Facing the Wild Beasts

Mark 1:9-15

Life comes at you fast.

On May 22nd, I graduated from college. Kind of a big deal. My fiancée, my parents, grandparents, brothers and sister all came to witness the big day. I got presents and pats on the back.

Next weekend on May 30th, Susan and I got married. Same story, except even more people and more presents. We had a big reception, and the next day, Susan and I went to scenic Chicago for our honeymoon. Went to the museums, ate out a lot, saw Greg Maddux pitch in his first full season in the big leagues. Saw him pitch . . . and lose to the St. Louis Cardinals. But there’s nothing like a honeymoon and Wrigley Field in the same week.

After we got home, Susan and I packed all our things in the back of my grandfather’s Chevy pickup truck from the farm. He put the stakes in the bed of the truck, the one’s he used when transporting pigs, to make sure they didn’t tumble out the back at highway speed. The stakes made it so we could pack everything higher, allowing us to look even more like the Clampetts on a cross country trip to Beverly Hills.

And just like that, we were on the road to Kingsport, Tennessee, so I could go to seminary. The whole thing seems pretty surreal now. In the course of three short weeks, I graduated, got married, honeymooned (did I mention that I got to see Greg Maddux in his first full year in the big leagues?), and then loaded up the pickup truck with all our worldly possessions and moved to a different part of the country—where the first thing they mentioned on the local news wasn’t baseball or basketball scores, but lake levels for bass fishing (not that I got to watch the news very often, since we didn’t even own a television—which wasn’t a principled moral stand against the excesses of pop culture—we were just too poor to afford one.)

Three weeks. All that in three weeks.

In religious studies, we talk about these sorts of landmark events as rites of initiation, moving from one state of being or stage of life to another. Going from college student to college graduate, going from single to married, going from living at home to living on our own, going from baseball to bass fishing—ok, so that’s not an actual thing, but it felt like some of initiation at the time—complete with the hazing.

Initiation rituals. They mark a passage. Bar and Bat Mitzvahs are a well known form of initiation rite. In Judaism, these rites signify the passing from childhood to adulthood, from being a kid to being a son or daughter of the covenant.

Ordination is another one—the changing of status from being a member of the laity to being a member of the clergy—which actually sounds a lot more vaunted and important before the first time somebody gets after you for not singing their favorite hymn, or commenting enthusiastically enough about their congealed salad at the church potluck.

The observance of these rites of passage is usually very festive, celebrating the transition that comes after reaching a sufficient level of maturity or proficiency to be qualified to move on to something else, usually something more challenging—like moving from the minor leagues to the big leagues (which coincidentally, is where I saw Greg Maddux pitch).

These rituals rightly celebrate accomplishment, and so bring with them lots of joy and satisfaction. But the celebrations are often ways to mask the difficulties that come next. On the front side of an initiation rite, people have visions of what life will be like on the other side of the celebration. Unfortunately, these visions of what life will be like rarely bear even a passing resemblance to reality. People tend to romanticize what life will be like when we finally . . . ____ (fill in the blank).

When you’re a kid and everyone’s telling you what to do, how to dress, when to work and when to play, and for the love of all that’s holy, will you please take a bath and maybe do something with that hair—all you can think about is being a grownup—when nobody can tell you who you can play with and what time you have to go to bed. Seen through the gauzy mists of childhood, being an adult looks like a great deal. But the thing you can’t see through the haze of romantic anticipation is how much groceries cost. Nobody ever much thinks about the fact that when your car breaks down, you’re the adult who’s going to have to take care of it. Nobody ever mentions what it means to be the last line of defense between the cholera outbreak that might come if you don’t clean the bathroom. Your mom wasn’t just being mean, looking for some new way to punish you when she told you to break out the Lysol and the Scrubbing Bubbles.

Same with becoming a parent. The lead up can be really amazing (unless you’re a woman for whom pregnancy is more like bootcamp on Paris Island than a celebration of new life). People give you gifts, and tell you about how it’ll change your life . . . just wait, you’ll see. And so you dream about cuddling and cooing and Good Night Moon, but you don’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the majesty of projectile vomiting. You ignore all the negativity around baby’s sleep schedule, because, you reason, your baby will be the exception, the one in a million who sleeps 10 hours straight and only cries at sad movies and puppy videos. Before the blessed event, you thought your time spent on the floor would be play time with rattly toys that light up; instead your time on the floor is spent looking for pacifiers covered in dog hair and stray, half-eaten Cheerios.

Baptism is another initiation ritual, a transition from one state to another. Going from unwashed to clean, from death to life. Baptisms are also a big deal. There are often parties. Family and friends come in for the big event. Everybody’s happy.

Even Jesus had a pretty big to-do at his baptism. Jesus is baptized, the heavens are torn apart and the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove—sort of a celestial piñata. It’s a party. Family shows up for the occasion: “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

It’s good. We’re all going back to the house for a barbecue, with potato salad, corn on the cob, and that fruit salad that grandma makes and puts into half of a watermelon rind, like a big fruit boat. There’ll be PBR, and everybody will clap Jesus on the back and tell him what a great human being he’s going to be. There’ll be presents and laughing and old stories, and somebody’s going to be on duty to keep uncle Eddie away from the beer cooler, because last summer on the 4th of July, uncle Eddie got the mistaken impression that beer and fireworks are a non-trivial pairing.

