Jesus goes looking for John the Baptist and finds him in the wilderness. It is a socially distanced setting, not in the crowded temple where you expect to find prophets. Outdoors, but not the Rose Garden. By a river, but not a pretty one with posh bars like the Riverwalk in San Antonio. I stress this because we have an idolatry of buildings in 2021. Those of us who are worshiping from home can’t wait to get back into the sanctuary. We hate to admit that it is the building that we really miss. Yes, we miss congregational singing and fellowship. Our real anger at COVID is that it robs us of our comfortable pew. The first chapter of Mark takes Jesus from his home and village to this unfamiliar prophet John on the edge of the wilderness, and then after baptism, more isolation and exposure to the elements. It is an ugly place to begin a gospel. I think Mark is intentionally stripping the story down to its essentials. What do you need for a life-changing encounter with God? Hardly anything.
Christian baptism lies halfway between taking a bath and drowning. Most of us get naked before we take a bath. From time to time, we need to mentally strip out of the rags of our familiar religion. Get away from the church building. Get away from the rituals. Silence the respect we have for those who are trained in mumbo-jumbo. Strip away all self-righteousness. When someone is in danger of drowning, suddenly money stops being important. A drowning man doesn’t choose paint samples for his back porch. Breath becomes everything. Authentic spirituality is often discovered in a near death encounter. So, Jesus comes to be baptized by John in the Jordan. His baptism, like ours, is halfway between a bath and a drowning.
Then, Jesus immediately goes into the wilderness for forty days. When he returns, he favors the open fields between towns over the nice pulpits of the cities. The Apostle Paul did his evangelism outdoors. John Wesley was thrust into his role as founder of the Methodist movement by being asked to preach outside near coal mines and slag heaps. We tend to assume that the lack of buildings in these stories is because the weather was nice. It often snows in Israel, Macedonia can be brutal, and England is infamous for its damp. Our baptism stories should awake us to our idolatry of buildings and institutions. In-person worship is nice, but not essential. Church buildings give us a place to meet but are not holy in themselves. Remember your baptism. Strip down and take a spiritual bath. God has given us these difficult times for a reason.