The Gospel of Mark begins in this way:
The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet,
Behold I send my messenger before thy face, who will prepare thy way;
the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, and had a leather girdle around his waist, and ate locusts and wild honey. And he preached, saying, “After me comes he whose mightier than I, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus Came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “Thou art my beloved Son, with thee I am well pleased.” (Mk 1:1-11, RSV).
When we hear the word “wilderness” some of us may think about the pristine wilderness--an uncorrupted place we can go to on retreat. The wilderness is our own Walden Pond. It is a place set apart where we can go when we want to get away from it all. Others of us may have just the opposite image. We associate the wilderness with a wild and untamed place of danger. Both images have deep roots in our national mythology and storytelling.
In the Bible the wilderness is a place where miracles happen. In the Hebrew Bible, refugees wander in the wilderness for forty years. When they are hungry manna falls from heaven. When they are thirsty water gushes forth from a rock. In the wilderness the refugees are led by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. Miracles happen in the wilderness. It is a place where people come to a new experience of the presence of God in their lives.
Witness the opening verses of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and our strength, a very present help in times of trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.” (Ps.46:1-3, RSV). Clearly the people are in some kind of wilderness. The foundations of the earth are shaking. Everything is busting loose. But rather than asking, “Why is this happening to me?” to people reaffirm their confidence in God, who is in their midst, “We will not fear, thought the earth should change.”
In the Christian scriptures, Jesus is baptized in the wilderness. He did not go to the temple in Jerusalem. He did not ask a temple priest to baptize him. He went to the wilderness, and there he met a wild man named John who was wearing a coat made of camel’s hair and who ate locusts and wild honey. It is a wild scene, but it was not a riot. This is no picture of mob violence. Jesus is not encouraging people to storm the city of Jerusalem. He is not calling on his followers to attack the priests or march on the temple. He is in the wilderness.
It strikes me that Mark tells the story of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in this way because he wants to put us on notice. If we are going to follow this Jesus, if we plan to walk with this messiah, if we are going to be his disciples, we are going to have to leave the comfort and safety of our familiar routines and surroundings. Change is in the air; and the followers of Jesus are called to become agents of change. That is what it means to follow Jesus into the wilderness.
We have just come from our Christmas celebration. We read the Christmas story. We heard the good news of the gospel: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel (which means, God with us) (Mt: 1:23, RSV). This good news is more than an agreeable possibility, a pleasing thought. But cold reason is not easily seduced. If we are going to go into the wilderness, we want to choose the time and the place. Prudence--good judgment, common sense, a careful regard for one’s self-interest--this is how the dictionary defines prudence. Before you go into the wilderness be sure you are wearing clean underwear. Be practical.
I do not think that Mark is encouraging us to throw caution to the wind. But he does raise an important question for us when he tells us that Jesus went into the wilderness. How do we define the wilderness today? What is the wilderness that we face? How do we experience the presence of God? What does it mean to be baptized with the Holy Spirit?
As I reflect on the meaning of the wilderness, I am thinking of the 370,000 plus people in this country who have died of Covid-19, and the families and loved ones who have been left behind, and who need to find a new way to live. I heard a story just this morning of a man who had a shoeshine business. He said since the outbreak of covid-19 his business has dried up. He has no customers. He is in the wilderness. He said that his new home as four wheels, for as long as he is able to keep his car. He is going to be evicted from his apartment, and he no place else to go.
I think of people who are unemployed and underemployed going to food pantries and bread lines in this the richest country in the history of the world. We cannot afford to house our fellow citizens? We can’t give people a well-paying job? We can spend billions of dollars on the Defense Reauthorization Act, but we cannot help out people living in this country in their time of need? Where is the church in this wilderness? What does it mean to be baptized with the Holy Spirit?
In the service of baptism we make promises. We promise to resist oppression. We promise to seek justice, love mercy, and walk with compassion for others. We can renew our baptism every morning when we wash our face or step into the shower. How will I live in the power of the Holy Spirit today?
Mark tells us that Jesus went to the Jordan River. He did not dip his toe into the water. He did not wade in the water. He went into the water. Thinking of this scene, my mind turns to the contrasting image of the disciples who locked themselves in a room because they were afraid. I wonder how long they would have stayed there if Jesus had not come and stood among them.
Mark says that John baptized with the water of repentance, but Jesus baptized with the Holy Spirit. John’s baptism signaled the end of one way of life; Jesus’ baptism marked that beginning of a new way of life. The poet W. H. Auden said that we live in the “Kingdom of Anxiety.” We are perpetually and forever worried about what is going to happen next. What is going to happen to us? What is going to happen to me?
When I see this image of Jesus going into the river Jordan, in my mind I contrast that image with the memory of people in Flint, Michigan, who were told that the drinking water was safe for them and for their children. The phrase that comes to mind is “water apartheid,” Ched Myers book coined this phrase in his book, Watershed Discipleship. Myers is a good theologian and a good writer with important things to say. If you are looking for a book to read, get a copy of Watershed Discipleship. If we don’t practice watershed discipleship, water will become the new dividing line between the have-gots and the have-nots, and we will have created a wilderness.
The poet Wendell Berry says in his poem: "What We Need Is Here," “We pray not for new earth and heaven, but to be quiet in heart and in eye clear. What we need is here.” Mark is telling us that what we need is here. He is also reminding us that there are others who are here with us. When Jesus was baptized people from the country side and people from the city were there that day. I can imagine that some people Mark is talking about probably carried others who were on stretchers. There in the wilderness a new community, a new society, began to take shape on the banks of the Jordan River. And it was a very good day. Today is a very good day for us as well, this is the promise of Jesus the Christ.
Rev. David Hansen