Home in the wilderness at last

Week of Sunday February 22 – Lent 1
Gospel Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. 13He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’ 

More on this part of Mark:
Mark 1:9-15 - Seek
Mark 1:15 – The Arrest of John
Mark 1:9-15 - Tearing Heaven Open
Mark 1:9-15 - Heaven Open for Us

 This post relates somewhat to the previous post Jonah goes to hospital

"The wilderness was viewed as outside the control of structured society." (Malina and Rohrbaugh Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, Mark 1:4-6) To go into the wilderness is to go beyond the norms.

The Hospital is wilderness.  Tim Winton writes

By the time I was five I knew. Hospital was trouble…  Whether their problems were large, inconsequential or totally imaginary, the people who visited the building operated in an unrelievedly histrionic register and this operatic mode wasn’t always dictated by crisis, although there was never any shortage of that. It seemed as if the aura of the institutional precinct brought out something different in people, something that altered them from their workaday selves, as if hospital didn’t simply license them to behave differently but required it.

Hospital is us and our life amplified. It brings all the stress and pain of life into sharp focus.

In the hospital life is torn open. In the wilderness life is torn open along with the heavens. The love and power of God shines through. The kingdom of God comes near, but Jesus, already in the wilderness, is forced further into wilderness!

Preparing for liberation entails facing the raw elements. Part of that is struggle and Mark suggests this is Jesus’ first victory. Part of it is return to simplicity and trust. As John lived off nature (the providence of God), so Jesus would be ministered to by the angels.

In the hospital we are meeting in the whole of life. Kingdom wilderness is also to enter the whole. What first seems an abandonment of life, even a being torn away, proves to be a gateway into life.

So our little church meets in the hospital. We enter the place of anaesthesia where many of us were woken up as our life was torn apart. Yet we are the same church with whom I meet in the suburbs on the other two Sundays of the month. We face the same issues, the same struggles, and receive the same joys.

In the comfort of the suburban church it is tempting to forget the rawness of life. There are no trolleys rattling on the tiles past the Place of Prayer. In the hospital hallways you meet gurneys preceded by the whine of the electric bed dollies and mechanical breathing; in our hallway we step around the overflow from the Op Shop.

But it is the same life. Life is being torn open from the river to the heavens. If we will wake up from our anaesthesia we will see the kingdom coming near. Constantly we are called to wilderness, to trust that outside the norms of our society we will find this kingdom which is real life, the place where angels minister to us, the place where we become who we are meant to be, awake.

In the hospital we are stripped of all our dignity. We wander powerless through the wards with gowns gaping at the rear, uncaring. We are made open and vulnerable. (This is why camping with electric fridges and satellite TV is sacrilege. It is a refusal of wilderness, a taking of our favourite anaesthetic into the places of awakening.)

"You are my beloved, with whom I am well pleased," says the voice from heaven in the wilderness, where we are taken from family and from identity, where we become a bed number, our status determined only by triage. Where we are adrift.

 In Mark 1:9-11 there is

a meeting point of heaven and earth, a deliberate ripping aside of the barrier on the part of God. Jesus is the point of intersection. To turn the cosmology upside down, in him the depth surfaces. John predicted that the coming one would baptise with the Spirit. Now the coming one has arrived and the camera shows the Spirit descending on him. The baptising in the Spirit can begin. One of us, who needs to wash as we do, literally and metaphorically, is where it will all happen. That is promising for us. There is no bypassing of humanity.

In Jesus' time family and kin was everything. To travel alone was to abandon kin and identity. (Malina and Rohrbaugh on Mark 1:4-6) Up in the desert the first question on meeting travellers was, "Who is your family?" Once where we belonged and therefore, who we were, had been established, conversation could begin. (Down here we live

Where everyone I meet don't want to know my name
They want to know what I do for a living. The Waifs:  Mexican Restaurant  

Which is the real wilderness?)

But alone in the wilderness, reduced to a bed number, stripped of all our belonging, God says, "You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased."

•••

The wilderness is never tamed. "I have a lifelong preoccupation with … hospital, an aversion I refuse to call a phobia," says Winton. If he should ever feel comfortable there it will be because he has gone to sleep. I know his 'refused phobia'. Like him, "I still have to steel myself for a hospital visit…  Negotiating it requires vigilance… [as] shocked and grieving families unravel in public."

I require the same vigilance for negotiating the private unravellings of life which are narrated at the back of the church when someone lingers after all the handshaking is done, or told, partially shielded behind the faux privacy of a curtain of Op Shop racks.

And I must remind myself: this is not my fragile life being torn open by someone's pain and grief, this is heaven being torn open for the both of us, and the blessing of God shining through. This is kingdom coming near.

I am finding a surprising comfort and homeliness in the compressed and amplified life of the hospital. Despite its stress, I shall be sad to leave. There is something Lenten about it, something of that disciplined reflection of The Faith which leads up to Easter.

We see people step into the wilderness, tearing themselves apart from family and familiarity. Or is it being torn apart by circumstance, by all that is not kingdom, all that is less than what could be? Lent ends with the most terrible rending as death itself breaks in and takes life away. And then we see that all our imagining is wrong. For with death, the curtain in the temple is "torn in two, from top to bottom." (Mark 15:38) All this rending of life is, it turns out, from God. It is God who calls us to wilderness, not the shortcomings of the creation. Life is not torn apart; God tears the heavens open so that we may rise to life.

The hospital times of life are gift. Rabbi Ishamel said to God, “May it be Your will that your compassion prevail over Your other attributes!” And God nodded with his head. (Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Berakoth Folio 7a.)

We are not torn. We are offered the kingdom, an opening up to the compassion of God. R. Avivah Zornberg who lead me to this saying, also quotes Robert Penn Warren (Or Else)

This
Is the process whereby pain of the past in its pastness
May be converted into the future tense

Of joy...

These words are followed by Interjection #3: I Know a Place Where All is Real

I know a place where all is real. I
have been there, therefore
know. Access is not easy, the way
rough, and visibility extremely poor, especially
among the mountains. Maps
show only the blank space, somewhere
northwest of Mania and beyond Delight…

The rabbis note that God does not tell Abram where he is going. (Gen 12:1) He is simply called out. Called out, they say, to an unknown destination where he may discover himself. “Travel in order to transform yourself, create yourself anew.” At its simplest, lekh lekha translates: “Travel—to yourself.”  (Zornberg, quoting The Zohar Chapter 5)

Will we accept the opening up of our lives, and our calling out, or will we return to the domestication of the suburbs? In Lent we are asked to enter the blank spaces on the maps, where "those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it." (Mark 8:35)

"So will we in our suburban church be a place of hospital wilderness?" I wondered. It is the wrong question. How will we be hospital wilderness? How will we be a Place of Prayer in the wards of the wilderness? What really matters?

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

Bruce Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Fortress 1992) Kindle edition.
Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious (Schocken Books: New York) Kindle edition.
Amy-Jill Levine and Mark Z. Brettler The Jewish Annotated New Testament (OUP) Kindle edition
Bill Loader First Thoughts on Mark 1:9-15 (http://wwwstaff.murdoch.edu.au/~loader/MkLent1.htm)

Mike Lawson 19-02-2015
Richard Rohrbach was one of my professors in seminary. I think you used his (and Malina's) social science context expertly in this piece. It is certainly dynamic and well done in tearing open the language to make its meaning more accessible to your readers. I don't always agree with social science perspectives of the gospels, particularly when drawing conclusions that are polar opposite from traditional viewpoints,but this was on target in my estimation; you tore it up, man. Thanks
Andrew 19-02-2015
Thanks Mike

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