When Mark is your Gospel pilot, best you buckle your seat belts tight. For he takes off into the story of God with us on a short runway, and it’s wheels-up before you know it.
As we’ll hear shortly, Mark at the start is a man of few words. He wastes no time launching us into the action: John the Baptist appears, predicts the coming of a long-awaited Savior, and then that very person shows up to be baptized. In his first three verses, Mark clearly and plainly announces that what follows will be the story of the true Messiah, the Son of God, the fulfiller of Old Testament prophecies like the one Mark quotes from Isaiah.
Savvy readers and perceptive listeners will sense that, for all its obvious brevity, this section in Mark sums up nothing less than the whole history of God’s plan for salvation – even as it plunges us deep into the heart of that plan, as the incarnate Son of God arrives on the scene and immediately earns his Father’s favor.
Yet, no sooner does God express divine love for Jesus, when suddenly the Holy Spirit tosses Jesus headlong and headfirst into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. Hardly seems like a very loving thing for God to do! Feels more like a hard slap in the face – and a kick in the pants! Those many promises – that we’ve been hearing in our Scripture lessons of the past few Sundays, about the gentle comfort and companionship of the Spirit – are all are starting to ring hollow! And the silence is deafening!
Why would God the Spirit do such a seemingly mean and nasty thing to Jesus?
I’ll unpack that in a minute. For now, though, listen for the Word of the Lord in the first of two powerful, Spirit-driven lessons from the Gospel of Mark.
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. (Mark 1:1-12)
And our lips still stammer the same question: Why?
God the Father no sooner declares passionate affection for Jesus, God the Son, when God the Spirit throws Jesus into the wilderness, a place that stands as biblical metaphor for sin and evil, darkness and decay, brokenness and death. Why?
Why would God do such a thing?
Very simply, because such engagement with sin and evil, darkness and decay, brokenness and death, is precisely what Jesus’s baptism is all about! His baptism marks the beginning of his ministry – his humble service to others at the precious cost of himself.
God sends not the beloved Son into our world just to be nice. No, God comes in Christ to reconcile the world to himself, and for that very reason, the first order of holy business – once baptized in water and anointed with the Holy Spirit – is to join the company of the baptized and engage the evil that holds captive our souls and spirits.
The action here is fast and furious – and violent. The Spirit doesn’t just “invite” or “send” Jesus into that wilderness place. The original Greek text paints a picture of Jesus being “thrown out” there. The Spirit apparently descends like a gentle dove but suddenly transmogrifies into a kind of hawk who snatches Jesus in its talons and brutally drops the Lord into the wilderness realm of the devil himself! Think, maybe, of a well-muscled bouncer at a seedy bar hurling a drunken scallywag through the swinging doors and out into the street, and you’ll get a vivid picture of the dark direction in which the Spirit so violently steers Jesus.
It is indeed strikingly dramatic! This is no snuggly, cooing baptism on a bright Sunday morning in springtime. There’ll be no gathering afterward for sheet-cake and punch. No posing for pictures with proud grandparents and godparents. Clearly something cosmic is afoot here. Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark is light on details. But if you pay attention there are a couple hints about how things turned out.
One hint is obvious: Angels attend to Jesus. That probably forecasts that Jesus will survive this hellish wilderness storm – just as angels attend to you and me and see us through when calamity strikes and heartache burns.
But the other hint is more subtle: Mark’s reference to the “wild animals.” It’s an odd detail to throw in, but think about it: When was the last time in the Bible you had one man alone among the animals? It was Adam. The first man lived in harmony with the Garden of Eden’s animals. He called them to his side. He named them. He knew them by name.
By taking on the powers of evil, Jesus begins life again for us all – the ones he calls to his side, the ones he names, the ones he knows by name. Jesus is Adam version 2.0, doing it all over again but this time doing it right, deftly setting our fragile cosmos back on the course God intended in the beginning. Jesus goes out into as wild and chaotic a place as exists, but instead of being consumed by it, Jesus changes it into an oasis of shalom!
