Monday, July 16, 2007

John, Jesus, and the Wilderness: Mark 1

Mark 1:4-13

The wilderness breaks people. Over and over in the Old Testament, the wilderness is symbolic of those times when God’s people were at their lowest or where their relationship with God suffered its greatest blow. When Elijah reached the depths of his own depression and anxiety about his future, he put himself out to pasture – he goes to the wilderness to die. Over and over the prophets and psalmists warn God’s people against doing what their forefathers did when they rebelled in the wilderness. And the ultimate example of this theme: after their consistent rebellion during the exodus, God turned his people back into the wilderness until an entire generation was dead and gone. God’s people struggle in the wilderness, they rebel in the wilderness, they die in the wilderness.

But then there came a voice. This one came crying from the wilderness saying the Messiah was on his way. This voice – the voice of John the Baptist - set up his ministry in the middle of the wilderness. What this voice did was baptize people for the cleansing of their sins. And what is more, “All the country of Judah and Jerusalem” went out to the wilderness to be baptized (Mark 1:5).

John’s baptism was unique in its day. Instead of a baptism of initiation into a religion, it was a baptism of repentance for those who already belonged. John’s baptism is a baptism of discipleship. It is powerfully symbolic that John the Baptist drew God’s people out to the wilderness – the location of their greatest failure and rebellion – to be forgiven of their sins and have their hearts and minds turned back to God. The repentance is not just symbolic, it is obvious. John’s sermon was clear, “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt. 3:2).

During this brief story of Mark’s, the scene turns from the masses lined up east of the Jordan to a single man. Jesus traveled to the wilderness to be baptized by John. Why was Jesus baptized? Even John knew who needed to baptize whom, but Jesus persisted (Matt. 3:14-15). Jesus obviously did not need to repent and turn back to God like the masses did, but he was baptized just like they were.

I think the bottom line is that Jesus was baptized because I need to be. He was baptized not for his sin but mine, not for his impending judgment, but mine. Even when I turn my heart and mind back to God, I will, soon enough, fail and need to be “baptized” again. Jesus has no such weaknesses and was baptized once and for all for my sins.

At his baptism, the Spirit of God descends and rests “in” Jesus and God’s voice completes the circle of Trinitarian activity. Those witnessing this event know God is fully and completely present in this Jesus. And then an interesting move. Instead of sending Jesus into Judah with the masses in tow, the Spirit has a different task for the Messiah.

“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” (vs. 12)

The same Spirit that was part of the beauty and glory of the baptism is the driving force behind his forty days in the wilderness.

Mark wants us to know something about what is happening now that Jesus is here. John the Baptist came in the wilderness baptizing people for the cleansing of their sins, but even John knew it was just a washing of the outside. Then the Messiah is himself baptized in the wilderness, and driven even further into the desert to be tempted by the enemy – and ultimately, to defeat him. Jesus exited the wilderness victorious.

That thing that overwhelms me 100% of the time, that nature that is constantly at my side separating me from my God, has been defeated by the Messiah. In Christ, the wilderness no longer needs to break me.

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