It is a humble journey, the one we began on Ash Wednesday and continue today, the first Sunday in Lent. It's unlike other journeys in our lives, journeys that start off with the hurrah of loaded suitcases, satchels filled with degrees or wedding licenses or retirement gifts, and people waving at us as the car speeds up.
It is a humble journey, one we aren’t quite sure we’re ready for. But the scripture just read seems pretty sensational. It starts with a baptism featuring an other-worldly voice. And then there's the trek through the wilderness littered by Satan and wild beasts and "cleaned up" by angels.
And if that's not enough, the passage ends with a powerful message booming out from Jesus, who strides into Galilee proclaiming a new kingdom.
Oh, no! It's a humble journey we begin. The gospel writer Mark's terse account of these awesome things isn't spectacular. No, his telling of the beginning of Jesus' ministry is remarkably understated, unlike the gorgeous paintings and silver screen renderings-with which we've grown up-not to mention Matthew's account and Luke's.
Take the baptism, for example. Jesus, dripping wet from the nondescript River Jordan, a river that at this point is hardly big enough for a good dunking. Jesus sees the heavens torn apart when he gasps up from under the water, and watches the Spirit soaring intently into his life in the form of a dove. Jesus hears the voice that reverberates in his ears and heart, a voice that sounds like love-talk from a parent after the recital or the game or at the bedside in the evening of a very normal day:
"You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased."
Jesus sees and hears, but we folks, waiting our turn on the shore for baptism, we're absorbed in conversations with our neighbors. We don't notice anything unusual going on. It's pretty quiet where we are, even though Jesus' ears are ringing and his senses smarting. And what about the wilderness wandering? No arguments with Satan are scripted for us by Mark. Just, "He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan, and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him."
His words of life-changing importance were no doubt called out into a world noisy with the slapping of fish nets and the lively bartering of the market place and the hum of everyday discourse. No doubt Jesus' voice had to compete with those everyday distractions as well as with the strident voices of other prophets shouting doom to the Roman oppressors. It's a humble journey with Jesus that we begin in Mark's Gospel today, this First Sunday in Lent. It's a quiet, unassuming, modest journey.
At the same time it's an amazing, remarkable, life-changing journey for us because we peek out of an empty tomb to watch it begin, and we know that this journey is filled with God's voice ringing in our ears and hearts, Satan's temptations and wild beasts lurking in the shadows of our lives, angels when we need them, and our unashamed witness about how we follow Jesus. Our journey is like Jesus' journey. It's both humble and obedient, as well as it is glorious and world-changing.
It begins with an undignified smudge of ash on our foreheads, foreheads that were splashed with baptismal waters years earlier and a voice: "Child of God, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever." "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
Our travels are marked by a trail of muddy footprints as we make our way through a wilderness littered by the beastly issues of home and school and office, stress and sickness and sadness, confusion and chaos and violence.
Wet tissues and drafts of thank-you notes mark the oases where angels-messengers from God-have shown up, just when we needed them, and a message of unconditional love, you are my beloved child.
And that is our journey, a humble, modest, but glorious journey. The pilgrimage draws us to walk within the landscape of our own heart, paying attention to what we grasp and protect. Jesus stands there, calling us to let go of what the world calls valuable, and to open our hands and life to receive his Way.
This journey, following Jesus, repenting and believing the good news about the nearness of God's reign, we make together, empowered by the same Holy Spirit that descended on Jesus before his journey into the wilderness. And as we encounter the wild beasts in our own wilderness, we have the promise that Jesus has been there before us and is with us now.