On Following Jesus
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.
The novelist and journalist Esther Selsdon wrote; “If you want your children to turn out well, spend twice as much time with them as you think you should and about half the amount of money.” This is not the sort of advice most teenagers want their parents hearing. I have a little challenge for teenagers. Try this. Go to your parents and say, “I’d like you to stop spending so much money on me and let’s spend more time together.” If I had done that my father would have asked me to repeat what I just said because he would have wanted to be certain he had heard me correctly. (It might be a way to get some holiday time because your parents will think you a little stressed, not thinking clearly.)
Deep down in our hearts parents and grandparents want their children and grandchildren to make good choices for their lives. Our prayer is that they will not make some of the foolish choices that we made and will surpass us in choosing only the things that make for blessing and happiness in life. The gospel shows us that the choice that surpasses them all; the one that rises in significance beyond everything else; the best choice that could ever possibly be made is to say yes to be a follower of Jesus Christ. This is the “yes” of confirmation in Christian faith. To say “yes” to Jesus is to embrace God’s great “yes” in relationship to us.
I invite you to reflect with me on saying yes to Jesus; on being a follower of Jesus. Mark’s gospel moves rapidly and in the seven verses we read he covers a lot of ground; baptism of Jesus at the Jordon, the forty days of temptation in the wilderness, and the launch of his preaching ministry in Galilee.
1. We begin at the Jordon. Why? Because Jesus himself comes to the Jordon. Mark’s gospel was written with the Christians in Rome in mind who are suffering under Nero’s deprivations. Christians who had recently witnessed the crucifixions of Paul and Peter; people now hiding in catacombs to stay out of Nero’s reach. Mark wants to remind them who it is they follow; that owning him is not to be disdained even if suffering is the current actuality. He reminds them that it was at the Jordon that Jesus was identified by the voice from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
When Jesus shows up at the Jordan Mark wants his hearers to know that it is the Son of God who shows up. He introduces his gospel this way: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” (Mark 1:1) In identifying the heavenly voice calling Jesus “my Son” Mark wants us to know that this is God come among us.
Mark tells us that John proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. John was relentless at exposing false securities. A lot of people in John’s day took refuge in privilege. “We belong to Israel. We don’t belong to the pagan nations who wouldn’t know God from a gopher. We belong to a religious tradition over a thousand years old. And not only is our tradition old, it embodies the truth of God”. “Substituting a tradition for intimate acquaintance with God himself”, countered John, “is like reading a handbook on marriage and assuming you are therefore married.” Yes, the circumstance of growing up in a Christian home and exposure to the story of Jesus in going to church is a great privilege.
We must own for ourselves the forgiveness that God has fashioned for us, or remain unpardoned. We must exercise the faith that God has given us and by which we are bound to him, or remain forever estranged from him.
We must begin at the Jordon. If we are not willing to meet the Savior with repentance in hand, then we may not find any motivation to meet and greet the Savior at all. Mark knows that Jesus came for but one reason: to liberate the cosmos from its bondage to sin and decay. If we have no interest in seeing our own complicity in all that, then we’ll have no more use for Jesus showing up in our life than we would for a plumber who showed up at our front door on a day when—to the best of our knowledge—we did not have a plumbing problem in the world.
But why does Jesus come to the Jordon? He has no need for repentance. He has no need to change anything. In Matthew’s gospel John the Baptist wondered too about this very point. “I should be baptized by you”, he said to Jesus. Jesus takes on this baptism as part of this work of his to identify completely with sinners. The one who knew no sin became sin for us. Here we see Jesus freely coming to the Jordon—not of personal necessity—in order to set us free from the sin that binds us.
We need to think about freedom for a moment. The popular notion of freedom is simply the complete absence of restraint. The complete absence of restraint means the opportunity of doing anything at all, behaving in any way whatsoever, being whatever we wish. To call such an idea freedom is to confuse freedom with licence. This is not the freedom that Jesus speaks about when he said, “If I make you free, you will be free indeed.” (John 8:36)
The freedom that the Christian knows and enjoys is a reflection of God’s freedom. God is free not in the sense that he can do anything at all (such a God could never be trusted;) God is free, rather, in that nothing prevents God from acting in accord with his true nature. Nothing within God; nothing outside God; nothing inner or outer impedes God from acting in accord with his true nature.
