Thought for the week - 14 January 2024
Here we are, back in the desert again. It’s a recurring theme in my preaching, so much so that I try and ignore it occasionally, and today, after the desert theme of Advent and John the Baptist and looking forward a month to Lent when once again, we can’t escape it, up it pops, just when we least expect it, like a cocktail bar in a Baptist Church, or like a good quality sausage in a Blackpool Café – unexpected and slightly out of place. But today is the feast of the Baptism of Christ, and we can’t have the baptism without the Baptist and we can’t have John the Baptist without the desert, so here it is. In glorious technicolour.
Mark begins his Gospel in the desert, with John and the other, Lenten echo of the desert, as the place where Christ will encounter Satan. It’s a place where nobody belongs and because of the nature of the shifting sands, a place where nobody is entirely sure where they are either. It’s on the edge of the urbs, the civilised, paved, mapped world and on the fringes of social order, neither town nor country and not particularly wanted by anybody. But John and Jesus have a habit of turning things inside out, of subverting social order, so the normal order is capsized and Mark tells us that all the country of Judaea, and all the people of Jerusalem go out to him confessing their sins. So the far away deserted place becomes a centre of life, full of the bustle and noise of human beings clamouring for attention, bringing their picnics with them, entranced at the spectacle of the man John. We may think that this is some extraordinary change of heart and decision to repent by the whole of Judea, but let’s also remember that public executions used to draw huge crowds, so we should not read in much more than simple curiosity.
But there is a desire within us to see the one person who speaks the truth, who does what we would wish we would do, as the popularity of Mister Bates versus the Post Office attests right now. Truth is attractive and we have an inbuilt attraction to it, especially when spoken simply and calmly to overwhelming forces. The desire to see one man express something true inverts the usual order of things: empty places suddenly become full, and the full become empty.
Whatever they all came for, they came in huge numbers ‘all of Judea’ says Mark, and Mark does not use words that he doesn’t mean to, and he’s not one for padding things out, his account is short and to the point. Some of them, maybe most of them, are looking for that which John offers and with some wonder and joy, in this crowd, pushing and surging forward as the Baptist draws sinners into the water, in this mob of those hungry for forgiveness and healing, and the curious and the day trippers and the naysayers, we find the Saviour, the sinless one, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And this is our first encounter of Him in the testimony of Mark – not as a baby in the manger, not even in the womb of Mary, not with the Magi, but a man in a crowd of people, waiting His turn to stand before his cousin, John. What an extraordinary thing that is seems to be, but really, it’s not, it’s just that we are not yet attuned to Him, he still presents a rupture, the social order is always inverted by the sudden presentation of truth into chaos. The desert becomes as full as the city, the holiness of God, the Holy of Holies in the Temple which can only be entered once a year is suddenly standing among a crowd of people, the holiness of God, the ‘Kabod’ – the weight of the divinity of God is standing by the river, surrounded by His people and they know Him not. The divine remains the divine, but also becomes our brother, and there is the greatness of the Good News of Mark, there is no need for the stable or the Magi, or the Angels, because He is here, directly among us.
At that moment, when His turn comes, and John is understandably unwilling to do what is required of him, but agrees, the heavens which opened for Gabriel to speak to Mary, the heavens that opened to bring the angels to the Manger, open once again and the Spirit descends in the form of a dove as it will do again on the new Church at Pentecost breaking like flames upon the apostles sending them from the upper room out into the bustle of the morning street, to turn the desert of the world into the city of God. In his baptism we see Jesus identify with us completely and totally and on the day of Pentecost this dual divine appearance enfolds us into its infinity of love, or grace, of hope. And it is hard to be loved like this because it is hard to know how to respond to such perfect love, we could retreat into the desert of hearts that are individual, in fear, we could approach it like a voyeur or day tripper as surely so many did their baptism in the Jordan, but the saviour stood among them, stands among us, not just another face in the crowd but He on which the world is made, the word became flesh, dwelling among us, transforming our world.