You can find good news even in wilderness times
Good stories follow a common framework. The clearer the story, the more our brains are drawn to it. Good stories have a good framework.
The Gospel is no exception. Some of the best stories are about Jesus.
When Mark begins his Gospel account, he does so with a fast-paced set of stories in the first 15 verses that also follow a framework.
One piece of framing includes Mark telling us who Jesus is: “This is the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
As the story unfolds, we find two main sections. The first ends in Mark 8:29, where Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, or Christ. The second section ends with Jesus on the cross. A Roman centurion makes a confession there too. He says in Mark 15:39, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
But, the first 15 verses do even more than tell us who Jesus is.
In the Greek language, a literary device called a “chiasm” was used to alert hearers to themes and key words in the writing. A chiasm follows a pattern of one word, followed by another, followed by another. Then, the writer will go back and hit the same words in reverse order until he reaches the first word.
In Mark 1:1-15, the chiasm is formed using three words: gospel, wilderness and baptism.
Notice first the use of the word “gospel” in verses 1 and 15, which respectively state, “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” and “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the gospel.”
The word “gospel” translates to “good news.” But, what is “gospel,” or “good news”?
In America, the good news of Jesus is often presented as, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.”
That “wonderful plan” is closely aligned with the American Dream: good family, good bank account, good looks, good health, good breath, and good assortment of friends. Hardly anyone would expect to hear anything associated with struggle or suffering in the same context as good news.
But, stay with the chiasm long enough and your view of gospel might change.
The next word Mark uses is “wilderness,” or “desert.” It is found in Mark 1:3, “…a voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” and then again in 12, “Immediately the Spirit drove him into the wilderness.”
Good news, to me, does not include a 40-day stay in the desert.
In Jewish thought, wilderness is the place where God prepares his people for their promised salvation. Throughout history, “wilderness” has been connected to God doing something new in the life of his people, which brings us to the third key word in the chiasm: baptism.
The word is used in Mark 1:4: “John came baptizing in the wilderness…,” and then in Mark 1:9: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized in the Jordan by John.”
Baptism in Mark involves a pivotal point in the life of Jesus. Baptism establishes the identity of Jesus. Later, baptism becomes connected to Jesus’ death on the cross.
Right after Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit “drives” him out into the wilderness. Jesus goes from one moment — when he’s in the water and the heavens open up and embrace him — to the next, where he is in the waterless wilderness and seems alone.
You may be able to relate to that. You made a decision to follow Jesus and for a while everything seemed like a honeymoon period. You fell into the arms of Jesus and things seemed safe, secure, peaceful. You read your Bible. You prayed. You even enjoyed going to church.
But then life hit. A job loss. Issues with kids. A spouse left. You found yourself in a wilderness of worry, a desert of disillusionment. Maybe you couldn’t see any wild beasts, but they were circling you inside your head. Suddenly, you were unsure if God was really with you. You doubted whether he loved you.
Where’s the good news in that?
In our wilderness, Jesus will come to help us. He can because he has been where we are. He knows the dusty terrain of the desert. He understands the suffering of a baptism that places one’s trust in God regardless of what happens to us or around us.
That’s quite a story. It has a clear form: good news, wilderness, baptism. And if we follow Jesus, it will be our story too.