13
“And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.”
– Mark 1:11-12
The Revised Common Lectionary is a list of scripture passages from which Linda and I – and thousands of other pastors around the country – often choose lessons for Sunday worship. The Lectionary’s very useful. It provides readings appropriate to special Sundays throughout the year – not to mention getting us preachers out of our comfort zone, investigating passages we wouldn’t otherwise choose – but it sometimes has its quirks and peculiarities. Sometimes the editors who put the Lectionary together make some odd choices.
Today is one of those occasions. Today is called Baptism of the Lord. It’s one of the most ancient, time-honored feasts of the church. The passage the Lectionary editors have chosen, of course, is the account of the baptism of Jesus – this year, the version from Mark’s Gospel. What makes their choice so peculiar is where they choose to end it.
The story of Jesus’ baptism, as Mark gives it to us, builds to a climactic moment: that time when Jesus comes up out of the water and hears a voice directed to him from the heavens: “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
And that’s where the Lectionary editors choose to end the reading for this Sunday. That’s no great surprise. The blessing from God is a kind of benediction, a capstone that leaves us all feeling warm and satisfied. The only problem is, they’ve stopped Mark’s narrative before it’s over. They’ve left out two verses, which we did include in the reading this morning. The verses are these:
“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” [Mark 1:12-13]
So much for the warm, fuzzy feelings. So much for God’s benevolent benediction. Let the story spin out to its natural conclusion, and suddenly God doesn’t look like such a kind, benevolent deity anymore. No sooner does God bless Jesus, the son, then God gives him a good kick in the pants (or the robe, as the case may be).
I am not making this up. It’s right there in the Greek. Well, maybe it doesn’t say “kick,” but Mark says the Spirit “drove him out into the wilderness.” The Greek word means “to throw out, to drive out, to expel.” It’s the same verb Mark uses in chapter 11, verse 15, as he tells how Jesus “entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling.” Remember the fury and the determination with which Jesus overturns the tables of the money-changers, and expells everyone who’s cheating the pilgrims out of their hard-earned wages. In John’s account of that story, he even has Jesus making a whip of cords and beating the merchants with it! That’s the word Mark uses here, to tell how the Holy Spirit drives the newly baptized and blessed Jesus out into the wilderness.
It seems God is a Tough-Love sort of parent! “Can’t let the kid get too complacent. Can’t let him rest on his laurels. OK, I said it, Jesus, you’re the beloved son, with you I am well-pleased. Now, drop and give me 20!”
Well, what is this wilderness, into which God is so determined to push Jesus?
It is, in the Jewish imagination, the place where the deepest of spiritual encounters happen. Where does Moses discover the bush that’s burning, yet is not consumed, and receives God’s call to go to Pharaoh and tell him, “Let my people go”? The wilderness. Where is Mount Horeb or Mount Sinai (depending on which story you read), on whose summit God gives Moses the Ten Commandments? The wilderness. Where does Jonah flee – in today’s Old Testament lesson – to argue with God about his call to preach in Ninevah, and where does God cause a plant to spring up to give him shade, then make it wither away – just to show him who’s boss? The wilderness. Where does Elijah flee Jezebel’s henchmen who are out to murder him, hiding himself in a cleft of the rock from earthquake, wind and fire, until he hears that “still, small voice” – or that “sound of sheer silence” – that tells him everything’s going to be all right? The wilderness. Where does John the Baptist dwell, clothing himself in animal skins and subsisting on locusts and wild honey? The wilderness.
At its very root, Jewish spirituality is a desert spirituality. The people who walk away from the fleshpots of Egypt, straight through the Red Sea waters, aren’t exactly going on vacation! God opens the way for them through the waters not so they can relax and take it easy, after so many years of hard labor building pyramids. No, God casts them into a daily struggle for survival, where they’ve got to learn the skills they need to live, or die trying.
And so, it’s hardly a surprise that, when God gives Jesus a blessing and sends him on his way, God sends him first into the wilderness. The Greek word for “wilderness” is eremon. It’s where our word “hermit” comes from. When Jewish men wanted to get serious about their faith, what they very often did was leave home and family behind, and go to live for a time in a cave, or a rude hut, living off the land as John the Baptist did. Day follows day, one very much the same as the last, and each day the struggle is the same: find something to eat, or go hungry. Through the experience you learn self-reliance, and the mastery of your emotions. Deep in the wilderness, at the last, you encounter the wild, desert God of the Hebrews, the one who speaks out of burning bushes and says, “I am that I am.”
We need to turn to Luke’s Gospel for a full account of Jesus’ temptations by Satan, but here in Mark, the story is simple, bare-bones: “He was with the wild beasts. And the angels waited on him.” The Greek word for “waited on” is diakonia, or servanthood – or ministry. Some translations say, “the angels ministered unto him.”
Don’t think, based on that line, that Jesus is living a life of indolent ease. It’s not like he’s on a luxury African safari, and everywhere he goes he’s followed around by servants with parasols to keep the sun off him, who pitch a tent, break out the fine silver, and serve him pheasant under glass.
More likely, what Mark means is that when Jesus is lying flat on his back, parched by the sun, wondering if he’s got it within him to get up and plod on a single step further, an angel lifts him to his feet and says, “Go – you’ll find a spring of brackish water a mile and half that way.”
The wilderness is Jesus’ experience of testing, of trial. It’s Messiah boot camp. The angels are there to serve him, but their role is more like drill instructors than pillow-plumping butlers.
And that, my friends, is a way that you and I can derive spiritual meaning from our own wilderness experiences.
I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. Some of you, I know, aren’t much for the great outdoors. Your idea of a wilderness experience is lunch spread out on a picnic table, just off the parking lot by the Scenic Overlook off the Interstate highway.
