Uncharted Territory


"One day Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. As Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens splitting apart and the Holy Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice from heaven said, ‘You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy.’ The Spirit then compelled [drove] Jesus to go into the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan for forty days. He was out among the wild animals, and angels took care of him. Later on, after John was arrested, Jesus went into Galilee, where he preached God’s Good News. ‘The time promised by God has come at last!’ he announced. ‘The Kingdom of God is near! Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!’" – Mark 1:9-15

There is a whole lot going on in today’s Gospel reading from Mark. That may be easy to miss, because we’ve touched on various parts of Mark’s first chapters several times already in Advent and Epiphany. But where Matthew and Luke, by contrast, give distinct and rich descriptions of Jesus’ baptism, his temptation, and the beginning of his ministry, Mark compresses all these events into just a few short verses. And while we may simply assume this is Mark’s Dragnet-like style – “Just the facts, Ma’am, just the facts.” – I think there may be more at work. Perhaps, that is, baptism, trial, and calling are all bound up together.

Consider that in Mark, the Spirit did not lead Jesus into the wilderness, but drove him there. Mark employs a verb that has a more violent sense than we might imagine and certainly more so than the one Matthew and Luke employ to characterize the Spirit’s guidance. Of course, perhaps we should not be surprised that the Spirit whose entrance rends the heavens to tatters now drives forth Jesus into the wilderness.

This is a helpful reminder that Christian faith is not an answer to all of our questions and problems, and it’s certainly not an invitation to the easy life. Baptism into the Spirit of Christ is to be called to, indeed driven into, an adventure that will include testing, challenge, and uncharted territory.

And once Jesus emerges from the wilderness – almost always a time of testing in Israel’s history – his public ministry is announced, and perhaps occasioned by, John’s arrest. It’s in that context that Jesus declares that God’s kingdom – which would be so much better translated as rule or reign – is near and so prompts repentance and belief. But Jesus doesn’t just say God’s rule is coming, he also says “the time is fulfilled.” It is, of course, kairos-time of which Jesus is speaking; not the steady beating of the clock that characterizes chronos, but rather the magisterial, pregnant, significant kairos of God’s action and activity. Interestingly, the only other time Jesus utters the word “fulfilled” is at Gethsemane when, after he has been betrayed and is about to be arrested, he says, “Let the Scriptures be fulfilled” (14:49), even as all of his disciples then desert him in fear.

All in all, this is indeed a sobering passage, filled with dark and foreboding words of challenge. And were we to approach Lent as some of our forebears did – as a penitential season of somewhat dour, even ominous waiting and withholding – perhaps this would be the direction in which to move. But I think Lent can be more than this. Indeed, I think we need Lent to be more than this. Lent is a time where we step back, contemplate our mortality, refrain from indulgence, true enough; but not, I think, as some kind of spiritual contest of self-abnegation but rather to make room to behold the coming of God’s rule and activity in and through the ministry, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So much clouds our vision and distracts our gaze from God’s work in our lives, often in surprising ways, and so Lent tries to make room to refocus and recognize God at work. And God’s work and activity, Lent can remind us, is not limited to Jesus’ road to Jerusalem so long ago but can animate and illuminate our lives today.

Allow just one pertinent example: So much of our life, energy, and culture is directed to forestalling, if not outright denying, death. We spend inordinate amounts of money and time and/or undergo painful procedures to maintain an appearance of youth. We post only those pictures and tidbits to our social media that portray a happy and fulfilling life. We are reluctant to disclose anything that is particularly difficult for fear of embarrassment. But embarrassment from what? That we are not perfect, that our life is not touched by loss? That we are not every day, dying?

I think this passage for the first Sunday Lent is helpful first because it is realistic – life is filled by challenges, testing, moments of feeling overwhelmed, sobering news, and loss. Equally important, however, this passage is also important and helpful because it is hopeful. The Spirit present at Jesus’ baptism propels him into the wilderness, but does not leave him unprepared or alone. Indeed, it is critical to note that the Spirit does not drive him forth until he has received the affirmation of Baptism that he is God’s beloved Son, well pleasing to his Father, and recipient of the heavens-rending power of the Spirit. And he was not abandoned in his testing, but received the attention of angels. And when he comes forth to begin his ministry at the occasion of John’s arrest, he does so aware that the time – God’s time – Kairos time – is ripe, indeed full to overflowing.

So also with us! We received in Baptism the affirmation, acceptance and promise of accompaniment from the God who created the heavens and the earth, the One who caused light to shine in the darkness and raises the dead to life. What can we not accomplish?

Of course we will be called to testing and challenge and suffering and growth – this world God loves needs our care and attention, our action and commitment, and God has called us to be part of the struggle as agents of love and protection! But we do not enter this alone. The same Spirit that conveyed God’s promises also drives us into a world desperate to hear of and experience God’s love and continues to tend us through angels we recognize and others that come to us at unawares. We also will be drawn, called, and even driven to those places that need special attention because they seem at times hopeless, yet always with the promise that the time for God’s rule that Jesus inaugurated continues. Indeed, we labor and struggle and work and hope confident that, because Jesus was raised from the dead, nothing can ultimately defeat those aligned with God’s love and life!

God, you made a covenant with all creatures, promising life and hope. You show us how we should walk, yet we forget our connection with one another and think that we are the center of the universe. We wander from your paths of truth into paths of deceit and pride. Forgive us and lead us back into the arms of your love. Amen.
Feb 18 2018