Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Mark 1 1-13 the man in the wilderness

We first meet Jesus in the wilderness. It is in the wilderness that all routes to God begin. Some will have stumbled into the wilderness by mistake, others will have always been there but many will have had to make a conscious effort to leave the walled, secure, cultivated, self-made order of home with its tidiness or its weeds, its hard toil or its reclined elegance. They will have ventured in faith beyond the familiar into the unknown. Some may have gone out beyond protected ground into a place of risk for adventure. Others may be motivated by boredom or a feeling of imprisonment within a culture, or a sense that the self-made and self limiting enclosure of the garden can never bring life in all its fulness. Out there in the trackless wilderness where signposts are simply hints in the sand, and doubts the likely mirages of faith, there is no choice but to follow where Jesus leads. The spiritual food and drink needed to keep alive will be different from that on which we have become dependent. Living outside the camp will be challenging to traditional thought processes. Living there calls for a radical change of direction, an abandonment of past life-style, and a pilgrimage of uncertain direction, for God tends to be an elusive destination.

At first encounter it hardly seems to be good news at all. But the Bible assures us that it is indeed gospel that we hear in that wilderness. It was beyond the civilised city of Ur that Abraham encountered promise. It was in the fugitive’s wilderness of remorse, family breakdown, and shattered trust that Jacob saw heaven opened. It was in the wilderness of Sinai, far from the fleshpots of the Pharaoh’s palace of his upbringing, that Moses met his God and knew him by name for the first time. It was again in that same wilderness that he was caught up in Yahweh’s supreme revelation to his own people; the word of law and covenant that still holds Israel. The clinching indication that this people was to going to move from wilderness to a land was revealed when the mighty walls came tumbling down at Jericho: a sign that however high and strong man builds, wilderness is always ready to break in on his protected plot. It was in the wilderness of captivity that the children of Israel had to learn new songs, not fixed in the foursquare harmonies of Zion, but psalms of a pilgrim people whose temples, carved out of the hardness of their hearts, would never replace lives of integrity beaten out in the blood-pumping rhythms of the flesh-soft heart of love. For they would always be a people whose identity had been formed in the wilderness: living in tents, feeding on manna from day to day, drinking from fountains opened out of rocks along the way; a people whose God was always on the move, the signs of his presence carried in a box, a day’s journey ahead of them, and even when resting with them kept in a tent as s sign of their readiness to move.

But the people to whom Jesus came had forgotten all that. They lived at a time when nations were identified not by wilderness pilgrimage but by their buildings. Forums and temples, palaces, aqueducts, walls and theatres were named for Emperors and kings. Herod the Great, Augustus’ vassal king in Jerusalem, had learnt the lessons of his times. His eternal life would be bought at the price of projects: a signature palace at Massada, an aqueduct, towers and harbours, but above all a massive temple to his God in Jerusalem. Jesus had lived and worked as a builder. Just a few miles from his home in Nazareth a new city was rising in the hills with theatres, baths and temples. Surely this was good news to Galileans, especially contract builders like Jesus. Yet this new city, Sephoris, with all its sophistication and state of the art urban living is the one major place in Israel we never encounter in the books of good news. And Herod’s mightiest and most prestigious project, the new temple in Jerusalem is treated with disdain by the man we first encounter in the wilderness.

In practice, the temple discriminated against the poor and the alien: the oppressive tax regime to pay for it imposed on poor, already oppressed, people, financial burdens they could not bear and seemed to imply that forgiveness depended on an ability to pay. The clear implication was that God could be impressed by prestige projects, that national identity was located less in the covenant written upon the heart, than in stones piled up in specious splendour. The planning, building and administration of such an ornate temple created a privileged class in Jerusalem totally out of touch not only with ordinary people, but with the simple faith God required of them; a self-serving ruling class with delusions of grandeur but no less Pilate’s puppets, who hypocritically had copied Roman temple culture while parading their exclusive Jewish identity.

Jesus came to bring freedom from that kind of bondage. A lame man is lowered through the roof into his presence. Jesus forgives him his sins: no temple sacrifice is required. Only faith. It is out in an open desert place that Jesus feeds 5000 men with two fish and five loaves. He walks across the wilderness of a stormy sea, and out among the tombs of Gentile badlands, on the wrong side of the lake, he brings sanity and peace to a man whose mind is a wilderness more tangled even than the wildness of the sea in a terrifying storm. A woman with a haemorrhage, banished from polite society, banned from synagogue let alone temple, driven into a wilderness of fear and despair for 12 years, touches him and is welcomed as his daughter, and is then sent on in peace. People isolated in deafness or in blindness, a leper, those who were branded as outcasts, tax collectors and sinners, found Jesus in the wilderness of their rejection, and were liberated by him from all that bound them, not least the temple culture superimposed upon them that could offer them no release but instead enslaved them within systems in which they could only be exploited and never receive healing.

So the people of Jerusalem went out: leaving the temple, going out beyond the authority of the priests, crossing even the boundaries of the promised land, to encounter John, a wild, untamed man of the wilderness on a Ray Mears diet: to be washed by him, not in the blessed and holy water of the temple courts, but in the historic waters of the Jordan, whose stream their forefathers had mysteriously and miraculously crossed in the dry; and there renounced the city and all its ways. Turning to new wilderness ways of finding God, they are pointed to one on whom the favour of God ostensibly falls. And Jesus, the righteous one, filled with the Spirit of God himself, rising out of the waters turns not to the city crowned with its magnificent House of God but to the wilderness peopled only by beasts and angels where the pure in heart can see God, and recognise Satan for who he is and there to find the authentic voice of God within his heart.

No comments: