Sink or swim? Sound familiar? Some learned to swim by a parent throwing them into the pool. Perhaps that is not a good idea, but it appears analogous to what God did with Jesus…or maybe not.
Rising from the waters of baptism, Jesus is anointed with the Holy Spirit. The Father affirms him, loves him, and expresses his pure delight in him. And, then….
“immediately the Spirit throws him out into the desert” (Mark 1:12, my translation).
No waiting. No down-time. No pampering. Jesus went “immediately” into wilderness bootcamp.
Indeed, the Spirit of God drove him there. “Sent” is too watered-down for the Greek verb here (éκβáλλει). It is mostly used in Mark for casting out demons (Mark 1:34, 39; 3:15, 23, and many other places), but also for tearing/plucking out an eye if it cause offense (Mark 9:47) and expelling someone from a place (Mark 12:8), including the money-changers from the temple (Mark 11:15). It has forceful overtones. Jesus is thrown or driven into the wilderness.
What was the purpose of this experience, of this “thrownness”? Given Mark’s theological purpose to locate Jesus in the history of Israel–Jesus is the suffering servant (a new Moses) who will lead Israel out of exile into abundance–we might find help in the story of Israel’s wilderness sojourn. Mark has already interpreted John’s ministry as one that belongs to the New Exodus (earlier quoting Isaiah 40). Jesus has passed through the water, just as Israel passed through the sea, and just as they spent 40 years in the Sinai wilderness, so Jesus spends 40 days in the Judean wilderness.
We can see the meaning of the wilderness experience for those who entered the promised land with the help of Deuteronomy 8–a text that Jesus quotes in the wilderness, according to Matthew and Luke. The text describes Israel’s experience as a testing, humbling and discipling one. Israel was tested to reveal what is in their hearts. They were humbled in their dependence upon God. They were discipled in the wilderness.
This, I think, is the meaning of the wilderness for Jesus….and for us. Jesus is tested in an hostile environment–Satan is present as well as wild animals. Only Mark mentions the wild animals which probably reflects not only the hostility of the environment but also connects with Mark’s Roman readers who themselves would endure wild beasts in their own testing (persecution). Jesus is tested, humbled and discipled in the wilderness.
And so are we. Mark’s Roman readers probably saw themselves in this same situation–persecution was their wilderness. That wilderness continues for many Christians across the globe today, but there are also many different kinds of wilderness experiences. Those experiences test us as they reveal our hearts, they humble us as we recognize our powerlessness and dependency on God, and they disciple us as they train us for the mission of God.
And, yet, we are not abandoned in the wilderness. We are not left alone. Angels ministered to Jesus, and they minister to us as well (cf. Hebrews 1:14). God is present with us in the wilderness and that presence strengthens us and empowers us to endure the wilderness.
Wild beasts (theria) is the language of Gen 1-3. It is these “wild animals” Israel is to leave some crops for them to eat along with the poor (Ex. 23:11), and it is part of the promise of Eden in a new land (Lev. 26:6) as well as the multiplication of them in the land as part of the chaos resulting from sin (Lev. 26:22; Ex. 23:29). It is part of creation in which God rejoices (Ps. 50:10; 104:11, 20; 148:10). The beast did not harm Paul (Acts 28:4). The non-threatening nature of the wild beasts may reflect Jesus’s own Edenic picture.
The wilderness story of Israel is also Jesus’s story, and Jesus’ story is our story. Just as we followed Jesus into the water, so we follow him into the wilderness….or perhaps, God will throw us out into the wilderness if we don’t follow him there. And God will be there, too.
If God “throws” us into the water, he does not idly watch us struggle. On the contrary God joins us in the pool and helps us swim to safety.