Lent 1 · Mark 1:9-15 · March 1, 2009
By Travis J. Scholl
This is the second time in this liturgical year we have encountered Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism by John. The first was on the Baptism of our Lord, January 11. There, the baptism ends the pericope, preceded by John the baptizer’s ministry in the wilderness. Here, it prefaces Jesus’ own journey into the wilderness and the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. This makes the whole narrative sequence a kind of chiasm, centered in Jesus’ baptism, and on either side of it, the wilderness.
As was pointed out in the first part of the Concordia Journal Currents roundtable discussion on preaching Mark (www.ConcordiaTheology.org), the liturgical year’s sequence does not follow Mark’s own narrative sequence. Year ? inserts Mark’s account of the transfiguration from chapter 9 in between the chapter 1 accounts of Jesus’ baptism and temptation. This is a point worth noting, since it is a disruption in the flow and telos toward which the beginning of Mark’s Gospel is taking us.
Of course, this being the first week of Lent, the season foregrounds Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. The Gospel of Mark spends only two verses on an event that takes 11 verses in Matthew and 13 verses in Luke. The narrative sweep, like so much of Mark, is swift, and the details are sparse. But what details are (or are not) there are significant. Mark initiates the action with urgency, the baptismal Spirit driving Jesus “immediately” into the wilderness. Mark does not care at all to mention the three specific temptations from Satan. Mark’s Jesus encounters what appears to be a vague 40-day torment. But only Mark mentions the “wild beasts,” and only Mark gives the impression that the angels attended Jesus during the entire wilderness encounter, rather than only at the end of the temptations.
And what are we to make of those “wild beasts”? Are they part of the wilderness temptation, part of the demonic battle? Or, is Jesus here enjoining solidarity with his Father’s creation, groaning together with the whole of nature that is awaiting the redemption he comes to bring (Rom 8:22)? Or, is Mark perhaps signaling a tension here, where Jesus is simultaneously wrestling and blessing the wild wilderness, an echo of the angel wrestling the wild Jacob (Gn 32:22-32)? I prefer this last option, but Mark loves to leave us ruminating on the possibilities while he’s moving on to other things.
What is significant here is that Mark’s Jesus has crossed a border between what is tame and what is wild, between “civilized” society and the wilderness. He is, to borrow from American mythology, the Delta bluesman standing at “the crossroads.” Jesus will continue to cross such borders—commanding demons, touching lepers, speaking and listening to the Syrophoenician woman—throughout his ministry, culminating in the tragic drama of the cross, where Jesus crosses the ultimate cosmic and human border of death. Even there he won’t stand still for very long.
The Rev. Héctor Hoppe recently led the Seminary community in an En Conjunto Table Talk podcast (in English at “Hispanic Studies” at the Seminary’s iTunes U site, itunes.csl.edu) on “Crossing Borders,” particularly the borders Christ crosses in the gospels, from a Latino perspective. It is a vital and timely discussion. And it would make for excellent homiletical preparation not only for this text but for Lent as a whole. Because, in a sense, to experience the Gospel of Mark during the season of Lent and Holy Week is nothing more than to risk crossing ever more dangerous borders with Jesus Christ, the Son of God (1:1). Foremost among these borders is the crossroads of repentance and forgiveness. As such, “Crossing Borders” would make a worthwhile Markan theme for Lent.
Nothing summarizes such Lenten border-crossing better than Jesus’ own first Gospel proclamation upon his return from the wilderness. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news” (1:15). The rest of Mark’s Gospel is a living out of that proclamation, and an urgent call to discipleship with the One who proclaims it.