The Gospel of Mark begins at a fast clip. Tom Wright equates John the
Baptist’s arrival to someone storming into your room and screaming
at you to get up NOW! You’re late for work! You’ll miss the bus! Your
flight leaves in an hour. You overslept! Get up! You’re groggy from
having just fallen asleep in the wee hours of the morning, so the human alarm clock resorts to splashing water on your face. NOW you’re awake and planting your feet on the floor for a whirlwind of a day.
In Mark’s succinct gospel, the arrival of John the Baptist replaces the birth story. That scene is not nearly as sanguine as shepherds in a barnyard! I wonder where we are asleep today, in our personal lives, our church, and our community? Are there voices crying out to us to wake from our lethargy and MOVE?
Mark’s gospel is known for its brevity. In that sense, it’s perfectly
tailored for life in 2022. We’ve grown impatient with too much
information on any one subject. We scroll past posts with mild interest.
We send multiple texts to avoid phone conversations. We submit to the rules of brevity each time we tweet—using 280 characters or less. Our
increasingly shortened attention spans love Mark! So fasten your
seatbelts as we jump into the fray on Jesus’ baptism day!
John is introduced as a fringe character. He wore the clothing of a penitent, subsisted on a diet of insects, and set up shop in the austerity of the desert. Though his ministry gave the appearance of a freak show,
throngs of people streamed out to him. Maybe they understood his odd
presentation as a rejection of the present powers in Jerusalem. The
Roman Empire was known for its brutality and John displayed defiance
to cultural norms set by the Jerusalem bigwigs. When Jesus submitted
to be baptized by John, He offered a show of support for this unlikely
revolution happening just off to the side of the city. John’s efforts at paving the way for that very moment in history were fulfilled.
The Jews were known for their ritual baths. They highly valued
cleanliness and required bathing in one of the public settings when they
became ritually impure. Whether they were sick, touched a dead body,
or had a baby, certain natural parts of daily life transmitted spiritual
cooties that could only be removed through yet another ritual bath.
John’s baptism was a one-and-done cleansing. It added the expectation of
honest introspection. Baptism by John was a commitment toward the
kind of confession that Dr. Laura required of anyone courageous
enough to call her on-air counseling booth. Remember how people winced when she saddled those who were trying to blame others for their own messes with rightful responsibility? When Jesus got dunked by John, He had an authentic encounter with God. The shock waves from His counter-cultural movement still reverberate among us today, inviting honest introspection.
Mark described that the heavens were torn open as Jesus arose from the
water. The only other place Mark used this word was when the curtain
in the temple was torn from top to bottom on the day of Jesus’ death.
Both of these moments, at the beginning and ending of His earthly
ministry, were moments when the boundaries between earth and
heaven blurred. The voice of a loving father was heard, a Dad telling his
son that he loves him.
I wonder how many of us heard words like that from our fathers? Our
mothers? For those who never heard that kind of affirmation from your father, what would that do for you if you had heard those words of affirmation regularly? Anything is possible! That kind of parental blessing empowers children to rise out of poverty, to turn handicap into triumph and impossible dreams into reality. Imagine God saying to you every moment since your baptism, “You are my precious child. I love you so very much.” How might that message change you?
With this message from heaven delivered to Jesus, we are left with no
doubt that Jesus was anointed for ministry. Tom Wright reminds us that
this happens in our own lives and those of our church friends: “A good
deal of Christian faith is a matter of learning to live by this different
reality even when we can’t see it. Sometimes, at decisive and climactic
moments, the curtain is drawn back and we see, or hear, what’s really
going on; but most of the time we walk by faith, not by sight.”
The story moved forward from this baptism with breathtaking
briskness. Being baptized, it turns out, does not inoculate us against
temptation. Jesus, still damp from the Jordan River waters, found
Himself in the wilderness, alone except for the wild beasts. His
ordination was preparation for a very real encounter with the evil of
our fallen world. For forty days Jesus was face-to-face with Satan, the
embodiment of all that is wicked. The big guns were brought out to test
the faith of the Son of God. As if that weren’t terrifying enough, He was
expected to co-exist with ferocious creatures hanging around.
