Journey to the Edge
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First Sunday in Lent
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
12And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.
14Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
The two men first came together when they were still housed in their mother’s wombs. Mary had made the journey to the home of her cousin Elizabeth when Jesus was just an early fluttering in her womb, her heart astir with confusion as she sought comfort from her kinswoman. Elizabeth looked up from the kitchen counter, her hands covered with flour, her gray hair coming loose from its bun, her face aglow with some inner light. As they hugged, their rounding bellies touched, and Jesus and John, growing in their mother’s wombs, first met.
Years later, Jesus and John stand together in the uterine waters of baptism, the mysterious grace of God growing in them and through them and all around them. The Jordan river contains them, eddies around them, pausing on its perennial onward rush to cleanse those whom John plunges beneath its waters. “Repent,” John cries, his voice urgent and hoarse, “repent”: turn away from, toward God. “Repent,” he shouts, and the people come, as if in a dream, called by some wild thing aching in the heart of God. They come longing for that which will heal them, that will give them hope, that will change them from the inside out.
When John sees Jesus he knows that it is all over, and that it is all just beginning. We look upon this scene and the theologian inside of us wonders why the one without sin has come to receive the baptism intended for the cleansing of sins. Mark writes his gospel simply and directly. He is not the eloquent storyteller that Luke or John can be. He merely reports the truth as he sees it: quickly, bluntly. As Mark pieces together his gospel, he is thinking backwards. That is to say, he starts with the crucifixion of Jesus, and works back, trying to make sense of it, trying to explain it, trying to prepare us for the grotesque climax of events. In a sense, Mark’s understanding of why Jesus is baptized is related to why he is crucified: because this is what happens when God enters fully into the human experience. Jesus enters into a baptism intended for sinners and a crucifixion intended for sinners because he risked being human. As theologian Leonardo Boff once said: “Jesus died in this way so that no one who came after him would feel alone in their suffering.” We might add: Jesus was baptized in this way so that no one who came after him would feel alone in their suffering.
It all begins with his baptism, Jesus wades into the water beside us as we seek to wash off the soil of our brokenness, our shame, our narcissism, our lack of heart. He shares it all with us. And what happens next is a result of the choice Jesus has made to enter fully into the human enterprise: he is tested in the wilderness. Mark uses fierce language here. He says that the spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus is not led, coaxed, charmed, or enticed, he is driven. Jesus joins his intentions with God’s, and those intentions have acquired their own momentum.
Jesus enters the desert, that place so familiar to us with its long cold nights, and days hot and searing. The sand shifts beneath his feet as the wind hurries past on its unknown quest. Jesus enters the wilderness, still damp from his baptism, still feeling new born and cleansed by holy waters. He is elated by the words that seemed to break out from the sky: “You are my beloved child, I am pleased with you.” This message was not revealed to the crowd on the shore, it was still a secret for the world at large. Jesus would savor this message that was taking root inside of him, in time those who had the eyes to see would tell that Jesus was the chosen one of God. In time, those who had hearts of faith could see the obvious: that Jesus was the son of God. A child who was a mirror into the heart of his parent.
But first, he must test his resolve by entering into the shifting country of wilderness. The wilderness is the fierce landscape of a spirituality of brokenness. Poet and naturalist Wendell Berry shares some wisdom with those about to enter the wilderness. He writes: “Always in the big woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place, there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread. It is the ancient fear of the Unknown, and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into.”
We watch with trepidation as Jesus enters into the wilderness, feeling that “little nagging of dread,” for it is a foreshadowing of the landscape of abandonment that lies ahead of him. But Jesus constantly crosses archetypal boundaries, and calls us to come with him into the unknown. Matthew and Luke’s version of the temptations in the desert are delicious with detail, we see Jesus struggling to define his ministry. In the gospel parallels Jesus meets Satan, who articulates the job description of the expected messiah. Will Jesus be the messiah everyone expects, coming in power and might, aligning himself with dominance, or he will come in compassion and vulnerability. Theologian Walter Wink suggests that Jesus’ choice is between the good the world imagines and the best that God envisions. Although Mark leaves out the details, we sense Jesus’ struggle to define his ministry is the same as in the other gospels.
But it seems that Mark has another focus. Mark invites us to experience the wilderness as Jesus did. It is as if Mark is struck mute by the sheer vastness of the wilderness, and silence is the proper response to such a landscape. The only thing that Mark is able to tell us is that Jesus encountered wild beasts and angels in the wilderness. Jesus met all that was terrible, and all that was merciful.
In his book The Solace of Fierce Landscapes, Belden Lane describes the wilderness that we encounter at soul’s edge. In drawing connections between the wilderness terrain and the life of the soul he writes:
A life that is too comfortable or too safe will avoid such landscapes at all cost. Wild places are uncompanionable to the qualmish, to those compulsively anxious to please. They disclaim the false niceties of home, the small lies and pretences by which an entire life can sometimes be shaped. In fierce landscapes one knows that “being good, being sweet, being nice will not cause life to sing.” There the fragile ego loses its props and supporting lines. Its incessant need for validation is ignored. “Great insights have come to some people only after they reached the point where they had nothing left.”
Lent is a journey to the edge, a path into the fierce landscape of the world’s suffering. From his mother’s womb to the cross, Jesus enters fully into our human experience. Dare we enter fully into his life? Will you follow him to Jerusalem? How will you make the choice between the good that the world imagines for you, or the best God envisions for you? Let us be brave together as we follow Jesus into the suffering heart of the world, where we will know terror and mercy.