The first thing that strikes me about this Gospel is the lack of a birth narrative: no manger, no angels or shepherds, no nativity scene at all. The first words are a quote from Isaiah, and that quote is not even about Jesus, but rather about John the Baptist. John is the forerunner to Jesus. I get the impression that the first reading audience already knew the story and these two characters. Perhaps they knew John and Jesus from first hand experience and therefore there is no need for a nativity or even a genealogy. There is not yet a need to establish a lineage or identity, it is safely assumed.
But the story of Jesus begins with a back-story, that of John the Baptist. He, John, is the one sent to prepare the way for Jesus and he did so through baptism in water. And the character of John is well known and well understood. He is one of those prophets living in the desert, you know the ones who “wore clothes made of camels hair, with leather belt about his waist, and he ate locust and wild honey” not the tame temple prophet who for a price would give you a nice safe prophetic utterance. No, John was a wild-man on the fringe of society, uncontrollable and far too honest for polite society. And yet a man like that could draw the crowds. He is a thorn in the side of the “institution” and yet a cult hero to the masses. Perhaps?
And then Jesus came and was baptized. God speaks in words and actions, a dove, the sign of peace, and words: “you are my son, whom I love, with you I am well pleased.” Peace, love, and pleasure* are the hallmarks of the God/Jesus relationship. And as John gave water so Jesus will give the spirit who passes the hallmarks of God onto the believers’ relationship: peace, love, and pleasure.
The path laid out in Isaiah the Prophet continues through John the Baptist to Jesus, but before Jesus can begin the journey he is ushered into the desert for forty days being tempted. This gospel does not extrapolate on what the temptations were only that it happened immediately after the baptism. That holds true for many believers still today, or for many who set out to do good works. Once one turns towards the Good it seems life, or the devil, steps in to put up blocks and temptations away from the path towards the Good. And yet if one looks closely one will see that the angels are ministering even in the midst of wild animals. Baptism prepares one for the life ahead, and angels are there to preserve the way in the wilderness. But only faith can carry one through to the end. Do you see the angels ministering in your desert experiences? Is life drawing you towards temptations that will undermine the life of peace, love and pleasure that you have set out on?
* A note on pleasure: In today’s culture of addiction and instant gratification pleasure is often confused with a sex, drugs and rock & roll life style. But here we see Jesus pleases God, that is, Jesus brings pleasure to God. It is not about self-pleasure and gratification, but about bringing pleasure, pleasing, others. It is asking the questions: how can I make those around me happy and healthy? I am pleased with myself when others are pleased with me. When I do a good job I know it because it has made some one else’s life easier, more meaningful and more pleasurable. As the Gospel of Mark unfolds we see the actions of Jesus in healing, comforting and teaching that aids others in a more fulfilling life, that is what brings pleasure to God. Jesus is faithful to his message of peace, love and compassion. That brings true pleasure to others, and to God.