Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 18, 2018
Mark 1:9-15 Commentary
Lent begins in the wilderness. And it’s not a terribly safe place to be all things being equal.
Some years ago after a seminar I was attending in Tucson, Arizona, wrapped up around the noon hour, my wife and I decided to check out a nearby National Park. We took a big bottle of water with us but as we strolled through the cacti that June afternoon, the temperature on the desert floor topped 120 degrees Fahrenheit (we found this out later when watching the local weather report). The water was depleted much sooner than we anticipated, and while we may have never been in any real danger, we were most assuredly glad to get back to our car eventually. It required no imagination whatsoever to conceive of how easily one could die in such a harsh, hostile environment.
But biblically the desert or wilderness was always a sign of grave spiritual danger, too. Before God imposed order on his creation—before he made it a cosmos—all was chaos. It was, in the original Hebrew, tohu webohu, it was formless, shapeless, and dangerous. Life could not flourish unless God started separating things and carving out a life-nourishing niche for his creatures. But throughout the rest of Scripture, wilderness (the same tohu webohu of Genesis 1) became shorthand for the devil’s realm, for temptation, for threats to life, limb, and also to soul.
If we are going to follow Jesus to the cross in Lent, then we have to start where he started, where John the Baptist started.
We have to start in the wilderness.
John went out there first to declare the fulfillment of those prophecies that forth-told God’s plan to build a salvation highway—a road back to shalom—starting right there in that dangerous desert. Jesus then joins John in the desert but is no sooner baptized and hailed as God’s beloved Son before he is violently thrown—quite literally hurled—into a far deeper wilderness experience where the wild animals prowled and howled.
Think of that: In Mark, Jesus says not one single word in public, preaches not even two minutes’ worth of a sermon, before he is dropped down smack in the middle of a very bad place of chaos. It’s almost as though Jesus cannot credibly say or preach anything until this happens. Jesus has to enter the worst of evil on this planet before he can reliably declare that the kingdom of God has drawn near. Maybe that is because the kingdom of God cannot draw near until the kingdom of darkness—epitomized by the deep desert of evil—is engaged.
It may seem a trite example but years ago on the TV series M*A*S*H the unit’s priest, Fr. Mulcahy, tried to talk with a wounded soldier who had been severely traumatized by what he witnessed on the front lines of the war. But when this soldier discovers that the good Father had never been anywhere close to where the fighting of the war was taking place, he concludes they just cannot talk. The soldier had no interest in hearing the pious platitudes of one who had no idea what he was talking about. Later in the episode, after Mulcahy does come under enemy fire and is forced to perform an emergency medical procedure on a soldier even as shells are exploding all around him, the soldier welcomes the Father after all. Now they have a common frame of reference, now they can talk. Now Mulcahy gets it.
Jesus could not say the kingdom was near until he had been to the front lines, until he had engaged the evil of this world head on in the wilderness. Because then when he spoke words of hope and promise, everyone could know that these were not the sunny predictions of some starry-eyed but finally unrealistic optimist. No, this was someone who had engaged the jagged edges of real life in a fallen world and had even so emerged victorious. The features to this world that make us need the coming of God’s kingdom will not thwart the advent of that same kingdom. The post-wilderness Jesus was living proof.
“He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.”
That’s all Mark says in his typically spare way of writing. It’s maybe all he needs to say, too. Because here is an early indication in the gospels that where Jesus will go, somehow shalom will follow. Jesus will touch the unclean but not become unclean himself but will instead leave cleanness in his wake. He’ll touch the dead and they’ll come back to life. He’ll speak to the blind and leave them seeing, to the deaf and leave them hearing. He’ll enter situations of despair and isolation and leave behind him a cornucopia of hope and community.
Lent begins in the wilderness, in the worst parts of life in a fallen, broken world. It begins there as a reminder that Jesus is transforming this world by his very presence. Lent begins in the wilderness so that by the time we see Jesus enter into nothing short of hell and death itself near the end of it all, we will have more than a firm sense that somehow, some way–by a grace and a power we can scarcely imagine–Jesus will leave even those places changed. He’ll pass through the hell of death and somehow leave Life in his wake. (In a way, this is the same point made in this Sunday’s Epistle lection from 1 Peter 3—Jesus has gone ahead of us into death, into the place of spiritual imprisonment, and has brought life there.)
It’s a strange and mysterious alchemy that he works again and again. But it’s a little less mysterious when we remember the very first thing Mark told us when he opened his gospel: this Jesus we’re talking about is (you may be interested to know) “the Son of God.”
That little fact doesn’t change the wonder of his shalom-restoring powers. But it sure explains a whole lot!
This short lection does not contain any particularly striking textual points of which to take note, though there are a couple of verbs here that tend in the direction of drama (if not a measure of violence). Mark is perhaps the most dramatic of all the gospels and so he has a penchant for using very colorful verbs. Here within the span of a couple of verses he does this well. The heavens are not merely “torn open” in verse 10 but are rather rent asunder, split wide open (the Greek verb is schizein.) You can almost hear the sound of a very loud tearing open. Similarly, the dove/Spirit in verse 12 does not politely lead or send Jesus into the wilderness but rather violently hurls, throws, or ejects Jesus in that direction (again, the Greek is the vivid ekballein). The image is the classic one of the bouncer hurling a rowdy bar denizen through the window and out onto the sidewalk. On the surface this all looks calm and serene but the text indicates that cosmic happenings were afoot here. Reality on this earth was being invaded by no less than the power of Almighty God. We ought not miss the drama of it all! We should note also the connection to the end of Mark’s gospel when, after Jesus breathes his last (literally he EX-SPIRITS his last), the Temple curtain is schizein or split from top to bottom. The gospel begins with the pneuma or Spirit of God coming on Jesus from a split heaven (unleashing the power of God in the world in a new and dramatic way) and it concludes with Jesus’ EX-pneuma and the Temple curtain is then torn (from the top and so by God) thus giving us access to God in new ways.
When I was growing up, my parents had an old pump organ that my father had refurbished. When a certain stop was pulled out, the organ’s keyboard would automatically play bass clef chords to correspond with and harmonize with notes you played in the treble clef. I used to like playing that organ (which was also something of an aerobic exercise of pumping those pedals!) because I loved to see those other keys go down automatically when I pressed the right keys higher on the keyboard–to my young mind it was almost like magic!
That kind of thing happens in the Bible, too. If you press the right notes in one place of the Bible, you find that corresponding chords resonate in other parts. In the case of Mark 1, Mark plays the key to tell us that Jesus was with the wild animals, and presto: accompanying musical chords rise up from the pages of Isaiah where the prophet predicted that when shalom returned to this world, the wilderness would bloom and become a place of verdant life, not a threatening place of imminent death. What’s more, when that happened, the lion would lay down with the lamb and even small toddlers would be perfectly safe making mud pies right next to the hole of the cobra snake. In shalom, all creatures and all people could be with each other in harmony and goodness and without peril.
So in Mark 1:13, you don’t even need the part about the angels attending Jesus to figure out how Jesus’ tempting by the devil turned out. Jesus won. He won so marvelous a victory that for at least a time, shalom burst forth, life exploded onto the scene in a place of death. Maybe that is why Jesus had to be tossed out there as an immediate consequence of his anointing by God. Unless the powers that be are met head on, evil cannot be dealt with. God cannot bring salvation by remote control, pushing buttons and directing the action from a distance some light years away. God must mix it up with evil and that is precisely what he does through Jesus.
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