First Sunday in Lent 2015
Gen 9:8-17; 1 Pet 3:18-22; Mark 1:9-15
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased." And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news." -Mark 1:9-15
“Don’t blink, or you’ll miss it!”
That could be the chapter heading for this section of Mark’s gospel. Nothing prepares us for what happens. We are barely told of Jesus baptism when with the words ‘και ευθυς’ ('And immediately' - Mark’s stylistic signature) Mark’s text lifts off the page as the world tilts; the planes of appearance and reality collide and shift; the heavens open, the Spirit appears and the voice of the Father affirms the Son who rises from the waters.
The sheer speed of events overwhelms us. Nothing prepares us for the sudden shift from facts to vision. How did this happen? ‘και ευθυς’ Did we blink and miss something?
For Mark, in the baptism of Jesus the world has changed; reality is different from what we thought it to be. Reality is not that crowd of newly baptised about the Jordan two thousand years ago; not this preacher and people two thousand years later; but reality is more than everything we thought we understood. Reality is redefined and focussed in this Jesus who rises from the waters: transcendence breaks through our surface of time and matter; and we are startled by this power that erupts among us (‘και ευθυς’).
This movement accelerates: the scene immediately switches from the Jordan to the Wilderness. Did we blink? Did we miss something? We are told that the Spirit drives Jesus out into this place (the verb used (έκβάλλειν) being the same as for the expulsion of demons); there is no sense of transition but immediate relocation – Jesus is hurled into the wilderness. He is alone. Satan tempts him. There are wild animals about him – but, yes, … angels minister to him.
And with that we arrive in Lent.
Maybe we wonder how this all connects to us here and now. Did we blink and miss something? Is the power that pulses through this gospel a bright light that we can no longer see; something lost in time? What is the wilderness to us? What has Lent for us? At best, is Lent just a church custom, quaint but really out of date? Or, worse than that, is the whole thing a bit of a charade – along with all such trivial things as giving up sugar in one’s tea?
Mark tells us little about the wilderness except that it is the place where Jesus begins his ministry. The wilderness is the place where Jesus is shaped and formed for the work he came to do. The wilderness is the place where illusion is stripped away and where understanding and self-knowledge emerges. Maybe a wilderness experience is what we all need. Maybe that is what Lent invites us to encounter – the true wilderness.
It may not be that straightforward. It’s not that we have ‘blinked’ and just missed it. Mostly we avoid the wilderness or at least keep it at bay with innumerable distractions and evasions. I find it almost terrifying to recall that Huxley’s Brave New World (1931) depicted a dystopia where people were controlled and sedated through an infinite amount of entertainment. Maybe this has always been the case in one form or another – the Roman mob was sedated or entertained by the cruelties of the arena. But today I think particularly of the unremitting and addictive power of technology - the TV, the all-pervasive smart phone and all the diverse gadgets of technology that serve to distract us, to keep us in oblivion.
There is no signpost or booking agency for the true wilderness; though travel operators will tell us differently. We know the desert fathers abandoned the cities of Egypt for the desert and there are still those who follow Christ in that kind of emptiness.
However for us at Lent I suggest the real wilderness is very close to us.
There are what I describe as ‘wilderness moments’. We all have them. They are always the moments when we feel alone, or vulnerable or isolated. Usually we try to shake off that moment; to put that experience behind us – except that in that feeling we share something Jesus also endured and understood, to show us who we may become. That loneliness and vulnerability (whatever form taken) help us to see what it means to be human and so to grow in compassion and love. There are wild animals in our wilderness – think of the times when anger, despair, self-doubt, lust, malice and envy have circled about us; the times when another’s word or criticism has torn us or driven us into the dark of depression or rage.
Lent is the time when we contemplate our wilderness moments – and wait with Christ so that we may be formed like him. As the First Epistle of St Peter (4:12-13) advises us:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice in so far as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed.