We’re back into the opening scenes of Mark’s gospel at the beginning of Lent: Jesus’ baptism, temptation and the beginning of his ministry in Galilee. You might like to go back and read the chapters on Jesus’ baptism and the beginning of the ministry. But let’s look at today’s passages through Lenten eyes. There are some important points to note.
Jesus’ baptism (Mark 1: 9-11)
There is a deep ambivalence to water baptism in the account of Jesus’ baptism that isn’t there for the crowds coming to John to be baptised in the immediately preceding passage. For these people, baptism is straightforwardly about repentance and its primary symbolism is about washing. There is nothing threatening about the water.
Jesus is baptised for another reason, however. He doesn’t need to repent. His baptism marks the onset of his ministry – his mission – and is also confirmed in his sonship. In Mark’s gospel, the voice is for Jesus alone to hear, and it is not until the Transfiguration that the heavenly voice is heard by others. There is nothing cosy about being God’s Son, the Beloved, however. This is not a divine pat on the head and fond ruffling of the hair – the “soppy moment” in which the parent hugs the child and saying, “Oh, I do love you!” God reassures Jesus that he is the beloved Son because Jesus is going to have to hang on to that and draw strength from it. This is armour and weapons for the forthcoming struggle – a struggle that begins immediately with the temptation. The point (as Mark’s story tells us) is that to be the beloved Son entails the cross. For Jesus, tasked with his particular mission, the affirmation of the heavenly voice is simultaneously the pronouncement of a sentence to suffering and death.
It is through Jesus’ death and resurrection that God is going to effect salvation. Christian baptism (as opposed to John’s baptism) is not only a symbol of being washed clean: it is a symbol of dying and rising (as Paul reminds us in Romans 6: 1-11). The picture of the person going down into the water is a symbol of dying – of drowning – and resurrection to new life is symbolised by the rising up out of the water. Jesus hears the voice as he rises because Mark is trying to tell us that it functions as symbolic promise: there is resurrection for Jesus, but the cross is unavoidable. And it is because he goes through suffering and death that Jesus is the beloved Son.
The water, then, has less to do with washing than drowning. The picture that baptism in the context of Easter evokes is not the waters of purification but of the Flood. Peter picks this theme up in his letter. And here is the ambivalence of the water: the water saves (just as the 8 people in the ark were saved – 1 Peter 3: 20) but it also destroys. Salvation is resurrection – but only the dead can be resurrected!
There is another important association with the water. “Water” is symbolic of the primeval chaos out of which God “wrests” creation in the Genesis story. The Flood story is the story of the waters of chaos being let loose to destroy once again and to extinguish life. Jesus, in Mark’s gospel, is set in his mission for a conflict against the powers of darkness and death that threaten and destroy. They will finally overwhelm him. He will die drowning in despair (Mark 15:34). That is his destiny. Out of that despair will come resurrection and new beginning.
So Lent is the time for looking again at our baptism. Baptism commits us – as it did Jesus – to living in the shadow of the cross. If Christian faith and being God’s children guarantees anything, it guarantees suffering! And to the extent that we are able significantly to avoid suffering, we must ask questions about how faithfully we are actually following Jesus.
Jesus’ temptation (Mark 1: 12-13)
Like water, the wilderness has a deep ambivalence. It is the place of deliverance, where Yahweh takes the liberated Hebrew slaves and makes them into a people. It is traditionally the place where God is to be found. Moses discovers the burning bush in the wilderness. Abraham takes Isaac into the wilderness and Isaac is saved. It was the place where prophets went to commune with God and where refugees went for safety. It is the place where John is baptising – the Jordan wilderness near Jerusalem. And now Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness – the place where God is, but also a place of danger and horror. This is also where Satan and the wild beasts are to be faced.
Most hero stories begin with a lone, titanic struggle. The wilderness is Jesus’ proving ground. Note the immediacy: there is no time to enjoy the baptismal experience! It’s straight from the water to the wilderness, for an immediate confrontation with the Strong Man. This is the one who holds sway over the earth that Jesus has come to wrest from him and to establish as God’s Kingdom. This is the one who holds people captive through illness, religious fanaticism and demon possession – the captives Jesus has come to liberate. And Satan is not alone: there are the wild beasts – important in the apocalyptic literature that Mark evokes so centrally. In the background, for Mark, lurks Daniel chapter 7, with the great trial of the earth’s kingdoms and the heavenly Son of Man. It is no accident that the earth’s kingdoms are symbolised by wild beasts. Jesus has come to take on the powers of Imperial Rome, too – one of the mythic wild beasts. And while Round One goes to Jesus, it is Satan and Rome who will have the final word.
Jesus’ ministry (Mark 1: 14-15)
It is against this background of struggle and death that we must understand Jesus’ announcement of the Kingdom of God. This is Good News! The world will not be left to its own devices, prisoners of the very structures that human beings have created and of the powers far greater than they to whom they have handed the world on a plate. Jesus announces, “This is a kairos¬ – the hour of God’s visitation! It is the climax of history! And this is its content: the Kingdom of God!”
Jesus’ announcement functions on several levels. It is an announcement of victory: the earth is being liberated! At the same time, it is a declaration of war: the powers are being served notice! It is a promise: this earth will become the Kingdom. It is a gift: this is something only God can achieve and will achieve. And it is a task: this is what Jesus is committing himself to (and by extension, committing his disciples to also).
A way to be learned (Psalm 25: 1-10)
We ought not to think of Jesus as walking a “scripted” path, as though he was some sort of divine actor who plays his lines faultlessly. Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness proves this: the struggle to live out his calling faithfully is one that has to be lived out and “proved” in the faithful doing of it. There is always the imminent possibility of failure – even for Jesus! Gethsemane proves that, if nothing else does.
The way of faith requires learning and putting into practice. It is like learning to drive, rather than passing the theory test in order to get one’s Lerner’s Licence. The Roman Catholic notion of “formation” is wonderfully apposite: we are formed in the faith through learning, through worship, through the sacraments and through mission.
That is what the psalmist is speaking about in Psalm 25. “Do not let me be put to shame”, he prays (v2): in other words, don’t let me be seen to fail, having nailed my colours to the mast publicly. How is this to be achieved? Through deep immersion in the things of Yahweh (vv 4-5); in the cycle of repentance and trust in the forgiving mercy of Yahweh (vv 6-7); and in immersion in the Law (vv 8-10).
Yet all of these are not the components of some sort of success formula – a “3 Steps to Successful Living!”: they are about relationship with Yahweh and trust in the God who is revealed in the Law and in the story of the People of God. The psalmist is not talking here about formulaic religious ritual: he is talking about the process of learning to “see Yahweh more clearly, love Yahweh more dearly and follow Yahweh more nearly, day by day”. This is life in the covenant; in Christian terms, it is the life of baptism.
Baptism into suffering (1 Peter 3: 18-22)
Baptism, struggle and mission – the three are intertwined and belong inextricably together. Christian faith is no “holiday from reality”, despite the fact that much Christian preaching seems to offer congregations Jesus as “the ultimate buzz”. Being a child of God does not mean being protected from bad things – from suffering and hardship. And mission will not always be well received! These are things that Peter’s community is discovering in spades – and wishes they weren’t! They are suffering – and that suffering is really trying them. Some are holding on to faith by a fingernail. Suffering has that power. Prolonged suffering, especially, is a costly war of attrition – so costly that even winning it feels like losing.
And so Peter writes to encourage them. He reminds them that this is the sort of world that kills messiahs. That is what happened to Jesus. If people live like Jesus did, the chances are they’ll die like he did. And while we might wish that God did things differently, the pattern of Jesus’ life, pictured in baptism not only as a once-for-all event but as a daily pattern, reminds us of the truth that is as old as the Flood: you don’t get to escape the bad bits! Resurrection lies on the other side of death. Baptism and Christian faith is about participation in that dynamic of suffering, dying and rising.
Jesus, Peter reminds us, suffers for sins “once for all” (v18). He died as a result of his confrontation with “unrighteousness” in solidarity with its victims and those who are “unrighteous” according to the Purity System. This is what makes his death a sacrifice rather than simply martyrdom – a sacrifice that brings life. His death is the entry point into resurrection. It is a once-for-all sacrifice because God has raised Jesus from the dead, never to die again. So, says Peter, if you’re suffering for doing right – if you’re suffering for living as Jesus did, involved in the struggle for the Kingdom to take shape in the world – then you’re on the right track! You’re being faithful to your baptism.
Salvation – at a cost! (Genesis 9: 8-17)
Suffering. Death. Judgement. Divine wrath. These are not easy or pleasant things to consider. Re-reading the story of the Flood, I am struck forcibly by the awfulness of what the story contains. It is a story of Noah and his family – Noah’s faithfulness to Yahweh and Yahweh’s deliverance. But it is also a story of death and destruction on an appalling scale – the utter, inexorable eradication of all life on earth under the heaving waters – and at Yahweh’s hand! This is the reversal of the creation story. Yahweh is undoing what has been done – unmaking what has been made, and killing all that lives.
