I am about to get in trouble with some members of our congregation, especially if they or their ancestors come from Glasgow.
So, please forgive me in advance.
In 1990, when I was twenty years old, I went on a six-week backpacking trip through Europe with a friend that I had known in high school. Our plan was to land in Glasgow, and make our way through the United Kingdom and onto the European continent before arriving in Amsterdam, six weeks later, to fly back home.
It was a great trip, but it started somewhat oddly. That is, we caught an overnight flight into Glasgow which, that year, had been designated as the cultural capital of Europe. Our experience, however, left something to be desired. Glasgow might be a great city, and a cultural icon, but our experience of it was something less than amazing. Perhaps it was the part of the city that we were staying in, or perhaps it was because we were tired from the overnight flight, but what we experienced was a somewhat drab, tired, somewhat gritty industrialized city. And to discover that this city was the cultural capital of Europe left us wondering what the rest of the trip would be like.
But then we took a train from Glasgow to Edinburgh. And this is the part of the story that is going to get me into trouble.
When we got out of the train, in Edinburgh, we found ourselves on a street not far from the Princes Street Gardens, with the beautiful profile of Edinburgh Castle towering majestically over our heads. It was a regal, powerful, stately, magnificent introduction to the city.
Suffice it to say that our first impressions were remarkably different. Glasgow was rough around the edges, not all that exciting…Edinburgh was stirring and majestic. And to this day, those first impressions have stayed with me.
First impressions have a powerful and profound influence on us.
But they can be misleading. First impressions, though powerful, can sometimes require a bit more reflection, and correction, and clarity…as anyone who prefers Glasgow to Edinburgh would be quick to inform me.
So a question for all of us.
What was your first impression of Jesus and what the Christian life was supposed to be like?
Some of us probably can’t remember when we first heard about Jesus – we went to Sunday School as children, and the stories of Jesus have always been a part of our lives. For others, Jesus might be a name that they had heard, from time to time – sometimes as a swear word, and sometimes as a reference to some historical figure that people pay attention to. For still others, their first impressions of Jesus are probably shaped – for good or ill – by the actions, attitudes and reputation of his followers.
But without doubt, those “first impressions” of who Jesus was and what the Christian life is going to be like can be quite varied, and quite enduring, and quite powerful.
Which leads us to today’s reading from the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark.
Today’s reading from Mark 1: 9-15 includes the Gospel of Mark’s first introduction to the person that we know as Jesus. When we bear in mind that scholars and commentators have determined that Mark’s Gospel was the earliest of the four canonical Gospels, we are reminded that these introductory comments about Jesus, from Mark 1, which were among the first written texts about Jesus, offer some pretty important “first impressions” of what Jesus was all about.
The eight verses of Mark 1 that are prior to the beginning of today’s reading focus our attention on an old passage from Isaiah and on the person that we know as John the Baptist, who appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
And, in verse 9 which begins today’s reading, we are introduced to Jesus. As such, Mark’s Gospel offers no stories about Jesus’ birth or infancy, no stories about cattle stalls in Bethlehem or angels proclaiming peace and good will to all on earth, no wisemen or shepherds. Rather, the writer of Mark’s Gospel offers us our first glimpse of Jesus on his way to John. “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
And the story of what happened next is equally sparse. We read, “and just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Which, if we stop there, offers a fairly good and inspiring “first impression” of Jesus.
“You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
It doesn’t get much better than that, does it? It is a regal; powerful; stately; magnificent introduction to this character called Jesus.
In light of the sparsity of details about Jesus’ earlier life and experiences in Mark’s introduction to Jesus, we actually have no way to know if Jesus – according to this Gospel account — was fully aware of who he was before he heard this divine announcement of his true identity, whether it was a surprise, or whether he had any real idea of what such a designation might have meant. We simply do not know, and any conclusions that we form are, at best, speculative.
But what is interesting is what happened next. That is, the writer of Mark sets this divine announcement immediately preceding Jesus’ journey into the wilderness. Right after these words “you are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” we are then told “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness”.
Often, we read these passages quite separately — we focus on the baptism, or on the temptation in the wilderness as separate experiences, rather than as connected in any way, as they actually are in the text.
But the text is constructed in such a way that we are meant to juxtapose the glory of his baptism with his long period of struggle and temptation in the wilderness. And what is good for us to realize is that keeping these two experiences together may, in fact, present us with quite a different “first impression” of Jesus rather than stopping the story at the end of the divine announcement of his belovedness as God’s Son.
After all, on the basis of the regal, powerful, stately, magnificent proclamation at the moment of his baptism, we focus on his glory and power, with the added assumption and expectation that things are going to go quite well for him.
But that is not what happened next. Rather than excitement or acclaim or exuberance, Jesus instead found himself – immediately – propelled by the Spirit into a prolonged time of struggle, of vulnerability, of temptation, of hunger, of wrestling – in the wilderness.
It is good for us, when we read this part of the story, to remember that in the biblical conception, the image of the wilderness is far more than simply a geographical location or a type of landscape. Rather, the wilderness was a state of being – a state where the usual touchstones of human existence and community are removed; a place where the stability and security that we place around ourselves is no longer present; a place where we are radically alone; a place where fear, doubt, threat, danger, risk, and an awareness of vulnerability and fragility are present and undeniable realities. A few days ago, in a Bible study group at the church, an insightful person made the comment that there are people who are walking on the streets of this city who are in the wilderness – in that state of being where stability and security cannot be assumed; where loneliness, fear, doubt, threat, danger, risk, vulnerability and an awareness of their own fragility are very real pressures in their existence. A wilderness is a place that pushes us to the rougher edges of human existence.
And most of us do not think that faith is supposed to take us – or that God’s Spirit – is supposed to drive us into the wilderness, which is exactly what the text suggests happened with Jesus. Struggle, vulnerability, temptation, wrestling, loneliness, fear, doubt, threat, danger, risk — these are not, for most of us, our “first impressions” about where God is supposed to lead us or what faith is supposed to be all about, are they?
But if we allow this text to retain its integrity and its power, and if we allow our minds to keep Jesus’ wilderness experience alongside his baptism, what “first impression” do we form of Jesus?
That is, if we allow the text to shape our first impression of Jesus, we come to a very different image of him. Not simply a divinely celebrated, beloved Son, but rather a divinely celebrated, beloved Son who also – first — had to wrestle with the most difficult experiences of life before he could do any earthly good. He had to know the cravings and pain of hunger and temptation, to cope with exhaustion and loneliness, who had to learn what it meant to endure the wildernesses of life as well as life’s great moments of glory and exaltation.
Which actually, I think, forms a more inspiring “first impression” of him than just focusing on the regal, powerful, stately, magnificent moment of his baptism.
Because when we keep the baptism and the wilderness together reminds us that our faith, therefore, is not in a Saviour for whom life was easy and without struggle. Rather, our faith is in One who had to struggle with the difficulties of life just as much as any of the rest of us have to do.
And if our first impresssions of Jesus stop at the end of the baptismal scene, we do not see the fullness of who he was, and what he had to struggle with, and what he actually accomplished.
And what is also interesting for us to ponder is the third scene in this text – that is, that when he returned from the wilderness, he began to proclaim the coming of the kingdom of God. It was the baptism, and the wilderness – together — that prepared him to realize that the time had come to announce that God’s reign was as close as simply turning around, changing direction in life, repenting, and believing that good news – and then watching reality change in light of it.
And maybe he had to go through the wilderness to realize that – and to be able to announce it with any degree of plausibility or integrity. After all, it is fine for someone whose life has all been bliss and light to speak of God’s love and power – but there is a deeper resonance and a more inspiring dimension to those words when they are spoken by someone who – like Jesus – has known both the glory of life and its most difficult struggles, and still proclaims good news.
So what “first impressions” are we invited to draw from Mark’s Gospel?
These ancient words invite us to catch sight of, and to place our faith in a Jesus, who invites us to join him in his baptism, and to know our belovedness in him; and who accompanies us both into and through our times in the wilderness as well.
And then, who inspires us to come out of the wilderness, and go into the world, with words of good news on our lips.
Because the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.
Thanks be to God.