St Peter’s Anglican Church, Maroochydore – 21 February 2021 (Lent 1B)
Mark 1, 9-15
As I read and worked with today’s Gospel text, I couldn’t help but think: the writer of Mark is not one for many words; but this author does evoke one picture after another in the mind of the reader.
The whole text only counts 6 verses, neatly divided into 3 sections, each with their own heading in our Bibles.
And yet, when I read this sparse text, my mind’s eye is filled with images – and because there are so many, they’re not going to come out in sequence:
• The River Jordan
• The wilderness/desert
• The open heavens
• A dove
• This side of the River Jordan
• The number 40
• Animals – not domesticated
• “The Kingdom of God” – ooh, that sends my brain into a whole ripple effect of parables and sayings of Jesus; all of them capturing something, none of them able to contain all of its mystery
• Wind, breath, spirit – is that an image, or more of a sensation?
It’s all very graphic.
In fact, it’s audio visual: for I hear things, as I immerse myself in this text…
• The crowds on the banks of the river
• That particular rushing and dulling when you go under water
• I hear the silence of the vast Karroo, a semi-desert of South Africa – I suspect the Australian outback will be very similar
• I hear inner self-talk
• … and my own breath, heartbeat
• … and the sound of my footsteps on the dusty, stony ground
Oh yes, relying on images rather than words, the writer of Mark draws us – you and me – right into the happenings. And, as we shall see, that’s all-important.
1. Let’s unpack these visuals a bit more. We’ll begin with Jesus, the subject of Mark’s recount.
Or we could say, ‘the hero’ of Mark’s story.
For the way our text is organised, runs very much along the lines of a classic hero’s journey, whereby the protagonist sets out from home, is marked/equipped for the adventurous task, is tested on his journey and returns victorious.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus, having left his home in Galilee, is baptised in the Jordan, is then tested in the wilderness; and returns this side of the river to proclaim God’s nearness. Of course, we know that Jesus’ journey, i.e. his public ministry only begins with those words; and his victorious home-coming at Good Friday and Easter quite breaks the paradigm – which is the whole point(!); but for now, I think you can see the pattern, right?
We can also summarise the three sections as CALLING, TESTING, SENDING.
Or we might say that Jesus undergoes a PREPARATION before beginning his work of PROCLAMATION.
You see, the ritual of baptism is more than a mere splashing with water; it’s more than a washing.
When we wash our own bodies or our clothes, our dishes, our cars – we are hoping to return them to their regular state (“as good as new”).
But the waters of baptism is a crossing over.
Just as the Jordan is a boundary marker – and as soon as he comes out of the water, Jesus will exit it on the other side — baptism is a crossing over from the ordinary to the extraordinary.
Baptism means entering into God’s work, the divine intent for this world.
And so, you see, the heavens open. But, no, that sounds too docile. The words being used here is more powerful: the heaven is torn, is RIPPED open!
Think of a garment: instead of opening a zipper or unbuttoning it to open it, the fabric is torn.
The heavens are rendered open – there’s something awesome about that. It fills us both with fear and marvel. For, the image, of course, is that God’s realm is open; “the boundary between heaven and earth is suddenly gone” (+Jeremy Greaves).
And the Spirit descends – not a lightning bolt, or a meteor; not as an eagle or a vulture: but a dove, meek and innocent. God’s Spirit of goodwill and peace.
And then there is the voice that Jesus hears: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Friends, those who first received Mark’s words would’ve had one recognition after the other at this, their memories of scripture jumping from Psalm 2, to Psalm 10, to 2 Samuel 7 and more: “Jesus is called “son”. So is the king. The king is anointed. So is, …, the messiah; so is a priest; so is a prophet. To call Jesus “son” is to identify him as a prophet, a priest, a king of Israel, a king of the Jews…” (Richard W. Swanson) – the Messiah.
And, of course, the whole of the salvation history of the People of God is woven in here – the heavens open, God’s face turned once again to a people oppressed and in exile.
That imagery continues: the Jordan River was the waterway the People of God crossed under the leadership of Joshua, to enter the Promised Land.
And here we have Jesus going in exactly the opposite direction.
It’s like a rewinding the salvation story. We’re back in the wilderness, the desert where the people sojourned for … ? … exactly 40 years – and where they succumbed to grumpiness, defiance, stubbornness, idolatry and more. The desert was a place of formation; that’s where they learnt to become the People of God.
