“And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.’ Immediately the Spirit drove him into the wilderness.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
Growing up is hard. It’s hard on every level. Your body changes and stretches and that doesn’t always feel good. It seems like just when you get really comfortable with one phase, another one comes along and bumps it out of the way. You manage to overcome one set of challenges, to ascend to the top of a hill, only to discover that there is a whole other range of mountains still waiting to be climbed beyond that one. Yet climb on we must because the path to the best stuff is always forward. This is exactly what we see Jesus experiencing here in our next step forward into Mark’s Gospel.
You would think that the entrance of the main character of a story would have a little more pizzazz to it. I’ve been reading through the Harry Potter series with my oldest boys. We will begin the last book this evening. His entrance into the story is cloaked in mystery, but brings with it clear portends of a really good story. In ancient times, stories about the arrival or appearance of one of the gods was always a big affair. Mark, though, simply has Jesus quietly arriving at the Jordan River to be baptized by John along with the rest of the Judean countryside.
At that moment, though, things look like they are going to pick up rather quickly. When John lifts Jesus up out of the water, suddenly the heavens split open and the Holy Spirit descends from the sky and lands on Jesus like a dove. There’s a made-for-Hollywood scene if I’ve ever read one. Try and imagine what this might have been like. Was it a cloudy day and then the clouds suddenly parted? Was it more dramatic than that? Could people see the Spirit descending and was He actually in the form of a dove, or something else? Mark merely says that He descended “like a dove,” which isn’t very clear.
And then there was the voice. Matthew and Luke report that other people heard this. A thundering voice from the heavens declaring: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well-pleased.” If anybody had any doubts that Jesus was someone special (especially since when John first laid eyes on Him he loudly declared Him to be the very man he’d been talking about), this should have erased it entirely.
Imagine too, though, what this moment would have meant to Jesus Himself. I know He was fully God, the second person of the Trinity, for the full extent of His time on earth (as well as eternity past and future), but His relationship with the Father on earth was just that: a father-son relationship. If in His humanity Jesus was struggling at all with the mission He knew He was preparing to take, this was a powerful affirmation that He was on the right track and could keep moving forward with boldness.
If we were writing the story, then, this would have been the moment when things really started happening. Jesus received His affirmation and was ready to get started. He had climbed the hill and was ready to enjoy the view from the top.
Except…that wasn’t what the plan was.
Mark says that “immediately the Spirit drove him into the wilderness.” That has such an aggressive tone to it, doesn’t it? Why would the Spirit do this? Why send Jesus into obscurity after a moment like this. Any politician knows that you have to strike while the iron is hot. If you get the crowd all warmed up and then leave them hanging, they’ll cool off and you’ll have to start over from scratch when you come back. And Jesus Himself had to be jazzed from His Father’s clear and public affirmation. Why send Him away?
Well, the text doesn’t say. Not one of the four Gospels tell us why Jesus was driven into the wilderness. That means we can only guess. We know that He was tempted there and didn’t cave which gave Jesus an authority we need for Him to have when He calls us to resist sin in our own lives. He can comfort us in our seasons of temptation because He understands what we are facing.
But I think there’s more.
Again, Jesus was fully God, but in His equally full humanity, He was growing and learning. He had to face and overcome the same challenges that all of us do. Overcoming one challenge, reaching some milestone, doesn’t mean we have arrived. That’s not how life works. It means we are ready for the next challenge. As I said a minute ago, ascending one hill doesn’t mean we can simply chill at the top. It means we are ready to climb the next one.
Jesus had arrived at a critical juncture in His life and ministry. It was not time yet to run full steam into the fray. There were more preparations to make and strength to build. He had to learn to depend even more fully on the Father than He had perhaps had to do just yet.
Here’s the connection point for us: our good and wise heavenly Father still does the same kind of thing in our own lives. When we achieve some grand success in our journeys after Him, while He will perhaps let us savor the moment for a time, He will soon call us forward into new and possibly difficult territory. He will give us the chance to put into practice the skills we have just gained. Overcoming a challenge leads to victory which prepares you to face more difficult challenges. There are always new heights to ascend.
None of this is easy. Jesus’ temptation was excruciatingly difficult. But it is how growth happens in us. When you find yourself in the midst of what seems like a mess after having enjoyed a season of plenty with your heavenly Father, don’t take it as a sign either that He has abandoned you or that you have done something wrong. Take it for what it is entirely more likely to be: Your faithful Father calling you forward to the next level. He knows the path won’t be easy, but He won’t call you to it until He knows you are ready to trust Him to overcome it. Notice, I didn’t say that He knows you are ready to face it. You’re not. With Him, though, you are.
Lean into Him and know that He is growing you to reflect Him more fully than you already do. The outcome will be a better, stronger, more Christ-like you. And know this: You won’t be alone. Jesus wasn’t. You won’t be. Trust that and keep walking forward. The future is bright.