It’s been a cold winter here in Indiana. After last winter, in which the windchill dropped to around –30° F at times, I figured we were due for something a little warmer this time around. It’s true that November and December were unseasonably warm, and it’s true that temperatures have not dropped as low as last winter. However, early this January, the weather stayed cold for long periods of time with no respite. I’m just grateful for a warm house to come home to every day.
It’s times like this that I’m glad I don’t live in the wilderness. That word—wilderness—implies a harsh environment barely able to sustain human life. A winter like this makes everything a wilderness. The other way to make a wilderness is to cover a land with rocks, sand, and scorching heat. Take away any water, and you’ve got yourself the kind of place where no one would want to live. The only people found there are nomads and outcasts. Those who are rich and powerful stay away from the wilderness.
So what’s Jesus doing there?
Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t begin his story with the birth of Christ. He has another way of telling the humble beginnings of Jesus. Mark’s “Christmas story” begins in the Judean wilderness—a wasteland of hills, hot sun, dust, and precious little water. It’s not a coincidence that Jesus shows up here; his coming was prophesied in the Old Testament by Isaiah and by Malachi. In verses 2–3, Mark quotes Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3, which together reveal that a messenger will herald the Messiah’s coming. This messenger will call for a highway to be carved into the impassable hills—a highway broad, flat, and straight, fit for a King. This King will make his entrance into the world through the wilderness. Who is this King? Well, in a clever little trick, Mark adjusts and clarifies Malachi’s prophecy. Malachi quoted God as saying, “I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me.” In Mark, we read him to say, “I send my messenger before your face.” So is the messenger preparing the way for “me”—for God? Or is he preparing the way for “you”—for Jesus? Or could it be…?
With a sly smile, Mark moves on with his story.
In the wilderness, a place where the powerless live, the messenger John explains that this “highway” is really the repentance of God’s people, signified by baptism. If they repent—if they change their attitude and their behavior—they will be forgiven for their sins. But that is not all. John, dressed like a prophet, announces that this forgiveness is only the beginning. “After me,” he declares, “comes he who is mightier than I.” This mightier man will immerse his people in the Holy Spirit. He will soften their hearts and empower them to follow the Lord faithfully (Ezekiel 36:26–27).
Mark doesn’t leave us waiting. The mightier man comes from Nazareth in Galilee to be baptized. Now, everyone else who had been baptized would confess their sins and repent. Not Jesus. When he comes up from the water, heaven is opened, and the Spirit descends on him “like a dove” (verse 10). Then comes a voice from heaven: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Imagine, for a moment, if this had not happened. If Jesus’ baptism had gone the way all of John’s other baptisms had gone, people would assume that he was just like everyone else. He would be seen as a fellow sinner looking for a Messiah. But when God speaks from heaven, he identifies him as his special Son, as someone he dearly loves, as someone who has pleased him in every way. Mark doesn’t say it outright, but he once again hints to us, “This man is not looking for the Messiah. He is the Messiah.” Unlike any other man, Jesus is fully pleasing to God; he has not earned God’s wrath for sin.
The greatest outpouring of God’s wrath in the Old Testament was the great Flood of Noah (Genesis 6–8). The heavens were opened, and the whole world was immersed in waters of judgment. At the end of the Flood, Noah sent out a dove three times to see if there was any dry land left. The third time he did this, the dove did not return. The water had subsided, and Noah knew that God’s wrath had come to an end. Here in Mark’s story, Jesus is immersed in water, but he is not condemned. When the heavens open, there is no wrath. The Spirit descends on him in the form of a dove, and God announces that he is fully pleased with this man. In Jesus, and only in Jesus, there is peace with God.
The Holy Spirit descends on Jesus and drives him again into the wilderness. With Jesus, the mightier one, everything takes place on a colossal scale. Almost in passing, Mark mentions that he stays in the wilderness 40 days, is tempted by Satan, that he lives among wild animals, and that he is served by angels. No big deal. Just another event in the life of Jesus. The Spirit drives him to do great things, until even the great things can only be mentioned briefly.
This sort of understated power and authority is so characteristic of Jesus in Mark’s gospel. And it comes with a promise. The last words that John speaks in this gospel are these: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” Jesus is so mighty that he has authority over the Holy Spirit. He can change people’s hearts; he can take cynical, calloused, bitter people and make them trust him, love him, and worship him. He can take fearful people and make them into heroes of the faith, able to stand against Satan and wild animals, heroes to whom angels minister.
Yes, he can change you.