Mark 1:4-11: “Where the Wild Things Grow”
Some years ago two friends and I decided to drive through the California desert to a point hundreds of miles to the south. Our spirits were high that morning, our bellies were full with fast food, and we had plenty of gas for the journey – at least so we thought. It did occur to us, just before getting on the desert highway, to get gas one more time. But we decided against it.
And so we drove, and we drove, and we drove. I had always thought of California as a place whose population was exploding out of control. But as we drove through the morning and into the afternoon, I realized that it was only certain parts of California that were densely populated. Where were driving, on the other hand, there seemed to be nothing. Absolutely nothing. The only marks of civilization were an occasional sign and the hot pavement itself.
I was sitting in the backseat at the time when my two traveling companions in the front began discussing a concerning situation: the gas gauge was on E. “How did it get there so quickly?” my friend driving the car wanted to know. Time went on and our eyes scoured the landscape for any signs of a gas station, even any signs of a home or a shed that might have an extra gas can to spare for cash. At that point, we weren’t picky. We drove silently on, and the needle moved its way further to the E, then beyond the E. Finally, the gas gave out and we rolled along in neutral for quite some distance. I had already begun to pray – hard. In the somber silence of the moment, I think my two travel companions were also praying as well.
Then, suddenly, up ahead in the distance, we noticed a tall sign. And beneath that sign, some kind of abandoned house? No, it was … it was a store of some kind. No, not just a store, but a store with signs of life. More than that, a store with gas pumps! And so we rolled, losing speed ever so gradually as we went, but ever drawing closer to the answer to our prayers. Eventually, the car came rolling slowly, so slowly now, right up to the pumps and then to a gentle halt – we didn’t even have to use his brake. The three of us jumped up out of the car immediately, praised God heartily, and gratefully dumped the contents of wallets out on the counter for a full tank of gas. We didn’t mind the inordinate cost of the fuel: such is life in the desert.
Because the desert is a place of scant resources, it can be a scary place. In the desert all the things you’re used to depending on are made all the more noticeable by their absence. In the desert you’re pretty much on your own. It’s just you – and God.
John the Baptist knew that full well as he came baptizing. He preached dependence on God and everything about him fit that message. His diet was meager; his clothing was next to nothing. John, whom we learn from another Gospel was Jesus’ cousin, had taken up this ascetical lifestyle perhaps in part because he had felt that the desert was a place he could draw closer to God. But more fundamentally John was in the desert because God had called him to it. God had called him to don the prophet’s garb, to eat the prophet’s diet, and to take up a prophetic role of calling Israel to repentance. But not all of Israel’s prophets dwelled in the desert: why was John in the desert? Because the desert is where hearts are tested and character is shaped. Historically, the desert is where God takes wild, unruly and disobedient individuals and reworks them into being part of a cultivated branch, an obedient people, subservient to his purposes.
That was at least the theory when Israel departed Egypt. I’m sure that many Hebrews in Moses’ day would have preferred for there to have been a bee-line straight from Pharaoh’s yoke into the Promised Land. But Israel was not yet ready for the Promised Land. There were some necessary preliminary steps. First, there had to be the Exodus itself, the passing through the water, which symbolized a cleansing from the impurities of pagan Egypt. Second, there was the giving of the covenant at Sinai, which essentially defined the people and their behavior. Third, there was time of testing, forty hears of testing in the wilderness in order to know what was in the hearts of the Israelites (Deut 8:1-4).
When we consider the three component steps (Exodus, Covenant, Testing) separating Israel-in-Egypt from Israel-in-Canaan, we find the same three steps occurring here in this passage in Mark. In Mark 1:4-8, Jesus takes part in a new Exodus; then in 1:9-11, we see the makings of a new covenant; finally, if we look ahead, we see in 1:12-13, corresponding to the new Exodus and new covenant, new testing. Mark’s many-layered story, begun in 1:1-3, carries on.
In Mark 1:4-8, John comes preaching a baptism of repentance. John used this repentance-baptism as a way of signifying a break from the sinful past, just as God had used the waters of the Red Sea to symbolize Israel’s being done with the Egyptian way of life. Granted, the meaning of John’s water rite has been subject to some debate. While a few scholars have drawn a connection between John’s baptism and the water rites of the Qumran covenanteers, this seems spurious. At Qumran, sect members engaged in water lustrations daily, sometimes multiple times per day, in order to preserve cultic purity. John’s baptism by contrast was a one-time event. At least, we can surmise as much. Therefore, the best analogy for John’s baptism seems to be the water rite undertaken by Gentiles as they sought to convert to Judaism, all of which is attested in rabbinic Judaism (post-70 AD Judaism). Water baptism for Gentile would-be converts was a way of their symbolically participating with Israel in the passing through the Red Sea. After all, to come out of Egypt with Israel was, in effect, to become one with Israel.
If this is really what John was symbolically enacting, then the implications of this are nothing less than shocking. Think about it… Mark says that the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him (Mark 1:5). Many people from Jerusalem and the greater Jerusalem metropolitan area were going, but certainly not everyone was going. Most of the key leaders of Jerusalem probably never dreamed of going (cf. Mark 11:31-32). They were probably thinking, “Who does that John guy think he is? Telling us that we are no better than Gentiles in need of conversion. We’re the people of God!” As they saw all the fervor, with people coming back from the desert with their sins allegedly forgiven, they likely regarded the whole thing with bemused disdain. Some out of town and unconnected upstart was preaching a lot of hooey.
Not only was John’s baptism of repentance and conversion (a provocative gesture in its own right), but it was also a baptism “for the forgiveness of sins,” that is, for the sought-for result of forgiveness. John was claiming, in other words, to dispense that which up until that point was only procured in the temple: forgiveness. When you go around offering a baptism for the forgiveness of sins, you are implicitly saying, “Whatever you are used to getting in the temple, you can now get here, through me.” Those who ran the temple apparatus back in Jerusalem could not miss the fact that John was doing more than setting up shop – he was making himself the competition. It’s no wonder that, as the Gospels tell us, the temple elite were not terribly enthused about John’s ministry.
But whatever John was up to, the glory of his ministry dimmed in comparison to what Jesus was about to do. The “coming one” (shorthand for “messiah”), John told his audience, would baptize not with water but the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8). Or one might equally and more expansively read the Greek: he will baptize in the name and power of the Holy Spirit. At this point Jesus appears coming up out of the water. The heavens are rent asunder, just as the temple veil would later be rent asunder (Mark 15:38); the wall separating the sacred and the mundane was being ruptured. Next the voice from heaven speaks, just as it had done at Sinai. The purpose of both voices, the voice at Sinai and the voice at the river Jordan, was one and the same. Just as God establishes a covenant with Israel by calling Israel his son, so too now in Mark, God the Father was confirming his covenant with Jesus. This would seem to suggest that Jesus, having passed through the water, was in fact both true messiah and true Israel. John’s ministry wasn’t an end in itself – it was pointing to Jesus!
This pericope certainly has many practical implications, not least among them the importance of repentance. Certainly, we can repent anywhere – and at any time. But we note that John called people to repent in the desert. John’s choice of venue was primarily symbolic, to show that God was effecting a new Exodus. We wouldn’t want to diminish that point. But neither would we wish to diminish the practical observation that when God deprives us of our typical lines of resource (be it financial, relational, emotional or otherwise), he may well be calling us not only to a deeper faith, but a deeper repentance as well. Sometimes our most trying personal desert experiences illuminate the extent and depth of our idolatrous dependencies; sometimes our desert experiences have nothing to do with sin but are simply seasons of spiritual barrenness. In this case, the best way to celebrate Epiphany is not to practice the presence of God, but to practice his absence – to become the voice of one calling in the desert. Sometimes the deepest experience of God’s self-revelation comes about, paradoxically, when he seems most absent. Such is life in the desert.
Dr. Nicholas Perrin is Franklin S. Dyrness Professor of Biblical Studies at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Illinois.