I found something I was looking for the other day, in a place that was completely unexpected. Finding things that are out of their usual place can confuse and startle you. You might be surprised if you found a sock in the silverware drawer, and you’d certainly take a hasty step back if you found a snake under the hood of your car. You might miss a long awaited meteor shower if someone suddenly sets off fireworks in your backyard. And sometimes we actually miss out on what takes place under our noses because of preconceived ideas.
When Jesus comes on the scene at the beginning Mark’s gospel, the Israelite people are waiting for a Messiah, a king, who will take the throne and make things right (in the manner that they are expecting). Mark begins by setting up the scene with John being the messenger who prepares the way of the Lord.
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “Behold, I send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘make ready the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Mark 1:1-3
Mark draws on multiple ideas from three different texts (Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, Isaiah 40:3) to connect them into one idea and flood the people’s minds with familiar stories and reminders from the pages of Scripture, because what they are about to see is rather unexpected. In a nutshell, only God can forgive their sins, the priests are corrupt, and God is coming to deliver his people, and to bring judgment. Preparation for all of this comes in the form of repentance.
John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And all the country of Judea was going out to him, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were being baptized by him in the Jordan River, confessing their sins. Mark 1:4-5
There is a corporate element to salvation. When the people come out to be baptized, they are doing it as people who want to be a part of a community that is going to set their lives right with God; for the restoration of the nation AND for the forgiveness of their sins.
ALL the country of Judea and ALL the people of Jerusalem are coming out to John, (which is an exaggerated statement to show that something truly big is happening here). But they are coming to the wilderness!
Jerusalem is where God lives, and the Temple is supposed to be where you encounter God and receive forgiveness of sins! But John is positioned far out in the wilderness, crying out to prepare the way for the Lord. The word picture stirs up images of Moses and the Exodus and God’s provision in the desert, and his leading the people out of bondage and towards the Promised Land. In this first scene in Mark, God is meeting people in the desert, which is a critique of the temple and corrupt leaders and system of religion in Jerusalem.
And (John) was preaching, and saying, “after me one is coming who is mightier than I, and I am not fit to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Immediately coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opening, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him; and a voice came out of the heavens: “you are my beloved Son, in you I am well-pleased.” Mark 1:7-11
The Greek renders this as ‘the heavens were torn open.’ This is important. The heavens are torn open as God shows his approval of Jesus in this first setting. After Mark presents his whole gospel narrative, we get to look in on one of the final scenes, where Jesus is hanging on a cross.
Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Mark 16:37-38
Mark begins and ends his gospel with the revelation that God is doing something in the wilderness, not in the Temple. He’s doing something in Jesus, and not through the religious leaders. It’s quite unexpected. At Jesus’ baptism, the heavens are torn open and God announces that this is his beloved Son. When Jesus dies, the veil in the temple is torn and it is revealed that God is no longer in the temple; but you can find him on the cross, where he has ascended his throne and been crowned king through his suffering.
So, what is the good news? Instead of expecting what our imaginations have conceived of, God gives something we never could have imagined, and it changes life forever. Maybe God is offering us the opportunity to expect the unexpected. He doesn’t always appear in the powerful, the put together, or the well-executed religious systems. Those places can be corrupt and complacent.
Sometimes God comes in the wilderness; in the dry and dreary places in life, and he makes a path towards the cross, that will inevitably lead to healing and life. It’s not what most people expect. To be a disciple means you must die. But it also means resurrection. And that is the greatest surprise of all.
Perhaps we have an amazing chance to find God…not where we ordinarily perceive, but in places and situations where he surprises us and takes us on a journey we never would have imagined on our own.
The Lord says, “Forget what happened before, and do not think about the past. Look at the new thing I am going to do. It is already happening. Don’t you see it? I will make a road in the desert and rivers in the dry land. Isaiah 43:18-19 (NCV)