Sunday, February 26, 2012

Spirit Driven

Spirit Driven

Communion Meditation

Mark 1: 9-15

© 2012, Robert J. Elder, Pastor

1st Sunday in Lent, February 26, 2012

As we begin our Lenten journey this week, Mark’s gospel starts us off with the beginnings of the ministry of Jesus.

It is true that Mark is the shortest of the gospels, shortest by far. And it is also true that the other gospels contain many details of Jesus’ life and ministry that Mark does not. As Fred Craddock, teacher of preaching to at least three generations of preachers now, once reflected[1], it is difficult to listen to one gospel passage when the other gospels are in the room talking about the same subject, and often with more detail – and for that reason, in ways that are more familiar. Mark, writing with such brevity that we could miss the importance of his words if we weren’t paying attention, relates three major events:

· Jesus’ baptism,

· Jesus’ temptation in the desert,

· Jesus’ first preaching of the good news in Galilee.

The sequence of these three things is significant, not simply because it seems to be the familiar order of things to us, but because - as the subject of a new exodus - Jesus retraces the journey of Israel:

· His baptism is reminiscent of Israel’s walk through the Red Sea, escaping from slavery among the Egyptians by means of water;

· His 40 days of struggle in the desert recall Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the wilderness;

· The good news he proclaims reminds us of God’s fulfilled promise when Israel entered the promised land.

And though his account is supremely brief, sometimes Mark surprises by what he does write. For instance, in the very brief words about his baptism we hear that “as he was coming up out of the water, [Jesus] saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him,” calling to mind, for the discerning among us, the words of the prophet Isaiah, a favorite of the gospel writers, where Isaiah prays earnestly for God’s holy intervention:

64:1 O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,

so that the mountains would quake at your presence —

2 as when fire kindles brushwood

and the fire causes water to boil —

to make your name known to your adversaries,

so that the nations might tremble at your presence! NRSV

This is exactly what happened to Jesus that day at the Jordan river. As he was coming up from the water, Mark says, Jesus “saw the heavens torn apart...” That tearing of the heavens is described using exactly the same word Mark uses at the end of his gospel when Jesus uttered his loud cry from the cross and the curtain of the Temple was also torn in two.

Here also in our gospel passage for today, we have something unique in Mark’s account of the temptation of Christ that intrigues me every time I run across it. While Matthew records “Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit,” and Luke writes, “Jesus was led by the Spirit,” in Mark, immediately upon receiving loving words from the heavenly voice, the gospel portrays the action of the Spirit in a much sterner and forceful way: “And the Spirit immediately drove[2] him out into the wilderness.”

That particular turn of phrase strikes me with the difference between going along willingly and being dragged kicking and screaming. In fact, the verb that Mark uses of the Spirit driving Jesus to the wilderness is the same one used to describe driving the money changers from the Temple toward the end of the gospel, and the driving out of demons by Jesus in four other places in the gospel (1:34, 39; 3:15; 6:13).

So why does Jesus go? Because Jesus goes where the news has all been bad to proclaim the news that is good. Mark says “He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts.” Mark is again thinking of Isaiah as he proclaims the coming of the Messiah, Isaiah who wrote[3], in a passage that is often read during Advent’s expectation of the coming of the Messiah:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

the desert shall rejoice and blossom...

like the crocus...

... They shall see the glory of the LORD,

the majesty of our God.

Strengthen the weak hands,

and make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

“Be strong, do not fear!

Here is your God.

He will come with vengeance,

with terrible recompense.

He will come and save you.”

No lion shall be there,

nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it;

they shall not be found there,

but the redeemed shall walk there. NRSV

In an account of Jesus’ ministry in which only Satan, wild beasts and ministering angels are with him, by reading and listening for understanding, we discover that we, too, are present there in the desert. We know what it is to be dealing with wild beasts out there in the wilderness of our lives. Rising crime rates, desperate striving to make ends meet in a fast-fading economy, grappling with family problems, addictions, the beasts greet us at every turn, and there we are in the wilderness wrestling with them. Then, over the horizon, we see a distant figure coming closer and closer. It is the baptized One, Jesus of Nazareth, driven to our encounters with our own wild beasts by the very Spirit of God: coming to us, to you and me. Being baptized and having the presence and power of the Holy Spirit granted to us is no insulation against real struggles with the forces of evil. Rather, the presence of the risen Christ promises us we are not alone in our struggles. “He was tempted, as we are, yet without sin,” says the author of Hebrews (4:15). His temptation was as real as ours, and just as deceptive. As Professor Fred Craddock once said, “No self-respecting Satan would approach a person with offers of personal, social and professional ruin. That is in the small print at the bottom of the temptation.”[4]

No, here, today we have in this sacrament Jesus laid before us, and in the stories about him, a promise of real help, a real messiah. In the end, baptized and tested, Jesus turns to the world – to us – and says, “the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

Copyright © 2012 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] “Test Run,” by Fred Craddock, Christian Century, February 22, 2003, p. 21.

[2] ekballei

[3] Isaiah 35:1-9 selected verses.

[4] “Test Run,” by Fred Craddock, Christian Century, February 22, 2003, p. 21.