I remember going on a camping safari in Tanzania. We Peace
Corps Volunteers couldn’t afford the price of air-conditioned bus tours with comfy lodges for our nightly rest. Instead, we camped out in the midst of the Serengeti Plain, a sheath of canvas separating us from all things that move. I was awakened in my pup tent in the middle of the night by the earth trembling beneath me. I unzipped the flap to see two elephants storming toward me. My canvas bedroom, I realized, would present no obstacle to such a big creature. Fortunately, the pair changed course before they got too close. But sleep eluded me the rest of the night as I grappled with the reality that I was in their territory and vulnerable
indeed. Jesus dwelt alongside of these creatures and lived to tell of it. In
His ministry, He would be the wild One who refused to be tamed by the
conventional religion of His day. The final note of the story was an
assurance that the angels of God took care of Him. In Jesus’ baptism
and wilderness trial, we are reminded that we worship a God who
completely understands us in both our times of triumph and
The final episode of this three-part short story is the commencement of
Jesus’ preaching ministry. He went back to His home territory of Galilee
where He would be known as Joseph’s boy. He learned, before He
preached His first sermon, that His relative, John, had been arrested and imprisoned. John’s wild ways caught up with him and Jesus had painful proof that His ministry had high stakes. His people had waited a long time for the Messiah to appear. David’s kingdom thrived one thousand years earlier and Jews had been watching for a Messiah ever since. There
had been 400 years with no communication from God before Jesus
showed up. So Jesus preached a concise message: Repent! This could be
translated as an invitation to turn your brain around inside your head
so that you are looking in a different direction! Through our repentance
we are urged to participate in the new age He inaugurated and to turn
away from the voices that tempt us to travel a different path. As baptized
followers of Jesus, we can expect to be lured off course in spite of our
My dear Julian of Norwich, who was born in 1342, was given sixteen
visions in a near-death experience. She offers these words of wisdom
from one of them: “Our life in this world consists of a wondrous
mixture of good and bad. We contain within us both our risen Lord
Jesus Christ, as well as the misery and woe of Adam’s sin. Protected by
Christ, although dying, we are touched by his grace and raised to hope
of salvation. Afflicted by Adam’s fall, as well as our own sinfulness and
woe, we feel so benighted and blinded that we can scarcely find any
comfort. And our God opens the eye of our understanding so that we
might see, sometimes more, sometimes less, according to the ability
God gives us to receive it. Now we are raised up to one, now allowed to
fall to the other. And this fluctuation is so confusing that we hardly
know where we stand…But what a marvelous confusion! And it
continues throughout our life. But God wants us to trust that he is
always with us.”
I don’t know how many of us would refer to the challenges of
discernment as “marvelous confusion.” I have assured countless
confused parishioners over the course of 35 years that discernment is
difficult! Most times we are given just enough guidance to move
toward one decision. We usually don’t get confirmation of our choice until
later. As baptized believers, we are urged to immerse ourselves in
Jesus’ teaching, trusting in God’s Word, rather than trying to buy a fail-
proof insurance package for our life to flow forward perfectly. We wrestle with how to live within the power structures of our world while still being faithful Christians. I can assure you that I’ve never thought to describe that angst as “marvelous confusion”!
Maybe we need to be reminded that Jesus looked nothing like the
Messiah the Jews expected. His style of leadership promised failure.
Mark had a special interest in the “Kingdom of God”, which he mentioned fourteen times in his gospel. What we witness, from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, is that His values don’t mesh with the dominant culture…then or now in this newly-arrived kingdom!
Marilyn McCord Adams writes, “..divine vocation immediately thrusts
us into liminal space. Unless we are willing to let old identities dissolve
and allow ourselves to be reshaped into crucifixion-resurrection
disciples, our sense of divine vocation is fraught with demonic
potential.” The disciples don’t understand this until they cower before the cross. That’s when all their hopes and understanding of Jesus “crash and burn.”
Maybe we could describe the state of the disciples, as Jesus hung on
the cross, as “marvelous confusion?” That scene can be interpreted as
marvelous only because the cross didn’t claim Him. Marvelous because
death led to eternal life. Marvelous because God’s love triumphed over
forces of evil and a gift was given to every person who ever lived.
Jesus inaugurated His ministry with a proclamation of Good News. I
wonder what that might be for you as you stand just a couple of weeks
into a new year? I wonder what the Good News might be for the
communities in which we live? our church in a time of transition? Do we dare hope for Good News to emerge for our nation? For our world that is literally sick and tired? I wonder if we might be living in a time of “marvelous confusion”?
The Gospel of Mark begins at a fast clip. Tom Wright equates John the