Here, again, is the dynamic of suffering, death and salvation. Yet it really “bites” in this narrative. The narrative of the rising water, cutting off life in 7:17ff is horrifyingly evocative.
The Lectionary passage concerns the re-establishment of the love affair between Yahweh and the world. It is the covenant with Noah, his family and all of creation, with the rainbow as a sign. It is the salvation “bit”; the equivalent of resurrection. But do you notice how you’re left feeling, “It isn’t quite enough – not enough, at least, to blot out the awfulness of what has happened”? The guarantee that it won’t happen again is hardly any comfort to the people and animals that have died! That is why it is intriguing that Peter speaks about Christ descending to the dead and proclaiming the Good News to the people of Noah’s day. That is one of the things about suffering: it’s good when things change and suffering is stopped, but never enough. It’s always too late for some. And we want to protest! But the story here and the Old Testament remind us about two things:
1. We need to recognise the reality and depth of human resistance to God. That is seen in killing Jesus. What we call “sin” is not just the naughty things we do that make the tabloid headlines. Sin can be deadly and destructive. It has consequences. And it offends Yahweh.
2. Sin offends Yahweh, but also grieves Yahweh. Yahweh is Judge in the Old Testament, but also the great Lover and the one eager to forgive. So why this wholesale destruction in the Flood (the covenant with Noah notwithstanding?). Why doesn’t God simply forgive? Why all the complicated sacrificial stuff? The Bible confronts us with truths that are at times unpalatable. Judgement and cost: these are inextricable aspects of the story of God’s salvation. There is a deep seriousness to human wrong-doing – sin – that means that consequences cannot simply be bypassed. We can either turn away from them, or we can wrestle with them. God’s anger and judgement could be indicators of a divine, cosmic-sized ego that must be flattered and appeased. Certainly much preaching suggests that this is what God is like. Or they are indicators of God’s grief and refusal to be marginalised. God will not abandon us to the world we create for ourselves. God does not withdraw to a contamination-free zone and leave us to get on with it, but enters into the darkness, seriousness and consequences of human wrong-doing … in order to save.
The God who bears the cost of sin
Both Jewish theology of sacrifice and Christian theology of Easter have always, at their best and most insightful, recognised that it is ultimately God who bears the cost and consequences and loss that sin involves. The Flood is not so much a story of Yahweh’s obliteration of the earth and life as it about the loss Yahweh has to bear of the objects of divine love. Grief frequently manifests as anger – indeed, anger is part of the process of coping with bereavement. There is always loss involved because there is somehow a necessary connection between sin and death. If God is the God of Life, and sin is human refusal to live in communion with God, then sin involves the voluntary cutting off from the source of Life.
This is not a statement about some sort of heavenly legal system. The notion of divine Law can be misleading, because it suggests the context of a court room, with God as the heavenly Law-giver, divine police force and cosmic judge. Instead, we must learn to read the language of sin and salvation as statements about the deep and dark reality of life without God – of the refusal of Life and Love and Spirit. Salvation is not about some sort of forensic tidiness, but about God’s struggle for our liberation from the prison of darkness, despair and death which we have built for ourselves.
This is the story of Mark’s Jesus. And it is the story of the God whom Jesus called Father. That is why the story of salvation is the story of sacrifice – of the loss God suffers as the cost of salvation. Of course, there remains always the question of why God chooses to do it this way. We long for easier, less costly and less bloody ways of achieving the same end. We bridle at sacrifice. Yet the biblical story of salvation tells us that this is the way of Love. It is part of the mystery of God that God is this kind of God and chooses to do it in this way.
Salvation changes God. It involves God in suffering and loss. It is a process – that is the biblical story. And the story of Jesus – particularly of Easter – is that his sacrificial death enables God to do things differently. The powers ranged against Jesus will have their day. They will be allowed to do their damnedest. But God will have the last word – the word of Resurrection. And because of that, Jesus’ death is not just one more sacrifice but the sacrifice, once and for all, as Peter reminds us. If there is no more need for sacrifice – if the consequences of sin have been dealt with once and for all – there remains no need or space for sacrifice – only the free forgiveness of God. This is our faith. The end of the Lenten road is resurrection and Life. This is the Good News.