According to Tom Long there was an occasion a few years ago when a biblical scholar was explaining Mark 1 to a group of teenagers. This scholar told the teens that when Jesus was baptized, the skies did not just open up, as some older translations said, but in the original Greek of Mark 1:10 we are told the skies ripped open, split in an almost violent way. This was very dramatic and forceful. “Get the point?” the scholar asked the group. ” When Jesus was baptized, the heavens that separate us from God were ripped open so that now we can get to God. Because of Jesus we have access to God–we can get close to him.”
But there was one young man sitting in the front row, arms crossed, making a fairly obvious display of his disinterest. Yet suddenly he perked up and said, “That ain’t what it means.” “What?” the Bible scholar said, startled. “I said that ain’t what that means,” the teenager repeated. “It means that the heavens were ripped open so that now God can get at US anytime he wants. Now nobody’s safe!”1
Now nobody’s safe. What an interesting way to look at our relationship with God. It’s not a new idea, of course; after all, we do not presume to go unto the Lord trusting in our own righteousness. C.S. Lewis knew the risks of coming face to face with the living God; he wrote about the two young ladies Susan and Lucy meeting Aslan, the leonine Christ figure in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and they ask if Aslan is safe; “Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion,” said Susan. “That you will, dearie, and no mistake” said Mrs Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”
We don’t often set goodness and safety at odds, do we? But the story that St. Mark recounts to us today does just that, and he does it with a certain amount of force, almost enthusiasm. Jesus is baptized and immediately upon coming up out of the water, the heavens are ripped open, the Holy Spirit descends upon Him, the very voice of God declares “You are my beloved Son.” So much goodness, so much love; Jesus essentially gets a big hug from His proud Father on the occasion of His baptism.
But what happened next? Mark doesn’t waste any time telling us: “The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.” God the Father declared His love for His Son and then turned around and threw Him out into the wilderness, “out into the realm of sin and death. Why?
Thirteen babies and kids were baptized in my first six months here, and though none of them were driven into the wilderness immediately after, their families did have to answer to Fr. Salmon, who did the baptizing for me while I was just a deacon. One of the questions that is asked of the baptismal candidates or their sponsors is “Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?” Well, Fr. Salmon wouldn’t wait for the answer before he expounded on the question, he would say “Do you know what this means? This means that you’ll come to church!” Fr. Salmon was rather forceful about the whole thing, he didn’t have time for the niceties when it comes to something as powerful, as life-changing, as sky-rending as baptism. The whole of the baptismal rite is like that; at that font there’s a lifetime’s worth of renouncing, of repenting, of trusting, none of which is easy or safe. We pray that the newly baptized will be delivered from eternal death, that their hearts will be opened to truth, that the same Spirit that picked Jesus up and threw Him into the wilderness will descend upon them as well.
The Christian life is not safe; Christians do not live in a Norman Rockwell painting. On the contrary, we are called to engage the Holy even as He engages us, to go wherever the Holy Spirit drives us, even if we would just assume stay put. We are called to love when love would otherwise be unwarranted, to spread the hope of Christ where no other hope is found, to lay ourselves down as living sacrifices to the God who did the same for us. There’s nothing safe about any of this, but it is all manner of good.
2Scott Hoezee, This Week