|"Jesus in the Wilderness" by Stanley Spencer|
About fifteen years ago, in the winter, I was traveling from Boston home to Binghamton, and I stopped in Springfield, MA for lunch with a college buddy. About half an hour after I got back on the road, I noticed something ominous in the gray drizzly twilight. I noticed that all the big rigs had pulled off the road… none of them were traveling alongside the cars any longer. With my heart pounding I immediately pulled into the next rest stop and asked the first truck driver I saw what was going on. He answered with one word: “Ice.”
I quickly called my college buddy and asked whether I could sleep on the couch for the night… If the weather was too dangerous for truck drivers, I figured, I wasn’t going to risk it in a station wagon. Later that night, under quilts on the couch but still mentally jittery from what felt like a narrow escape, I looked over at the coffee table in search of something to read and saw a copy of “Outside” magazine.
Now, I am no outdoorswoman. Unless you count the ocean, in which I will happily spend every waking minute I can. But I picked up the magazine, because I didn’t have anything else to read. And very quickly I found myself absolutely riveted by an article by Jon Krakauer on what was then a recent, ill-fated expedition to climb Mount Everest. “Into Thin Air,” was the title of the book he eventually wrote about that expedition. And one theme of the article, and the book, is the sheer danger of uncontainable, uncontrollable, unpredictable wilderness, and the arrogance of people in the face of something they ought to give far more respect. A team of climbers, mostly experienced, led by expert guides and local Tibetan assistants called sherpas was not able to safely negotiate the fury of that mountain. Of thirty-four climbers, eight died that day. Three of them were the highly paid, expert guides.
Now, I’m not equating safely getting my Volvo off an icy road with the plight of the ’96 Everest expedition. But for me the two are forever fused together in my memory. Why? The common factor is danger. Their extreme, extraordinary encounter with danger, and my fairly benign and pretty unremarkable brush with danger, yes. That icy night I read about people who encountered the danger of the wilderness immediately after I had a brief (if relatively tame) brush with the danger of an icy road, and for some reason, that made their story all the more real and vivid to me.
How we read or hear something depends on the context in which we hear it. Take this morning’s gospel. We’ve heard this very passage, give or take a few verses, several times over the past months. But when we heard it in Advent, for example, we were focused on John the Baptist… his role as Jesus’ unsettling cousin, ready to prepare the way of the Lord as we ourselves were preparing for Christmas. Then in January, we heard this passage and focused on the story of Jesus’ baptism and ours, the one where God promises to be with us.
Today, having just stepped across the threshold of Lent, we hear something entirely different. Today our ears are trained to the subtle signals of danger crowded into these few verses. It starts as Jesus is coming up out of the water—even those words, “coming up out of the water,” connote danger; baptism by immersion always suggest that very real threat of drowning—and the heavens are “torn apart” so that God’s presence and voice can be made known. This is no gentle parting of clouds so that the angelic sunbeams can smile down. This is a sundering of the barriers between heaven and earth, a rip in the mostly necessary wall between nature and the supernatural. It’s terrifying.
And then there’s the voice of God. Don’t underestimate the danger ancient people would have perceived there, either. As much as we would like to tame that notion of “the fear of the Lord,” and make it about awe and respect, the ancient peoples experienced it as real terror. My professor of Old Testament often talked about how the Hebrews’ attitude towards God was much like ours towards radioactivity: it is powerful and it is dangerous, the kind of thing that causes a psalmist to write, “The mountains melt like wax before the Lord…” (Psalm 97:5).
And then there’s the Spirit driving Jesus out into the wilderness, that locus of danger for the ancient world, and no less tamed in the year 1996 or the 2012. Throughout scripture, the people go out to meet God in the wilderness, to be opened up and clarified and tested and tried. Lonely prophets, wandering warriors, enormous bands of escaped slaves… all find the wilderness the place of danger, where God is encountered—or, maybe, the place of God, where danger is encountered.
The dangers keep coming: the testing of Satan, the presence of the wild beasts, even the ministering angels. What do angels always say when they first appear to people in scripture? “Don’t be afraid!” These messengers of God, again, despite our attempts to tame them, are terrifying, dangerous.
Even that throwaway line at the beginning of verse 14… “After John was arrested…” John the Baptist, Jesus’ oddball cousin… we know what dangers awaited him: a sojourn in the wilderness of Herod’s dungeon, followed by decapitation. The arrest of John spurs Jesus to declare, “The time is fulfilled, and the reign of God has come near; turn around, and take a look at the Good News…” (Mark 1:15). This suggests nothing so much as the fact that Jesus was willing at that moment to launch himself headlong into danger.
And yet… and yet… what do we have at the heart of this story? That terrifying voice from heaven, nevertheless bestowing a blessing—the blessing—on Jesus. “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased” (Mark 1:11). There it is, that benediction, that moment in which God lays claim to Jesus. That moment that tells us, danger may lurk all around, the wild beasts may be circling. But God is here, and God’s intention is to use it all for good.
God names Jesus “Beloved Son, Beloved Child.” We come to those words with our own understandings and biases, from our own contexts. Some of us may have heard words like those from our own parents and been blessed by them. Some of us may have longed to hear words like those, but never did. Some of us can’t understand what all the fuss is about “words,” because everyone knows that it’s actions that speak much louder. But for ancient people, the act of naming is a powerful one. The act of naming conveys everything about the relationship between the namer and the named. And the act of naming tells us the nature of the person being named.
For God to claim Jesus as Beloved Child is for God to say, I hereby bequeath to you everything you need. Into this passage fraught with danger comes the voice of God telling Jesus that he is not alone, that he does not need to fear. God’s presence is with him. The water, the wilderness, the wild beasts, even the angels are no match for God’s claiming Jesus as Beloved Child.
I want to say something about God’s protection here, but I am hesitating, because it is a curious kind of protection that allows Jesus, in the end, to be given up to those who turn out to be far more dangerous to him than wilderness or wild beasts. Does the protection of God mean we will never spin out on an icy highway or find ourselves in situations of greater peril than that? I don’t think so. I don’t think that’s what God’s protection means, or else every soldier would come home alive and whole. God’s protection, if we are to take Jesus’ life as the great example, means something else. Maybe our journey through Lent can help us explore exactly what that is.
Jesus launches himself headlong into danger. As we read the gospel texts throughout Lent we will see the danger lurking, first in the background, and then very much in the foreground of Jesus’ story. And as we read the gospel texts throughout Lent we will see something else as well. We will see how Jesus’ Lenten journey, which begins with God claiming him as Beloved Child, ultimately leads to God claiming us as Beloved Children. We will see how, at the same time God is claiming Jesus as Beloved Child, God is also claiming Jesus for us. And just as the water and the wilderness and the wild beasts are no match for God’s claim, neither are our own fears or doubts or episodes of wilderness wandering. Danger notwithstanding, the story of Lent is a story of Good News; God is with us and God is for us, and no wilderness or wild beast or icy highway or mountain disaster changes that. The time is fulfilled, and the reign of God is so near it is here; turn around, and take a look at the Good News. Thanks be to God. Amen.