Sunday, January 08, 2012

January 8, 2012 – Lessons from the Cancer Wilderness

Reading the Gospel of Mark in preparation for today’s Baptism of the Lord sermon, I come across a rather jarring transition.  It’s not actually in Mark 1:4-11 - today’s recommended passage from the Revised Common Lectionary - but it ought to be.  The Lectionary editors took the coward’s way out and chopped the last two verses off Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism.

They end their scripture reading with the heavenly voice saying of Jesus, “You are my Son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased.” 

Now, isn’t that special?  A heavenly benediction.

But that’s not where Mark ends his story.  Two more verses come along, before he wraps it up:

“And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.” [Mark 1:12-13]

Wow.  So much for the warm, fuzzy feelings.  So much for God’s benevolent benediction. Let the story spin out to its natural conclusion, and suddenly God doesn’t look like such a kind, benevolent deity.  No sooner does God bless Jesus, the son, then God gives him a good kick in the pants (or the robe, as the case may be).

I am not making this up.  It’s right there in the original Greek.  Well, maybe it doesn’t say “kick,” but Mark says the Spirit “drove him out into the wilderness.”  The Greek word means “to throw out, to drive out, to expel.”  It’s the same verb Mark uses in chapter 11, verse 15, as he tells how Jesus “entered the temple and began to drive out those who were selling.”

Seems God is a Tough-Love sort of parent.

So, what is this wilderness, into which God is so determined to push Jesus?  It is, in the Jewish imagination, the place where the deepest of spiritual encounters happen.  Moses’ epiphany by the bush that’s burning, yet is not consumed...  The giving of the 10 Commandments on Mount Horeb (or Mount Sinai, depending on which story you read)... Elijah hiding himself in a cleft of the rock, surviving earthquake, wind and fire to hear that “still, small voice” – or that “sound of sheer silence” – that tells him everything’s going to be all right...  John the Baptist’s favored abode, where he clothes himself in animal skins and scarfs down locusts and wild honey for breakfast.  All these take place in the wilderness.

At its very root, Jewish spirituality – and, therefore, Christian spirituality as well – is a desert spirituality.  The Hebrew refugees who walk away from the fleshpots of Egypt, straight through the Red Sea waters, aren’t exactly going on vacation.  God opens the way for them through the waters not so they can move to a gated community and take it easy, after all those years of hard labor building pyramids.  No, God casts them into a daily struggle for survival, where they’ve got to learn the skills they need to live, or die trying.

With all that background, it’s hardly a surprise that, when God gives Jesus a blessing and sends him on his way, God sends him first into the wilderness.   It’s Jesus’ experience of testing, of trial.  It’s Messiah boot camp.  The angels are there to serve him, but I expect their role is more like Marine Corps drill instructors than pillow-plumping flight attendants.

Cancer’s a wilderness experience.  Its diagnosis can bring on disorientation, grief, depression, anger, anxiety, and a whole host of other grim responses.

The poet T.S. Eliot is aware that there are all sorts of deserts in life, not all of them having to do with sandy wastes and scorching sun. In his poem, “Choruses from the Rock,” Eliot has this to say:

You neglect and belittle the desert.
The desert is not remote in southern tropics
The desert is not only around the corner,
The desert is squeezed in the tube-train next to you,
The desert is in the heart of your brother.
[T.S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 (1952: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), p. 98.]

Sometimes the desert is in the cancer survivor’s heart as well.

I find it significant that Jesus’ experience of being “driven out” into the wilderness takes place immediately after his baptism.  What appears to us a jarring transition actually makes perfect sense.

Think of what baptism really means.  We baptized a baby in church this morning.  Cutest little girl you ever did see.  The congregation loved the way she looked adoringly and trustingly up at my face as I washed her forehead with water carefully warmed so as to spare her any unnecessary discomfort.  But that’s not the essence of baptism. It’s not the heirloom gown passed down in the family for generations, the party afterwards with the sherbet punch and finger-sandwiches and potato salad.  No, baptism is made of sterner stuff.

As practiced by the first generation of Christians – before there was a second generation to grow up in the faith – baptism often took place standing waist-deep in a swift-flowing river, and the person performing the baptism pushed you down under the water and held you there, just long enough that you felt short of breath and feared you might drown.  Then, just as all seemed lost, you were lifted up into fresh, breathable air, gasping and sputtering, thoroughly relieved you were not going to die at all, that day.

When parents bring infants for baptism, they do it because they wish the very best for their children.  The very last thing on their minds is a life filled with pain and suffering.  As parents, their natural inclination is to shield and protect their children from anything so harsh and threatening as that.

But, do you know what?  Life is filled with pain and suffering.  Like cancer.  As it says in the book of Job, “human beings are born to trouble just as sparks fly upward” [5:7].  Baptism offers no guarantee whatsoever that the life ahead of this little child, or any other, is going to be more comfortable, or more protected, than the life of an unbaptized baby.

What we in the church offer children, in baptism – and in the years of Christian Education that follow – is not so much a soft, cuddly blanket as a wilderness survival kit.  For surely, this human life of ours can seem at times very much like a wilderness sojourn.  To get through it intact, we need to be trained in the ways of the woods, and know where to look to find food and shelter.

Henry David Thoreau, who retreated to his famous cabin beside Walden Pond because he “wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life,” speaks of something he calls “the tonic of wildness.”  A tonic, of course – in nineteenth-century parlance – is a medicine, or more like what we’d call today a nutritional supplement:

“We need the tonic of wildness, to wade sometimes in marshes where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe; to smell the whispering sedge where only the wilder and more solitary fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground.  We can never have enough of nature.  We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder cloud, and the rain which lasts weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.” [Walden (Houghton Mifflin, 1854), p. 257.]

The poet Wendell Berry expresses a similar vision of wild places in these lovely lines, in a poem called “The Peace of Wild Things”:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
[The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry (, 2010), p. 36.]

I like to think that, when the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness, it was – at least in part – so he could have experiences such as these.  Yes, Jesus’ sojourn in the wilderness is traditionally depicted as a time of temptation, a struggle with Satan.  Yet, I also think it had to include its moments of peace and stillness, of contemplation and wonder, of living close to the earth and close to God.

I find it comforting, as I reflect on my cancer experience, to recall the therapeutic value of my baptism.  As with Jesus’ own trip to the river, it was followed eventually by an experience of being driven into the wilderness.  The wilderness is a fearsome place, to be sure.  But it can also be a fearsomely beautiful place.

And therein lies today’s lesson.