The difference between a proper understanding of freedom and the popular confusion of freedom with licence is illustrated by everyday objects, like swimming pool filters. A swimming pool filter is designed to filter water and thereby promote safe, enjoyable swimming. Purifying water is the nature of the filter. Now imagine that the filter has become clogged, for any reason at all. We say that the filter doesn’t work. Do we mean it doesn’t hum quietly? We mean it doesn’t do what a filter is meant to do. Someone unclogs the filter. We say that the filter has been freed. If a bystander says, “Freed, did you say? Is it truly freed? Is it free to make peanut butter?” The proper response is that a filter which is perfectly free will never make peanut butter just because it isn’t a filter’s nature to make peanut butter. It’s a filter’s nature to filter water. Freedom doesn’t mean doing anything at all; freedom means acting in accord with one’s true nature. God isn’t free because there’s nothing he can’t do; God is free because he can do what it’s his nature to do
When a swimming pool filter is freed it is freed from something and freed for something. It is freed from whatever clogs it, impairs it, impedes its proper functioning. It is now free for filtering water, the purpose for which it has been made. The freedom that Christ bestows is both a freedom from and a freedom for.
According to the gospel there is, so to speak, debris, clutter, even unsightly “grunge” that has to be removed if we are to function according to our true nature. This is the freedom from sin that our Lord promises through faith in him. To follow Jesus is to truly become yourself. It is to walk a path of being freed from that which prevents us from acting in accord with our true nature and being freed for living, acting, being in accord with our true nature as daughters and sons of God. We are made by God for God. Then only as we live in God are we most authentically ourselves.
Popular psychology urges us to be “freed up,” to cast off restraint, to get rid of our baggage, to gain perspective on our “issues,” and so on. Popular psychology, however, doesn’t understand that our most burdensome baggage isn’t our defective childhood training; it’s our sinnership. It doesn’t understand that our most haunting issue isn’t unresolved teenage conflict with our parents; it’s our unbelief. Popular psychology urges us to rid ourselves of numerous restraints, but it doesn’t understand that freedom isn’t the absence of restraint; freedom, rather, is being bound to Jesus Christ and finding in him what we are meant to be and do ourselves.
Christians know that when our Lord frees us for himself he simultaneously frees to be our true “self.” It is a glorious thing to say yes to Jesus.
2. Right on the heels of Jesus hearing the voice from heaven Mark tells us that “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.” Following Jesus begins at the Jordan and will include some time in the wilderness. The day of Jesus baptism, the day of confirming that we will follow Jesus, the day of our own deciding are, spiritually speaking, high points. It is here that the gospel message becomes personal. We are named as owning Jesus Christ in faith. It is often the case that following such moments of spiritual excitement we can feel a letdown.
Mark tells us that Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and was with the wild beasts. The wilderness is a place of temptation and danger. If we are correct that Mark’s gospel has persecuted Christians in view then these are followers who are in the wilderness. I don’t point this out to you to frighten you away from any decision to follow Jesus. The Spirit of God and the angels were with Jesus there and so they are with us in any wilderness we encounter. God does not abandon us in the wilderness.
In fact the text tells is that the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness. Mark does not tell us the specifics of the temptation only that Jesus emerged ready for ministry. What we know from the other gospel writers is that these temptations we aimed a derailing Jesus from his mission; aimed as corrupting his obedience to the one he called the Father. These wilderness temptations are those kinds of things that will deflate and discourage aimed at undoing our decision to follow Jesus. And they will come. There is an enemy that seeks our destruction and that is the aim of the enemy’s temptation’s; on the other side these same temptations are the very testing ground the Spirit of God uses to strengthen our faith.
The wilderness is a dangerous place. All of us wish life were easier. Troubles afflict us at every turn. They are as abrasive as sandpaper and as relentless as a dripping tap. How much easier it would be to “believe in God”; how much easier it would be to “take time to be holy” or “sense God’s presence” if only we weren’t ceaselessly distracted by our troubles! In the wilderness Mark tells us that the angels waited on Jesus—he emerged refreshed. Paradoxically, the place of spiritual assault is also the place of spiritual invigoration. We are sustained most profoundly precisely where we are most threatened! The resources of God abound precisely where we assume they are wanting!
3. Following Jesus begins at the Jordon, includes wilderness and gives us a mission. Following the wilderness experience Mark tells us that “Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God.” This is the mission that every believer joins in with Jesus. We have good news of freedom to declare; good news of God who never abandons his own in the wilderness. This is the purpose of our weekly worship; to make give thanks for such news, be sustained by it, and make it known to others.
David Brooks writes for the New York Times. In January his article titled The Problem With Meaning was published. In it he was commenting on how, culturally speaking, the word “meaning” has become the stand-in concept for everything the soul yearns for and seeks. He goes on to ask “what do we mean when we use the word meaning?” He concludes, “it has to be said, as commonly used today, the word is flabby and vacuous, the product of a culture that has grown inarticulate about inner life.”
The gospel—the good news of Jesus—addresses that difficulty people find so hard to describe. Jesus is the very one who gives life its meaning. John tells us that through him everything was made. He is the source of our life and the reason for our existence. The purpose of your existence isn’t a mystery; it is to live in relationship with God. In that relationship our true self emerges. The good news of Jesus is that he frees people for mission of making his love known—mission that is good news for people.