Lent 1B: Where the Spirit Leads
In a well-known sermon, the preacher Fred Craddock once said that you cannot get to Jesus without going through John the Baptist first. Apparently even Jesus could not get to be Jesus without John, either. Because his baptism by John in the Jordan River is included in all four of the Gospels (and that does not happen with very many stories). Mark’s is the briefest account, which is typical of Mark’s style–indeed, the whole story takes up a scant three verses. But that’s Mark for you: he is forever in a hurry to get the story of Jesus published. He wastes no time, uses no unnecessary words, and strips many incidents down to a mere skeleton of a narrative outline.
Mark reads so quickly that you as a reader actually need to slow yourself down many times or else you will miss the key details. So let’s do that: let’s slow things down so that together we can soak up the full richness and nuance of Mark’s tight narrative style. If we do, then we may see in the end that although this looks to be a story that is all about Jesus, it is really also all about us even yet today.
The first striking feature to these verses is how suddenly Jesus appears from out of nowhere. Mark skips Christmas altogether, of course. So suppose you were someone who had never before heard of Jesus. Suppose you had never before read Matthew or Luke and so had no clue that miraculous things had happened surrounding Jesus’ birth. But one day you picked up Mark. Verse 1 would tell you this was a gospel, a piece of good news, about someone named Jesus Christ, said to be the Son of God. Then, in verse 9, this mysterious person suddenly walks in, slowly taking form as he approaches you from out of the wavy heat vapors lifting off the hot desert sands. Don’t you sometimes wish you could approach old, familiar stories as if for the first time? Wouldn’t it be wonderfully intriguing to let the nature of Jesus unfold slowly before your imagination as Mark leads you along?
Mostly we can’t do that, of course. We know too much. Still, we can capture something of Mark’s sense of mystery by noting how unobtrusively Jesus just shows up at the Jordan. He is just a face in the crowd, lining up at the river’s edge, waiting his turn, and then getting dunked the same as everyone else there that day. But then something dramatic happens. Mark doesn’t say whether anyone other than Jesus saw and heard what came next. From the looks of this text, it may have been Jesus alone who saw the heavens torn open, saw the Spirit descend as a dove, and heard the voice of the Father. If anyone else saw it, Mark doesn’t say.
But Jesus did witness the rending of the heavens and the Spirit’s anointing of him. He heard the love of his Father. And long about the time you think that all this must portend nothing short of grand and glorious things, something rather arresting takes place. In the Greek of verse 12, Mark employs his favorite word: euthus. He had used it also at the beginning of verse 10. It’s the Greek adverb meaning “immediately” and the way Mark peppers his gospel with euthus you can sense the urgency, the breathless joy, with which he is narrating the story of Jesus. Things move pretty fast in Mark. Jesus comes to the river, gets baptized, and immediately upon coming out of the water he sees these heavenly signs.
But then, just as immediately, without missing a beat, the same Holy Spirit who lighted on Jesus’ head like a gentle dove transforms into a far fiercer looking bird who grips Jesus in its talons and then hurls him out into the desert wastes. The English translation that the Spirit “sent” Jesus to the wilderness is a pretty weak rendering of a Greek verb that literally means to throw, to expel, to hurl someone with force. This is not merely pointing a finger in the general direction you’d like a person to go. The Spirit doesn’t issue Jesus an engraved invitation to the wilderness–the Spirit picks Jesus up like some bouncer at a nightclub and throws him through the front window. When Jesus picks himself up and dusts himself off, he finds himself in a most ugly, spiritually dangerous place. He finds himself in the company of the devil out in the middle of the wilderness, which is the biblical symbol for all that is chaotic about and wrong with this fallen creation.
But it is the immediacy of Mark’s narrative that is striking here. Usually when Mark uses the word euthus, he isn’t merely reporting chronology–the word “immediately” for Mark is not just a way to say that Event B followed hard on the heels of Event A. When Mark says something happened “immediately,” he means it also in the sense of something having happened inevitably. Event B happened not only right after Event A but because of Event A. In that sense, it’s like saying, “I let go of the hammer and immediately it fell to the ground.” The second thing happens because of the first.
Yet that’s just what you wouldn’t expect as you pivot from verses 10-11 to verse 12. After all, Jesus is no sooner baptized and immediately God showers him with love and favor. That surely looks wonderful. But if there was any question as to what the nature of this particular anointing was, it becomes immediately evident: when the Holy Spirit descends on you and God expresses his love for you, the first order of business is a blunt, brutal engagement with evil. Why was Jesus baptized and, furthermore, anointed by God? Well, it wasn’t Step #1 to a comfortable life of fame and glory as the world defines those things. This wasn’t a ticket to the top but to the bottom. Ministry would plunge Jesus deeper into all that is wrong with life.
Once again, Mark’s brisk narrative style means that we will not be detained as to just what happened to Jesus in the course of his forty days’ worth of temptation. “He was tempted by Satan,” Mark says in verse 13, and apparently Mark decided that was all that needed to be said, too. If you didn’t know the lengthier accounts of this as detailed by Matthew and Luke, then upon reading Mark 1 you might be quite curious as to how these temptations turned out. Did Jesus succumb? Did he resist? Inquiring minds want to know, as they say, but at first blush it appears that Mark doesn’t want to satisfy our curiosity.
But here is another a place where slowing down may help. Listen: “He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.” It’s no surprise to learn that the wilderness had wild animals in it. In fact, the animals in question here are dangerous animals, threats to life and to human flourishing. These aren’t squirrels and racoons–these are lions, jackals, and other predators. Again, in the Bible the wilderness is shorthand for chaos, for the precise opposite of the cosmos God created in the beginning. In God’s cosmos, he was careful to carve out a safe haven where life could flourish undisturbed and unthreatened. God put up barriers to keep all that was harmful at bay. But in chaos all the fail-safes are off, threats to human life slip out of place, and so life becomes a precarious thing.
