John Michael Gutierrez, PhD
The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Mark
9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” 12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.
The Gospel of the Lord
It was the 1st year of my formal biblical studies and I was a much more assured novice than I am now. I was enrolled in a Gospel’s class. The instructor framed the class around what is called a “harmony of the Gospels”. This is a presentation of the life/ministry of Jesus compressing the four Gospels into a proposed single, chronological/historical biography. Well I’ve always been something of an independent minded fellow. So enter stage right – my prodigal youth in rock’n roll music. We recognized that sound was everything to live and recorded performances. Which meant the monophonic and stereophonic of our parent’s listening had too many shortcomings. We discovered what at that time was called quadraphonic, that is, sound from four sources. And now you might be asking “how does this relate to the Gospel of Mark?” Well in this way, the “harmony” of my Gospels class was actually a reduction in sound from quadraphonic to monophonic. The unique four voice sound of the Gospels was reduced to a single, chronological/historical sound. In reflection, my all too frequent objections were all too insistent and annoying to be sure. My final grade wasn’t affected but I did get one of my many cautions from the academic dean.
So ace novice that I am now, how does this relate to our lesson from Mark’s Gospel? Today is the first Sunday of Lent and for at least nineteen centuries, each Lenten year begins by joining the baptism/testing stories of Jesus. Sentences from our 5 sentence text have been read already this church year – specifically Epiphany 1, “the baptism of our Lord”. Today we get the follow up to the baptism – wilderness. Now it’s not uncommon to hear explanations to what Mark means here by reference to Matthew, Luke. As I implied a few minutes ago, when you enter into the hearing of each of the Gospels you’re entering a world of special sounds, unique and emotionally moving sounds. What I am going to attempt is let Mark speak his theological song without cross referencing the others. You be the judge whether I pull it off or not.
So please turn in your Bible to Mark 1. In the ancient world writers frequently prepared an introduction to explain the scope or purpose of a text, giving guidance how the hearers should listen as the story is read to them. Our Gospel lesson’s vs. 9- 13 conclude the densely imaged introduction. One of the things that is so compelling to me about Mark is how vocal it is. For example, the narrator proclaims his intention in a title “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the messiah, the son of God” (vs. 1). OK, Copy that. Mark then dials up some prophetic voices to proclaim after years of hoping and waiting the promised messenger is here. He’s at the Jordan wilderness preparing the way for a new Exodus, a new return from Exile (vs. 2-3 ). Mark then wraps his head around the intriguing messenger’s stunning humility in a sound byte “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (vs. 4-8). The next voice, from an ancient speaker – YHWH himself, is evocative, familial “It’s you who are my beloved son, it’s you I am well pleased with” (vs. 11). After this Mark speaks up to tell us about the wilderness testing of this “beloved Son” (vs. 12-13). So in a few swift strokes of his stylus, our attention is focused precisely on Jesus. And all this without Jesus speaking a word!
In vs. 9 Jesus steps into the flow of the story in two brief scenes – a baptism and a 40 day wilderness stop over . Mark’s brief statement regarding Jesus’ baptism is a way of accenting Jesus’ association with the coming Kingdom. Notice how Mark has set us up. He told us the Baptizer told us to expect a change from water to Spirit baptism. Listen how Mark splits them. First the water. John’s baptism program was a first “faith” step for the arrival of the kingdom. Judean and Jerusalem folk were publicly committing themselves in anticipation of the coming king and his rule (vs. 5). In his baptism Jesus joined himself to these folk: acknowledging their change of allegiance, supporting their hope in looking for the coming king who has the authority to put right all that is wrong in Israel (vs. 9).
Then Mark soaks up the baptismal water with the Spirit. Jesus’ baptism with the Spirit is the event identifying him as the messiah-king, the son of God, the one in whom the Spirit resides. Mark will give us three verifications of this identity: the sound of the barrier to divine revelation being ripped apart, the fluttering descent of the dove-like Spirit and the verbal endorsement of YHWH (vs. 10-12).
Standing with John in the Jordan river wilderness, the borderland between Galilee, Judea, Jesus dips “into” the Jordan. Rising up out of the water, Mark makes us “insiders” telling us what only Jesus “sees/hears” not the Baptizer or the others. The sound of the water dripping off Jesus is drowned as the barrier to divine revelation is removed being heard as the sound of the sky above ripped ferociously apart. The ferocity of the scene is then tamped down. The renewal of revelation is now heard as the fluttering down of a dove-like Spirit “into” Jesus. The return of the Spirit was a familiar Second Temple experience that begins the messianic age (Ezk. 10.15-19; 1 Enoch 49. 3; Ps. Sol 17.42; T. Levi 18.7; T. Judah 24.2; b.Hagig 15a; m Berak 3a). Mark wants us to take all this in: The Baptizer’s proclamation is true. The days of the Spirit famine have ended. Revelations’s barrier has been removed. Jesus is the intersecting point of revelation and the Spirit.
Voices from heaven aren’t everyday occurrences. The classical prophets’ “this is what YHWH says” was merely an echo in the Second Temple period, but the voice identifying Jesus as “my son, the beloved.” is unmistakably YHWH’s. May I suggest “well pleasing” or “beloved” is code for obedience, for messianic authority. The Wilderness test will be “proof” he is worthy of divine endorsement.
YHWH doesn’t put bubble wrap around the beloved son. We’re not to be taken in by the seemingly docile dove-like image used to describe the Spirit (vs. 10). The determination to validate Jesus’ Messianic identity is verbalized for us. Jesus is yanked away from the Jordan river and thrown farther out into the wilderness! (vs. 12). Being the messiah will be a good thing. It just won’t be an easy thing. It won’t be a safe thing.