That’s how it’s supposed to work, isn’t it? But according to Mark, Jesus didn’t even get the first cocktail wienie before the Holy Spirit drove him out into the wilderness to meet Satan and face the wild beasts.

A couple of things occur to me. First, this is the same Holy who descends on Jesus like a dove, but who almost immediately afterward, sends him out into the wilderness.

Actually, and this is second, the Holy Spirit didn’t just send Jesus out into the wilderness, like mom asking you to go get a carrot cake down at the Kroger because aunt Ruth showed up unannounced and all you have in the house is partially eaten box of Hostess Ding Dongs. No, this is no casual errand Jesus is being sent on. The text says that the Holy Spirit drove Jesus out into the wilderness. Drove out, in this case, is the same word Mark uses just a few verses later to tell us that Jesus cast out out demons.

Nobody asks Jesus politely, if he’d mind, you know, I mean, if it’s not too much trouble, would he be willing to venture out into the wilderness . . . it’s really not that big of a deal.

Baptism is an initiation ritual, which is supposed to celebrate moving on to bigger and better things. Only, as it is with most of us, nobody stopped to spell out for Jesus that those “bigger and better things” included a smackdown with Ol’ Scratch in the desert, surrounded by wild animals. Because when you put it like that, what follows baptism doesn’t sound especially romantic.

Don’t you find it interesting, though, that the first thing Jesus has to face after his baptism isn’t a simple moral dilemma, like should you tip an underpaid waitress—even though she gave you really lousy service? No, Jesus is immediately thrust into the big leagues. High stakes.

Now, Mark doesn’t give us all the details Matthew and Luke do about the temptations Jesus faces in the wilderness—the turning stone to bread, jumping off the pinnacle of the temple, and bowing down to Satan. Mark’s account is much more spare, atmospheric—not what happens, only the mood of the scene in which the action takes place: grim, scary, demons, and wild beasts—like a bad, straight-to-video movie, shot on someone’s iPhone 4s—but not so bad that it doesn’t give you a fright.

But that seems like the point, doesn’t it? Mark wants us to understand that what follows the celebration of our baptism is a confrontation of evil in the wilderness, facing the wild beasts that stand between Jesus and the world God desires. It’d be nice to bask in the glory of his baptism, eat a little Cole slaw, and while away the afternoon in the hammock. But Jesus’ story shows those of us who would follow him that what we have in store isn’t necessarily rainbows and unicorns, nor is it even always our choice. Taking up with Jesus means that we may be driven out into the wilderness to face Satan, surrounded by wild beasts, because that’s where God wants us, where the frightening dominance of the powers and principalities resides.

The question this passage raises for us is: Where is the wilderness we are being driven into? What are the wild beasts we’re forced to confront? And how will we respond?

In war-torn France in the early 1940s, there was a little village in the unoccupied zone that began to hide Jews from their German pursuers. The village of Le Chambon, led by pastor André Trocmé, set up a local network where people regularly hid Jews from capture and deportation to German death camps. Driven by the Old Testament image of cities of refuge, where people being wrongly pursued by accusers had to be protected, the Chambonnais harbored fugitives throughout the war—thousands of Jews.

Whenever Jews showed up in Le Chambon, nobody asked what their nationality was, what their politics were, whether they shared the religious commitments of the majority. Even in a time of great hardship, nobody ever considered asking them if they could pay. The people of Le Chambon just took them in, and hid them from the power of the German Reich.

Many years later, when asked how a whole village could resist for so long and without anyone ever betraying the community from within, all the while doing brave and heroic things, the villagers said they didn’t have any choice. They shrugged and said things like, “It was simply what one had to do,” or “She was standing at my door; how could I fail to help?”

Philosopher, Lawrence Blum, in reflecting on Le Chambon, said, “Part of the state of mind enabling the villagers to carry on these rescue activities day after day must have been precisely that they did come to regard these activities as something like normal, unremarkable acts—acts that could simply ‘be expected.’”

The truth of the matter is, what follows our decision to follow Jesus is often much less glorious than we might have thought beforehand. In fact, the very first thing that may be required of us is to stand toe-to-toe against the forces of injustice and evil in the world, out in the wilderness, facing the beasts—no celebration, just normal, unremarkable acts that, if we’re faithful, have a chance to change the world.

Indeed, immediately after his time in the wilderness, when Jesus says that the kingdom of God has come near, perhaps what he’s talking about isn’t a nearness that avoids the beasts in the wilderness, but a nearness that comes from being compelled to confront those wild beasts in the wilderness, precisely because it’s hostile territory—where the powers and principalities are strongest and the victims of those powers need us most.

When the refugees being wrongly pursued, driven out of their homes by the power of the state—when they show up at our door, what will they find there?

I pray to God that when they knock on our door they find the offspring of Le Chambon, that crazy group of people who are convinced that being driven out in the wilderness to face the wild beasts is “just what we do.”

The good news is . . . that’s where Jesus already is. Just waiting for us.