But that’s OK. You don’t need to literally be in the wilderness to have a wilderness experience. A wilderness experience is any sort of challenge or testing that takes us out of our comfort zone, that causes us to wonder whether we’ve got what it takes, within ourselves, to live through it.
For some, it’s the loss of a loved one. For others, it’s a financial crisis – as all too many of us are experiencing these days, in this recession that just keeps on recessing. For still others, it’s a crisis of faith. It’s a season when the comfortable, childhood certainty that “God’s in heaven, and all is right with the world” just doesn’t hold up to human experience.
The poet T.S. Eliot is aware that there are all sorts of deserts in life, some of them having nothing to do with sandy wastes and scorching sun. In his poem, “Choruses from the Rock,” Eliot has this to say:
You neglect and belittle the desert.
The desert is not remote in southern tropics
The desert is not only around the corner,
The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
The desert is in the heart of your brother.
[T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 (1952: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), p. 98.]
In a time like that, a time of experiencing “desert in the heart,” faith needs to go down to the potter’s shop, to borrow an image from the prophet Jeremiah [18:1-6]. There, the lump of clay that had been formed into a lovely vessel must be thrown back down onto the potter’s wheel, and pounded back into nothingness – until, dampened by a little water, and formed by the potter’s skillful fingers, a new vessel rises up, an object of beauty and utility.
It’s significant, by the way, that Jesus’ experience of being “driven out” into the wilderness takes place immediately after his baptism. What appears to us a jarring transition actually makes perfect sense.
Think of what baptism really means. Forget, for a moment, the sweet celebration of infancy: the heirloom gown passed down in the family for generations, the party afterwards with the ice-cream punch and finger-sandwiches and potato salad. Remember how baptism, as practiced by the first generation of Christians – before there was a second generation to grow up in the faith – often took place standing waist-deep in a swift-flowing river, and the person performing the baptism pushed you down under the water and held you there, just long enough that you felt short of breath and feared you might drown. Then, just as all seemed lost, you were lifted up into fresh, breathable air, gasping and sputtering, thoroughly relieved you were not going to die at all, that day.
When parents bring infants for baptism, they do it because they wish the very best for their children. The very last thing on their minds is a life filled with pain and suffering. As parents, their natural inclination is to shield and protect their children from anything so harsh and threatening as that.
But, do you know what? Life is filled with pain and suffering. As it says in the book of Job, “human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward” [5:7]. Baptism offers no guarantee whatsoever that the life ahead of the little child is going to be more comfortable, or more protected, than the life of an unbaptized baby.
What we offer children, in baptism – and in the years of Christian Education that follow – is not so much a soft, cuddly blanket as a wilderness survival kit. For surely, this human life of ours can seem at times very much like a wilderness sojourn. To get through it intact, we need to be trained in the ways of the woods, and know where to look to find food and shelter.
The writer Henry David Thoreau is famous for his book, Walden, a philosophical reflection on some time he spent living in the woods, in a simple cabin. Perhaps the most famous passage from that book is this one, in which Thoreau explains his reasons for leaving civilization behind, and going to live close to nature:
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life…” [Walden (Houghton Mifflin, 1854), p. 143.]
There’s something about the Christian life – the baptized Christian life – that is, at its very best, a matter of “living deliberately,” of “living deep and sucking out all the marrow of life.” An ideal Christian life is not identical with the ideal of our consumer culture, which is to live a life of opulent ease, surrounded by material blessings. No, an ideal Christian, one who has taken to heart the teachings of Jesus, is one who knows how to live simply, close to the earth, and be satisfied with whatever life may bring. It’s a person who values simplicity, rather than luxury, who knows the joy that comes of sharing with others, who knows the blazing glory of a sunset is far superior to the impertinent electric lights of Times Square.
In that same book, Thoreau speaks of something he calls “the tonic of wildness.” A tonic, of course – in nineteenth-century parlance – is a medicine, or more like what we’d call today a nutritional supplement. A tonic is meant to build us up, to make us strong. Here’s Thoreau again, from Walden:
“We need the tonic of wildness, to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only the wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” [p. 257.]
The poet Wendell Berry expresses a similar vision of wild places in these lovely lines, in a poem called “The Peace of Wild Things”:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
[The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (ReadHowYouWant.com, 2010), p. 36.]
I like to think that, when the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, it was – at least in part – so he could have experiences such as these. Yes, Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness was a time of temptation, a struggle with Satan. Yet, I also think it had to include its moments of peace and stillness, of contemplation and wonder, of living close to the earth and close to God.
As we think of baptism – as we think back to our baptism, however long ago that may have been – let us think of it not as a coddling and protecting, as we very naturally want to coddle and protect our babies. Let us think of it also as a sending out – no, a driving out – into the places in life that are challenging, even threatening, that tax the resources of our faith to the utmost.
As you and I may be called by God to sojourn in such places, let us hold fast to the faith we have been given. Let us remember our baptism, and the powerful, lifelong blessing it is. And, when things grow most bleak, let us be alert and attentive to the signs that angels may walk the earth still, prepared to minister to us in the hour of our greatest need.
Let us pray:
Lord, we know it is not always given to us
to live lives of comfort and ease.
We know life is sometimes a struggle.
Yet we also know that you have promised
never to leave us nor forsake us.
We know that, even though at times you may drive us into wild places,
you do not abandon us there,
but provide us with daily manna as you did for the Israelites of old.
May we see in the sign of our baptism
a powerful reminder that you do equip us with every good gift,
that you offer ample provisions for the journey.
Help us always to live lives of simplicity and trust,
after the example of our Lord Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.
Copyright © 2012, by Carlos E. Wilton. All rights reserved.