A bit of a stretch about the Spirit from C.S. Lewis, if you will allow. “Susan Pevensie has just gotten a shock: Aslan is a lion, not a man, as she had originally thought. “Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.” (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, p. 72)
Notice Mr. Beaver doesn’t tell us Aslan is “safe,” rather he tells us Aslan’s power and authority aren’t intended to be safe but virtuous and just. May I say to you, like the beavers, Mark imagines something similar in his wider Gospel regarding the power and the authority of the Spirit. The Spirit is not safe. The Spirit, however, is holy, just and good.
Mark writes no details about Jesus’s experience in the wilderness. All he gives us are two abrupt sentences: “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild beasts and the angels waited on him”. We don’t learn what the specific tests over the forty days were or how Jesus responded to them. Although he names who is there we don’t know what is really going on, how the cosmic-earthly test is waged. The implication of the forty days is that it takes time to come to grips with it all. It’s not easy to work out identity and authority.
But naming Jesus, the messiah, the obedient beloved son closely linked by the words “forty” and “wilderness” sets the hearers up to identify Jesus with Israel’s story. Like others of Israel’s story – Moses, Elijah, David and the Nation itself, “forty” and “wilderness” have strong associations with deliverance, revelation, faithfulness, testing and identity. For example, Israel could look back on its Wilderness experiences as sometimes high water marks and also sometimes low water marks. Especially in the Exodus-Covenant narratives, the wilderness was for Israel the place of revelation, identity, testing, sometimes obedience, sometimes disobedience. Looking back it could be said Israel had been tested and had failed the test. Looking back the prophets looked forward to another experience where YHWH would once again reveal himself and deliver his people. Israel would once again be obedient sons and daughters. For Mark, in Jesus, in whom the Spirit resides, obedience is revealed.
“The wilderness is a dangerous place. You only go there if you have to.” is one of the phrases teachers use in the Sunday school program “Godly Play”. As for me, the “Satan” who opposes Jesus in the wilderness is a real person, a real evil person. We may not choose to personalise Satan in our time, in our secular world view, but, may I say to you, I believe we take a real risk by ignoring him and evil. It’s not a fantasy. Again C. S. Lewis “Evil is a seizure, an unjust tyrannical occupation. We are living in a part of the universe occupied by the Rebel. Enemy occupied territory that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say, landed in disguise and is calling all of us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage” (Mere Christianity, p. 36). Unless terrorizing ruling powers are met head on, evil cannot be dealt with. The Lord doesn’t bring deliverance by remote control, pushing buttons and directing action from distant light years. What the Lord does through the Spirit in Jesus in the wilderness is mix it up with evil. In Mark’s account, you hear no dialogue and that, in part, underscores the victory of Jesus. He has silenced Satan in principle at least.
It is now generally accepted that the center of Mark’s gospel is instruction about following Jesus or discipleship. In other words, how we are to be instructed emerges out of Jesus’ experience. So I want to direct your attention to how Mark weaves ideas for his central theme into our Gospel lesson. I summarize his proposition this way: Jesus’ baptism involves an identity disclosure that engages the Spirit from which Jesus then engages both spiritual and environmental dangers in establishing the kingdom. I propose that sequence can be, is to be, ours also.
Baptism with the Spirit and wilderness challenge us to embrace a new way of living. In our society, -isms have arisen identifying individuals with groups/tribes: neo-marxism, genderism, atheism, neo-racism, christian nationalism, evangelical exceptionalism, political progressivism along with many, many others. These -isms, their platforms, their programs are incompatible with authentic biblical truth because they put people into categories based on political power. They reflect deep, deep conflicted antagonisms being sewn into our society’s tapestry. They are flawed politically, culturally, humanly but most importantly, for us, spiritually. They reject the Bible’s complex understanding of life and its moral scale of purity. Raised fists lack humor, scorn forgiveness, grace, hope, stopping well short of kingdom redemption. Baptism with the Spirit is the only -ism that transforms identity making peace, hope, forgiveness, reconciliation and moral integrity possible. For the christian, then, there is no other -ism. Christians are not partisan players. We are listeners, advocates, reconcillers for the needs of all our neighbors in every community. Baptism with the Spirit allows us to confront spiritual opposition and cultural dangers in the wilderness with identity and purpose, up close and personal.
May I say quite boldly then – a believer’s identity, like Jesus’ identity, is grounded in baptism with the Spirit. It incorporates the truth of the vitality of faith, repentance, the active presence of the Spirit and the utterly revolutionary identity transformation of a person. It incorporates the Father’s voice: “It’s you who are my sons and daughters. It’s you who are my beloved”. We are set on the path toward holiness by realizing we are sons and daughters of a holy Father.
Becoming Christian through faith and baptism with the Spirit, we are transformed to have a different understanding of our place in the world. Why is Jesus at baptism and at testing so enormously important? It’s because in these two events Jesus divests himself of power, position and authority to stand compassionately in our place. The Lord in Jesus loves us so much that he stands with us in our place of repentance and forgiveness – baptism; in our place of everyday struggle – the wilderness and although we have yet to hear in this Gospel, Jesus stands with us in our place of redemption – the cross paying a priceless price for us.
Lent has always been that period of reflection upon what contemporary life is about and where Jesus is leading us in our time. It makes Lent rather serious, don’t you think?