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1st Sunday of Lent

15 February 2024

Genesis 9.8-17; Psalm 25.1-9; 1 Peter 3.18-end; Mark 1.9-15

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THIS Gospel is perfectly packaged for preaching: it comes already divvied up into three sections. There is the baptism of Jesus; then his testing in the wilderness; and, third, the beginning of his preaching ministry. Mark arranges the first two of these events as if the one was a direct cause of the other: Jesus is baptised, and immediately the Spirit casts him out into the wilderness.

One tiny detail in v. 10 puts the whole passage in a new light: “he saw”. According to Mark, Jesus saw the Spirit descend like a dove. This is not exactly what the other Gospels have to say. Matthew relates that the heavens were opened, and the Spirit descended. Luke separates the baptism from the descent of the Spirit, which takes place only after the baptism, when Jesus is praying. John gives yet another version, in which John the Baptist first sees the Spirit descend and then hears the voice.

If we accept that Mark’s version — the simplest — is probably also the closest to what happened, then Jesus, not John the Baptist, must have been the source for the story of the descending Spirit. Who else could have passed on what “he saw”? At some point in his ministry, or in one of his resurrection appearances, he has shared this detail of his life with others. I think that he did so knowing that it would be remembered by his disciples, because they treasured everything they knew about him, even if they did not write it all down (John 21.25).

Having your life’s calling authenticated by the anointing Spirit and the voice of God might seem like an exalted form of praise and affirmation. We might reasonably expect that further blessings would follow.

Not so. Those of Mark’s first hearers and readers who knew the stories of the prophets would expect the divine call to be followed by suffering of some kind, whether physical or spiritual. Ezekiel’s call began in sweetness like honey (3.3), but hard challenges soon followed. Jeremiah’s experience was more dramatic, when his swift acceptance of the call gave way to extreme suffering: “My anguish, my anguish! I writhe in pain! Oh, the walls of my heart! My heart is beating wildly; I cannot keep silent” (4.19).

Mark has told his hearers and readers the true identity of Jesus in his very first sentence (1.1), but the people in the story are still in ignorance at this point. We can observe how knowledge of the truth gradually comes into focus for them. The full revelation of Jesus’s identity is still some chapters away (8.29); indeed, he himself is repeatedly reluctant to allow this knowledge to escape from the inner circle of his disciples.

So the Spirit “throws Jesus out” into the wilderness. This is typical Marcan bluntness, in contrast with Matthew, who politely refers to his being “led up” into the wilderness. This wilderness was then a physical place, where resources were scarce, people few, and dangers many. But it is also, now, symbolically present in every Christian life, as a place of “testing”, in which people allow themselves to be vulnerable, to experience need, and isolation, and to wait upon the voice of God.

Jesus has heard that voice already, and has recognised that entering the wilderness is something that God has initiated, with which he is choosing to co-operate. This is not exactly like the experiences of Ezekiel and Jeremiah — they were both abandoned in strange places: Jeremiah in prison, and Ezekiel in Babylon. But they faced their challenges as mortal men. If angels ministered to them, too, we have no record of it.

Mark’s description is more snapshot than drama. Some contrast Jesus and the angels with Satan and the wild beasts, like two champions amid their supporters, about to fight a duel. But I read it as the wild animals’ being companions to Jesus — on his side, to protect him in his vulnerability: undomesticated counterparts to the nativity’s legendary ox and ass.

Being a prophet remains associated with suffering. Like Jeremiah, John the Baptist is put in prison because of his prophetic speech. Eventually, he is executed (Mark 6). This does not bode well for Jesus the preacher and teacher. Like John, Jesus comes preaching repentance. Even if we did not already know about the crucifixion, we would not be expecting him to have a long and happy life.

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