9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved;[a] with you I am well pleased.”
12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news[b] of God,[c] 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;[d]repent, and believe in the good news.”[e]
The season of Lent begins in the very same place as did the season of Epiphany – with the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. The gospel readings for the first Sunday after Epiphany celebrates Jesus’ baptism, and we repeat that story again here. But we don’t stay at the Jordan. Mark moves us quickly from the river to the wilderness, and after a sojourn in the wilderness we find ourselves in Galilee, where Jesus takes up his new ministry of preaching the good news that the realm of God is knocking at the door. All of this occurs in a matter of seven verses. Another way of putting it would be to lay out a nice three point Lenten sermon outline: Baptized, Tested, Begin Preaching. All we need is a poem and we have a sermon.
While it is customary to begin the church’s Lenten season with a focus on Jesus’ forty day sojourn in the desert, at which time he fasted and was tempted, Mark really doesn’t give us much material to work with. We’re not told how Satan tempted Jesus or what it meant for him to live among the wild beasts. The note that the angels waited on him is intriguing, because Mark doesn’t give us a time frame. Was it just at the end, as the fuller renditions suggest, or were they with him throughout the time of testing? So, maybe we will find our conversation to be more fruitful if we see the three episodes in terms of a process of call, testing, and sending into ministry.
Jesus’ baptism has always raised questions for Christian theologians. Was he a sinner in need of cleansing in the waters of baptism? Was this an adoption scene (Mark can give one the sense that this is the moment that Jesus became the son of God)? Or, is this an ordination? If the first two suggestions raise theological questions best dealt with elsewhere, perhaps we would be best served at this point to consider the last option – ordination.
In my tradition one is baptized upon profession of faith (and by immersion), with baptism serving to usher one into the Christian faith and into membership in the local congregation. Baptism has been seen in this tradition as expressing the pattern of salvation delineated in Acts 2:38 – repentance, baptism, forgiveness of sins, and gift of the Holy Spirit. Since Jesus is usually understood to not need forgiveness of sins, we might be well served by focusing on the gift of the Holy Spirit. More specifically, we can focus on the idea that it is the Spirit who empowers and ordains to ministry. If this holds true here, then baptism serves as the point at which Jesus’ call to ministry is confirmed by God’s naming him as Son, and sealed by the anointing of the Spirit. From there he takes time to reflect and experience a certain buffeting, before taking on his calling as preacher of the realm of God. Could it be that the middle section of this reading is something of an orientation to ministry in the realm of God? While most denominations require exams before ordination, could this be the first century equivalent of an ordination exam?
The story begins with baptism and then moves to the wilderness sojourn, all of which culminates in Jesus preaching the good news that the realm of God has come near. He takes up this ministry right after John the Baptist is arrested. While Jesus preaches in Galilee, it seems as if Jesus is picking up where John left off (though Mark doesn’t suggest that Jesus did any baptizing with water). What Jesus does offer to his audience is the message of the divine realm that is near at hand and which they can apparently partake in if they repent. It seems clear that Jesus has an eschatological vision. He is not merely a teacher of wisdom – a sage offering proverbs that will help you live a better life. While there are clearly political implications to Jesus’ message, he is not merely a political provocateur (even if his opponents were able to portray him as one). He was preaching a message that focused on the in breaking of divine rule in the world. The time is now. The time is short. The world is ripe for something big to happen. It’s not that the signs of the time require it, but rather that God has determined that this is the right time.
Whatever happens in baptism and in the wilderness sojourn is designed to prepare Jesus for this ministry of proclamation that God’s realm is near at hand. It is a ministry that combines proclamation with a bit of mystery. One of the themes that keeps popping up in the Gospel of Mark is that news of the kingdom needs to be kept quiet. Think of the Transfiguration story that was heard just a week back. Jesus tells Peter, James, and John not to say anything about what they saw until after the resurrection (Mark 9:9). But here in Mark 1, Jesus is getting word out – perhaps so that when people start seeing stuff happen whenever Jesus is around they’ll begin to put things together. Jesus has been talking about God’s realm, he’s doing interesting things, including healings and exorcisms, so maybe that hoped for time of deliverance is at hand. Not only that, but he starts his ministry in Galilee – a place far from the center of power, reminding us that God often works first and foremost among those living on the margins. This message will be good news to those who hear and sign on.
So how did we get to Galilee? I want to reflect on this question by moving backward from Galilee to the Wilderness and then finally to the scene of Jesus’ baptism before returning again to Galilee. The Wilderness experience begins immediately after the baptism, when the Spirit “drove him out into the wilderness.” I find that choice of words intriguing. It would seem that the sojourn in the wilderness wasn’t Jesus’ idea and it wasn’t something he welcomed. The Greek word translated “drove” here is even more intriguing – ekballo. That word can be translated “cast out” and it is used in reference to Jesus’ exorcisms. There is a certain amount of spiritual force in play here. Therefore, driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, Jesus is both tested by Satan and sustained by the Spirit.
The time in the wilderness serves to prepare Jesus for what will come. Jesus will often be tempted to give up (I read somewhere that around 80% of clergy will leave ministry within five years of ordination). Jesus will be tempted to use shortcuts (we are always being bombarded by slick religious sales people offering us surefire ways of turning our declining congregations around so that we can become successful in the religious game). Jesus wrestled with these “demons” before he entered the ring. The word about the wild beasts and the angels, reminds us, however, that he was not alone in this sojourn. The same would be true for us.
This takes us back to the top – to the story of Jesus’ baptism. If we see this baptism as the moment of his ordination to his ministry of proclaiming the realm of God, a moment at which he received divine confirmation and anointing, could we not look to our own baptisms in the same way? If you practice infant baptism, then can you envision confirmation as the point at which this happens? If baptism serves as a point of ordination and endowment to ministry, a ministry that we all share as children of God, then, as Keith Watkins suggests” “Any other ordination to Christian ministry is secondary to Christian baptism” [Baptism and Belonging, Chalice Press, 1991, p. 20]. Baptism can usher us into new life in Christ – being born again as John puts it – but it also serves as that point of empowerment for ministry.
Ordained and oriented, we take up our calling. There is urgency to this ministry. Even if it’s been two millennia since the events described here took place, the realm of God has been revealed in the ministry of Jesus and in the ongoing ministry of the Spirit. The work that Jesus took up in Galilee he has passed on to us. Like him we have been baptized, and therefore ordained (whether we’ve been subsequently ordained to vocational ministry), and we have been tested. Indeed, we are continually tested (and redeemed), so that little by little evidence of God’s realm leaks out into the world around us.
Note on picture: Bazile, Castera. Baptism of Jesus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54305 [retrieved February 16, 2015]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PortAuPrinceMural.jpg.