Smack into the midst of that kind of chaotic place is where the dove-turned-raptor hurled Jesus in his talons. But when Mark so casually tells us that Jesus was with the wild animals, he purposely is sounding a note meant to create a chord with notes that were first played by the prophet Isaiah long before.
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 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.
The story of Mark 1 then pivots (quickly again) to the calling of the first disciples. In both verses 18 and 20 Mark employs euthus yet again to convey the immediate response of the men Jesus calls to follow him. Jesus calls and immediately they leave behind their former lives and follow him. We’re thankful they did. We’re thankful we’ve heard Jesus issuing the same call to us and are grateful that we were enabled by God’s Spirit to respond.
Of course, we don’t have a clue as to what possibly could have been in the minds of Simon and Andrew, of James and John. Surely they didn’t know where they were going. Two, three years later, right up to the time of Jesus’ death, the disciples still didn’t understand the full implications of what they had been caught up in starting on that fateful day when Jesus first called out to them. If that was true even after trudging along with Jesus for a few years, it’s a cinch they didn’t have a clue on the day Jesus first called them.
Whatever they knew or thought they knew, we as readers have been tipped off by Mark. We know, or should know, that the result of their following Jesus would be the same as Jesus’ following his Father and his Father’s Spirit: sooner or later the disciples, too, would be picked up by God’s Spirit and tossed squarely into the midst of all that is wrong with life in a fallen creation. All of those words for “immediately” that Mark piles up in these few verses are meant to tell us that there is a holy inevitability to all this.
Getting tapped by Jesus to be his follower looks wonderful. And it is wonderful. It is unspeakably glorious to be a servant of Jesus and of the One he calls his Father and our Father. But if this Epiphany story has anything to tell us this January night, it is that following Jesus must bring us to all those sad, sorry, and sordid places in society where we would just as soon not go were it up to us but into which we get thrown by a Spirit who, as a matter of fact, doesn’t leave it up to us.
Yet we forget this sometimes. William Willimon illustrates this nicely. Years ago Willimon was the pastor of a medium-sized suburban church. Every week during the church season he led the women’s Bible study group and always enjoyed the gathering of those saintly pillars of the congregation, most of whom were well into their retirement years. At one point, Mrs. Donaldson began to bring a woman with her to the group. Shirlene was very much from the other side of the tracks having grown up in the inner-city projects. But she and Mrs. Donaldson had met when Mrs. Donaldson had volunteered in a local clothing ministry and so she gave Shirlene a nice new Bible and began to take her along to Bible study, where she was warmly enfolded into the group.
One week the topic of discussion was temptation. So Rev. Willimon led the ladies in a review on the nature of temptation and how to rely on God to resist it. Then he asked that most typical of all Bible study-like questions, “Does anyone want to share a story of a time you felt tempted but were aided by God’s strength?” One kindly soul piped up to say, “Yes, Reverend, I have one. Seems last week at the Piggly Wiggly supermarket there was some confusion in the checkout aisle. They were training a new girl and, well, next thing you know there I am in the parking lot with a loaf of bread I hadn’t paid for. Now at first I thought, ‘Well, it’s not my fault and anyway it’s only 99 cents.’ But then I thought, no, that would be wrong, so I went back in and paid for it.” Everyone nodded and smiled. Then Mrs. Jenkins said, “Last week I overheard a couple of folks sharing some gossip about someone. It just so happened that I, too, had recently heard a few juicy tidbits about old so-and-so and this was right on the tip of my tongue to say to these other people when something stopped me and I decided, no, I won’t share in this rumor mill.” More nods.
It was quiet for a moment before Shirlene cleared her throat and said, “A couple of years ago my boyfriend and me–he’s the father of my youngest child but not of the older two–anyway, him and me were big into cocaine. Well, you know how that stuff messes with your head! So one day we’re in the pharmacy and my boyfriend all of a sudden decides to tell the cashier to give him all the money in the cash register. And she done it. It was like takin’ candy from a baby. So we ran out of there real fast. Then we see this 7-11 down the street a ways and he says to me, ‘Let’s knock that over, too.’ But something in me kinds snapped and I told him no. I robbed that pharmacy with you, but I’m not doing no 7-11. I was glad I resisted. Made me feel like somebody.”
No one nodded this time. After fidgeting nervously with the cover of his Bible for a few moments, Rev. Willimon weakly said, “Yes, well, that’s rather what we’ve been talking about today. Shall we close now in prayer!” Willimon later berated himself for not being more compassionate at that time. He, and the other members of the group, were simply not prepared for the Holy Spirit to toss the real, messy, ugly world smack into the middle of their tidy meeting. But that’s what the Holy Spirit does; ever since the baptism of Jesus.
We must never forget that the project of salvation is always bigger than just us. What we should never forget is that the Holy Spirit will always tend to lead us deeper into the same troubles of this world that Jesus came to fix and to heal. The good news is that we never enter this world’s wilderness places alone. Jesus is always with us, even as he promised. That’s good news not just because we need his protection, guidance, wisdom, and strength but also because, as Mark 1 so beautifully displays, where Jesus goes, shalom can follow!
When we reflect on Jesus’ ministry, we do so remembering that all of what Jesus did was driven by the Holy Spirit who again and again impelled him to engage with all that is dangerous and hurtful in this world. But I said at the outset that Mark 1 is not just about Jesus–this is finally all about us, too. As we now follow Jesus no less than did Simon, Andrew, James, and John, we need to be ever willing to enter the dark places of this chaotic world with the hope that, by God’s Spirit, we too might become bearers of shalom. Amen.
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