Because here’s what Mark wants us to know: In Christ a whole new world had dawned. All things are not only possible but probable. Which is precisely what happens in our second lesson, a chapter later in Mark: The dawning of a whole new world for a man stricken by paralysis, thanks to a group of committed friends willing to confront and lift high the brokenness of evil and lower it gingerly into the presence of healing grace.
Once again, listen for the Word of the Lord:
When he returned to Capernaum after some days, it was reported that he was at home.
So many gathered around that there was no longer room for them, not even in front of the door; and he was speaking the word to them. Then some people came, bringing to him a paralyzed man, carried by four of them. And when they could not bring him to Jesus because of the crowd, they removed the roof above him; and after having dug through it, they let down the mat on which the paralytic lay. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”
Now some of the scribes were sitting there, questioning in their hearts, “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” At once Jesus perceived in his spirit that they were discussing these questions among themselves; and he said to them,
“Why do you raise such questions in your hearts? Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Stand up and take your mat and walk’? But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” – he said to the paralytic – “I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.”
And he stood up, and immediately took the mat and went out before all of them; so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We have never seen anything like this!” (Mark 2:1-12)
The preacher began his message with a real attention-getter: “I was paralyzed, not with a physical paralysis, but emotionally and spiritually.”
He had me at “paralyzed.” And he continued with similar candor.
“I seemed unable to grow and move freely in the life God planned for me. This sense of emotional and spiritual paralysis kept me defeated. I knew I needed help but didn’t know how or where to find it. I realize now that I am indebted to many people, some of whom I can’t even remember, for ministering to me in various ways.
“They saw my need, were willing to take time to speak a word of encouragement to me, to pray with me, and to offer the Bible’s Good News to guide me until I was emotionally and spiritually made whole. I can’t repay them, but I can pattern their behavior – those who helped me to wholeness in Christ.”
The preacher went on to explain that he had come from a dysfunctional home and a life of deep sin and utter brokenness. Because of these challenges in early life, he did not know how to relate to other people properly, let alone how to relate to God and the community of faith. The man desperately wanted to experience the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control that he saw in the lives of his Christian friends. But he hadn’t the first clue how to cultivate those spiritual fruit.
He saw his own life reflected in Mark’s account of the healing of the paralyzed man. He saw parallels between the people who helped him find emotional and spiritual healing and those who helped bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus for physical healing – with some spiritual healing thrown in to boot. These friends the preacher called “the bearers of the mat.”
Thanks be to God you and I have been baptized.
For the courageous grace we receive in baptism enlists us into the ranks of the mat-bearers – children of God and followers of Jesus who see another’s need and are willing to get involved. If Jesus has done great things for you – and he has, in his great rising from the grave for you, then your confidence in Jesus’s ability to help others must spur you to action. Because the paralyzed are all around us and closer than you think.
Not necessarily the physically paralyzed, but folks paralyzed emotionally or spiritually – the forgotten and overlooked who haven’t the first clue how to move into the healing presence of the Lord or receive the anointing of the Spirit. If and only if you and I start seeing them as they are – like you and me, wonderfully and fearfully made in the image of God but paralyzed and needing our help, not our criticism and judgment, then and only then will we be motivated to become “bearers of the mat.”
And finally, one more thing.
There remains the vexing question, “Who fixed the roof?” Who repaired the gaping hole those committed friends ripped into the ceiling on their mission of mercy?
Hopefully no one did! Or even tried! For the way to Jesus is always open – forever and always:
Thanks to heavenly power that rolls away stones and slices through thick, seemingly impenetrable obstacles of all kinds.
Thanks to the spiritual power of friends, neighbors – and maybe even strangers – who are the mat-bearers.
Thanks to faithful, intrepid saints who, like Jesus, take seriously the meaning and purpose of their baptism and confront the evil of the world head-on. And so we confess:
In a broken and fearful world, the Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing, to witness among all peoples to Christ as Lord and Savior, to unmask idolatries in Church and culture, to hear the voices of peoples long silenced, and to work with others for justice, freedom, and peace.
As bearers of mats.
May it be so! Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden preached this sermon on Sunday, May 7, 2023, the fifth Sunday of Easter at First Presbyterian Church in Waukon, Iowa. It is the four of his Easter-season series on the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Scholarship, commentary, and reflection by Allan Brown and Scott Hoezee inform the message.