And in our text, we see Jesus going into the wilderness. Correction: he is driven there, blown by God’s Spirit – God’s ruach, God’s creative wind, God’s life-giving breath. The very same that hovered over the dark waters in Genesis; the one that fills Adam with life.
There in the wilderness, a new creative process is happening.
East of Eden, we see the Son of God, the Son of Man with the wild animals – are they threatening him, or is he, like Adam was, on a first-name basis?
Though Mark doesn’t give details as Matthew and Luke do, there in the wilderness, Jesus is tested, and in the process is re-writing the story of God’s people’s, giving them a new start. (+Jeremy Greaves)
And so then, another crossing of the river – back to land of promise, with the call of promise: “The Kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”
2. Earlier I said that the visual telling of the story draws us in. What I meant by that is not just what a teacher of literature might call engaging and captivating text.
Rather, this story draws us in because it is our story, too. The story of our baptism and calling.
“By grace, gift, and the choice of God we are [God’s] beloved daughters and sons.” (Michael K. Marsh)
God claims us as such. Baptism has to do with a new birth, a new identity, a new way of living and being.
Because we are immersed into Christ, our journey is that of Followers of Christ, Followers of the Way.
And if Jesus was baptised and went into the wilderness, so do we.
Baptism is not a life insurance.
But it is a reassurance in life.
Michael K Marsh likens this text to leaving home.
Starting school, learning to drive a car, going off to university, entering a relationship, getting married, having children, retirement, moving house/jobs/states/countries — all of these examples and more involves us leaving the familiar (=HOME) and going into the unknown.
Well, baptism is just such a “leaving home” situation.
Following Jesus, who was baptised and went into the wilderness; we, too, leave behind our old identity.
Instead, identified and claimed by God as children, we go into the wilderness –where we are tempted in ever so many ways, where need to meet challenges head-on and confront ourselves – “the reality of our lives, things done or left undone, our fears, our hopes and dreams, our sorrows and losses, as well as the unknown.” (Michael K. Marsh)
For, as much as we tend to think of temptations outside of ourselves, and link them to behaviour, mostly temptations come from within us:
Thinking of ourselves as either more or less than God’s creative dust.
Or not trusting that God is willing to get dirty hands by getting involved in the dust of our lives.
We are called into the wilderness – a new, unknown territory; where the old structures we’ve left behind no longer contain, support or define our life.
And Lent, friends, heightens this call. For in the … how many days?! … 40 days (excluding Sundays) we are called deeper into the Christian stories and traditions.
40 – the number used in the Bible to denote a time of probation.
40 days in the ark; Elijah’s 40 day walk through the desert in order to discover God in the still voice.
And that is where I want to finish: God’s voice.
For maybe, in my listing of audio-visuals earlier you thought to yourself: ‘she’s not said anything about hearing God’s voice, or Christ’s voice of proclamation’.
Good for you for noticing.
But I do hear it, and I hope and pray very much you do, too.
For, following Christ also means opening ourselves to the Spirit, that creative, life-giving breath of God, who goes with us into the wilderness, who lets angels cross our paths to serve our needs (as the writer of Hebrews reminds us, we may entertain angels without knowing it) and who’s assurance is there for us to hear, if only we heed the small still voice.
“You are my son, my daughter, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
“We leave home and experience wilderness temptations to discover that our most authentic identity is as a beloved child of God and our real home is with God.” (Michael K. Marsh)
“The Kingdom of God is near.”
Change your mind. Turn to God. Now is the time to hope.
May God’s Spirit transform us this Lent.
Rev’d Kathrin Koning
Matthew Flinders Anglican College
Greaves, J.D. (2021). Awakening My Faith, Head – Heart – Hands, Practising Faith today, Brighton: Grassroots Resources Australia, pp. 7-10
Marsh, M.K. (2012). Leave Home, Get Baptized, Go to the Wilderness – A Sermon on Mark 1: 9-15, Lent 1B
https://interruptingthesilence.com/2012/02/26/leave-home-get-baptized-go-to-the-wilderness-a-sermon-on-mark-19-15-lent-1b/ retrieved 20.2.2021
Swanson, R.W. (2005). Provoking the Gospel of Mark, A Storyteller’s Commentary Year B, Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, pp 84-90 & 133-136
Swanson, R.W.(2018). A Provocation: First Sunday in Lent: February 18, 2018: Mark 1: 9-15,
https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2018/02/13/a-provocation-first-sunday-in-lent-february-18-2018-mark-19-15/ retrieved 20.2.2021