Read the text here: Mark 1:4-15
Walking Through the Wilderness of this World
Have you ever noticed that a lot of the stories in the bible are set in the wilderness? Now to be clear, we are talking about wilderness, Middle East style. Not the American wilderness. As rustic as the American wilderness might be, for the most part the American wilderness is still a fertile place. The American wilderness is a place of woods and game, vegetation and a myriad of animals; a place, while not without risk, where nevertheless one could survive for a time (if you know how). The wilderness of the bible, to the contrary, is the wilderness of the Middle East and is not such an inviting place. The wilderness of the bible is a place of complete desolation; a place with little to no vegetation or water, few animals; it is a desert environment with extreme temperatures. This is a place where one would be hard pressed to survive for any length of time. But yet, this place figures importantly into the stories of the Bible.
Beginning right away in Genesis, Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden. Where do they go? Into the wilderness of the creation, and there they have to settle and live. This place is different from the Garden, in this wilderness of the world life is hard and one must struggle to survive. The wilderness then becomes a place of stark reality; a place of abandonment, of loss, of conviction, of consequences; it becomes a place of testing and endurance. But that is not all, the wilderness also becomes a place where God is found and where God is profoundly present. When Adam and Eve are banished from the garden, God does not remain behind alone. God goes with them into the wilderness. When Cain is banished for murdering his brother Abel, God goes with him. Perhaps one of the first important stories where the wilderness is featured is found in Genesis 22. Abraham takes his only son – Isaac, the son of promise – into the wilderness for sacrifice. And there, Abraham is prepared to sacrifice his beloved son. But there, caught in the thicket is a Ram. God provides a Ram for the sacrifice, Isaac is spared and the entire experience is one of testing and refining of the faith of Abraham.
In Exodus, Moses leads the people of Israel out of Egypt, through the Red Sea and into the wilderness, where they then wander lost for 40 years. This wilderness experience then becomes for Israel a time of loss, anger, unfaithfulness, struggle and confusion. But at the same time, this wilderness experience molds and shapes Israel into the people of God. For it is there in the wilderness that the people of Israel encounter God in a most profound way. The testing of the people in the wilderness leads to a life-changing and life-affirming experience of the presence of God. Like in the story of Adam and Eve and Cain, God is with the people every step of the way; like in the story of Abraham, God provides Manna and water for their absolute needs and the experience shapes them all and puts them on the path to the promised land.
It should not be surprising then that Mark begins his account of the Good News of Jesus Christ in the wilderness. John the Baptizer is there, in the wilderness – like Elijah – calling the people to come out to him. Remember it was believed that the God of Israel resided in the Temple (Holy of Holies) in Jerusalem, but here we learn that all of the people of Jerusalem were coming out into the wilderness to be baptized by John! They were going in the opposite direction from where God is supposed to be! They enter the God-forsaken wilderness and there they find God reaching out to them, inviting them to repent, to turn around and go in the opposite direction; there they find God promising them forgiveness and grace and assuring them of God’s commitment to the Covenant. And not only that there in the midst of the scene God provides. Like the Ram caught in the thicket which God provides for Abraham; like the Manna from heaven provided to the starving people of Israel who are wandering lost in the wilderness, God provides none other than God’s only Son, the ultimate Lamb of God, who is also there in the wilderness and comes to be baptized with the people whom God loves.
We too live in the wilderness of this world, wandering lost, feeling forsaken at times. The symbol of the wilderness is very real to us and to our experience of life. It is our place of testing and struggle and it molds and shapes us even as it threatens to overwhelm us. “The wilderness can be the despair that denies hope, the cynicism that goads us to believe that our doubts are truer than our insights, the grief that binds us to our losses, the hostility that will not let us enjoy friends or family, or the addictions that degrade us, forcing us to give away all we have. Our spirits often drive us to wildernesses of our own making: desolate, lonely, god-forsaken places populated with all sorts of wild beasts.” (1) But there we find God, reaching out to us, providing for us. It is there that we find Jesus, who comes into the wilderness to confront the evil and overcome the powers that dwell there, and to restore a garden-like, Eden-like, quality to our lives. No matter how desolate the wilderness of our lives appears to be, God is there, in Christ. God is there, loving and caring and offering forgiveness and grace and providing for our needs. If we only might look up we might see the Manna showering upon us, or the Ram stuck in the thicket or Jesus standing there besides us. And like Abraham and the people of Israel, we are shaped and molded by our experience of God in the wilderness and we are set on the road of the discipleship, where we are led, like Isael, towards the promised land.
(1) The quotation is taken from the Smyth & Helwys Commentary on the Gospel of Mark - page 93