In the Wilderness
In the Wilderness
Have you ever read a book, watched a television show or movie and wondered why it begins where it does? Wonder what the writer is trying to tell us about the story by where the story it begins? Perhaps you’ve done it yourself when someone has asked you the question, “Tell me about yourself?” Where do you begin, what is relevant or important given the context of the conversation?
This morning we have two beginnings. The first is Genesis 1 and the other is the beginning of Mark’s gospel. What do these two beginnings tell us about God, creation, Jesus and our place within all of that?
Often while watching television programs you will get a series recap. At the beginning of an episode you will be told ‘previously on…’ and then will receive a montage of important events in the show. These events are tailored to remind you of what has happened and frequently pick up on a plot point that might not have been obvious, but which the shows creators plan to explore in the current episode.
This is how Mark begins his gospel, with a quick recap about John coming to prepare the way. We see images of John in the wilderness, preaching about repentance. All the Judean countryside and the people of Jerusalem come to listen and be baptized.
Then Jesus arrives from Nazareth and is baptized. No sooner does that happen and Jesus is in the wilderness and John has been arrested. I know, I’m going beyond the bounds of our passage, but all of this is happening as a recap allowing Mark to get his audience up to speed for the episode which is the remainder of his gospel account.
Scott Hoezee reminds us that one of Mark’s key characteristic’s is the use of the word immediately. He writes, “…starting in Mark 1 with the first occurrences of Mark’s #1 favorite Greek word: euthus. The force of this word is “immediately,” though sometimes Bible translations blandly bury the word under some boring-sounding phrase like “then” or, as in Mark 1:10, obscure the word from sight altogether by translating it “As . . .” as in “As Jesus came up out of the water . . .” But in the Greek Mark really is saying, “Immediately upon coming out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens torn.” And then not two verses later we are told in verse 12 that with equally lightning quick speed the Holy Spirit “Immediately hurled Jesus out into the desert.” Things happen fast in Mark’s narrative style but something of the very verve and vitality of the gospel is in there, too! We don’t want to miss it!” (Scott Hoezee)
There is a sense of pace and tension in Mark’s gospel about what is occurring. The question we need to ask is why does Mark start his gospel account where it does? There is no birth narrative in Mark’s gospel, so why does he start it with John the Baptist? Mark doesn’t elaborate on the testing Jesus undergoes in the desert, Luke and Matthew do that.
Why doesn’t Mark just start at verse 15 with, “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
Why John the Baptist, why the baptism of Jesus, the immediacy of being sent to the desert to be tempted? For this we need to look at what Mark is telling us and our Old Testament reading helps direct our thoughts.
Remember the beginning of Mark is a recap. We have John the Baptist, preaching in the tradition of the prophets, baptizing people. In Genesis 1 we have the following, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” In John’s gospel we have a poetic rendition of this, in Mark we get a lighting fast recap told through the perspective of John the Baptist.
What we are reminded of in the recap is that God has been at work all along. God has been at work since before the beginning and Mark ties that together with water and baptism.
There are many ways to think about this passage from Genesis and I discovered two interesting commentaries on it that I want to share with you as I think they expand our thinking of what this passage is telling us.
First from Cory Driver, “I usually argue for a translation that goes something like: “When God began to create the heavens and the earth ….” In other words, Genesis 1:1 is not speaking about the absolute beginning of all things, but a beginning of certain things.” (Cory Driver)
And then from Kathryn Schifferdecker, “This is a story not about creation-out-of-nothing but about creation out of a world that is wild and waste, formless and void (tohu va-vohu in Hebrew). In Genesis, the world as we know it is created out of formless matter and out of the watery abyss.” (Kathryn Schifferdecker)
God spent time preparing, then creating and with the coming of Christ we see God acting decisively. Before God created the heavens and the earth we believe that something was there. That something is God. This isn’t an argument for or against science, rather this is thinking about God, about creation through a theological lens. We aren’t talking about the absolute beginning, but the beginning of certain things. Most concretely is our relationship with God, or more accurately with God’s relationship with creation.
The unifying element that comes through in Genesis and Mark is water. Note the language used in Genesis about the beginning:
Now think about Mark’s gospel and the location we are situated in. We aren’t in Jerusalem or another city. We are in the wilderness a place that is:
Specifically, Mark puts us by a river, a body of water. The wilderness and water, this where creation is brought forth. This is where Christ is baptised. This is where the church finds its start, in the wild places where God formed creation, where God’s spirit hovered over the waters. As Jesus emerges from the water, immediately the Holy Spirit is present.
We live in uncertain times, as we endure another lockdown due to Covid-19. However, we can trust that God is prepared and trust in God that we have the resources to endure. Though it may seem that things are wild around us, that we can’t see a clear way forward, we can remember the recap. That out of the wilderness, out of the wild spaces God created, God is present, and love came down. Amen.
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St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, Cobourg is part of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. The congregation was established in 1833 and continues to serve the community.
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