Published: January 2006
The last time we looked he was a baby. Shepherds coming and going. Then magi to see the toddler. And now he stands in the crowd, watching and listening, waiting and weighing, almost ready.
He pushes forward through the crowd. Does he say, "Excuse me, please"? Or is this crowd beyond the reach of courtesy? Does the Galilean put his shoulder down and part the forest of backs until he finds himself at the river's edge? Could he tell you in so many words what he's doing there, or is it all beyond words as well as courtesy?
For the writer of Mark's gospel, this is where the story begins. A new character tumbles out of the hand of God and into the hands of history. With Mark we meet him first not as a baby, being decided about, but as an adult, deciding.
What he does in this short scene will become the foundation of everything from this point on. And we know we are meeting a grownup because he is choosing, deciding. Not choosing a flavour, a colour, a brand, a style. Not choosing friends, a neighbourhood, or a school. He is choosing a way.
The first thing to notice is not what he decides, but that he decides. And if that's what makes him an adult, it's what makes so many others, despite an impressive accumulation of years, decidedly not adults. Not choosing a way, but assuming it, "just the way things are". We adapt to that way, make the most of that way, able perhaps to thrive in it, or at least (we hope) to protect ourselves and those closest to us from all the ways the way things are is toxic, dangerous, deathly. The better our capacity to adapt to business as usual and the closer our fit with current arrangements, the more likely we will just "walk this way" without much choosing, perhaps with no sense that there is a choice to be made in the first place. How hard it is, this young man will say later in the year, for the wealthy (the adaptive, those well-equipped for current arrangements) to enter the Kingdom of God. How hard it is for them even to know that there's a decision to be made.
It may not be so much that we are at ease with the way things are; it may be that we have forgotten (or never knew) that they could be different. So the first witness of the young rabbi as he waits on the riverbank is to remind us that we can choose a way. A couple of years ago, I visited Head-Smashed-In buffalo jump near Lethbridge, Alberta. Fear and fences drove thousands upon thousands of buffalo to the edge of the cliff and over it. Fear and fences drive us, too. Fear and fences create the illusion that there is no other way. And so it is astonishing to us when someone appears on the other side of the fence unafraid. The merchants of fear and fences would rather we not notice. It is not good for business-as-usual when customers begin to doubt the product, and it is even worse when an alternative appears.
So there he stands, not driven by fear, not contained by fences. Driven, instead, by the future he dreams of, and the way he chooses. Driven, too, by the Spirit in whom he dreams that dream and chooses that way. Driven, in the next verse, by that same Spirit beyond fear and fences into the womb of wilderness. To gestate, to be born, and to be born again. Fences do not keep the Galilean from seeing the wilderness, and fear does not keep him going there. Instead, in the wild and holy love by which hope becomes history, he has chosen what will drive him there.
Fear and fences work pretty well for most of us. And yet, there are moments when we see other truth. Moments of courage and compassion, of hope and hospitality, of costly love and costs not counted. Moments, too, of wonder that there is such beauty in the wilderness, and such gladness. Moments, most of all, when we discover that we are less alone in the wilderness, because somehow in the wilderness we find each other more easily and hold one another more deeply. Perhaps we are simply more lovely to each other against the backdrop of scrub and stone. Maybe – in the profound and utter darkness that night brings to the wilderness – smaller lights can shine, lights not seen in the fluorescent distorting garishness of life bounded by fear and fences....
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