I am from a small town. It’s called Sweeny, Texas. It’s not the least bit special. Well, it did snow on Christmas Day in 2004 and that was pretty special. People still talk about it. But even with that claim to fame, you might say that nothing good comes from Sweeny.
Jesus’s hometown had the same kind of reputation, and everybody knew it. People might have made fun of the yokels from Nazareth. It was a harmless little town, famous for not being famous at all.
Being from Sweeny isn’t so bad. This is the 21st century, after all. Nobody really cares where I am from, who my father was, or what social strata I am expected to live out my life in. My situation, as a United Stater and a modern woman, is that I get to set my own course and inhabit whatever social strata feels right to me. It wasn’t that way for Jesus, though.
In first century world of the near east, where you were from and who your father was mattered. These facts defined you, granted you certain privileges, or limited your options. As the son of a village artisan, Jesus would not have had the standing to become a public figure, to speak in the synagogue, or become a teacher. But, Mark did something that puts him at odds with Matthew and Luke. He omitted Jesus’s genealogy and replaced it with the story of Jesus’s baptism. Here Jesus is claimed, not by Joseph, but by God himself, in baptism.
By placing John, and therefore Jesus, in the wilderness, the writer is telling us that they are beyond the control of polite society. It’s a great story, and all, about the locusts and the camel-hair clothes reminiscent of a hairy Elijah. It’s very dramatic. But, the point of all that wildness is, well, wildness. In these moments before baptism, Jesus was completely on his own. He’d left the safety of Nazareth and his family, and gone out into untamed areas.
God could have claimed Jesus a few weeks ago when he was in the manger, but didn’t. Oh, sure, angels sang, wise men came. But he was just an ordinary boy king, not yet God’s son. God could have claimed Jesus in the temple where he talked Torah with the scholars of the day. But, God did not claim Jesus then either. Jesus went home with Joseph and Mary like any other 12-year old would have. Jesus was claimed in Baptism. You have to flip over to Matthew to see it, but just after Jesus was dipped in the water, the sky was torn apart and a voice from Heaven claimed him as the son of God.
Almost immediately, Jesus began claiming others too. But none of them were claimed by Jesus while they were in their or enjoying the comforts of village life. All of them were somehow outside their comfort zone. Jesus himself had to travel alone into the wilderness, an act that Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh call “deviant!”
When Andrew asked Jesus, “Where do you live,” Jesus didn’t answer the question. He said, “Come and see.” Or, “Come outside of your own world and into mine. Come to the wilderness.”
Andrew simply followed Jesus home one day, and later took Peter there too. They didn’t sit around the house talking about it. There were no committees, no minutes were read, no reports were issued. They went! And it was unclear where they were going.
Philip brought Nathaniel and Nathaniel gave us that famous line, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth.” Nathaniel was an initial doubter, but he went anyway, and Jesus charmed him with humor. And then Jesus said, “I saw you under the fig tree, Nathaniel.” Jesus was saying. “I get you, Nathaniel. I know you’re a Torah student, but, look at me. I am the Torah.” And so Nathaniel continued his wilderness trek by following the living Torah.
After gathering his initial followers Jesus will begin a journey to Jerusalem; traveling, as was the custom, in a group. As the sky was torn apart in today’s reading, the veil of the temple will be torn in two at the end of our journey. The same holy wind will blow there too.
In the meantime, you and I will encounter a lot of things we don’t understand. There will be miracles which challenge our scientific world views, and statements that leave us aghast that Jesus would say such a thing. Oh, he’s going to say some things! We might not even be so sure we want to be claimed by this “deviant,” who goes traveling alone and leads us into such wildernesses. But this is not just a journey into the desert. It is a journey into being claimed by the Christ spirit.
If polite and institutionalized society is where you live your life, well, good for you. I hope that’s comfortable for you. But, if it seems like you have stepped apart from all that is so civilized and apparent, and you have entered what G. K. Chesterton called, “…a new continent filled with strange flowers and fantastic animals, which is at once wild and hospitable,” well, then you’re going somewhere. It is not a safe journey. Nor can we be sure of the destination. But we know for sure who has called us and who travels with us.
May Epiphany and Lent be full of adventure!
Linda McMillan lives in al Kurayyat, Saudi Arabia… pretty close to where Jesus used to live.
Some Notes of Possible Interest
In the Roman world that enveloped the Hebrew world that Jesus was a part of, one was only a son or daughter if the father claimed that you were their son or daughter. In other words, a man might father as many children as he wanted, but only claim those from his wife. The others would not inherit or have whatever privileges were attached to being that man’s child, even if they were his biological children. Thus, being claimed — In the case of Jesus, by God! — identified one more than the facts of birth.
Matthew 3:16, 17… As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
You can read more about Bethsaida here. A lot more good stories are going to happen here!
Some people will want to pipe up and remind us that there’s another call story in which Jesus calls Andrew and Peter away from their fishing boats. So which is true? Well, look, It’s not really a separate story but different elements of one complete narrative. Unfortunately, the Bible writers had no idea how very literal and limiting we would be in the 21st century. They left us to use our heads about these things and we often fail. It sometimes amazes me that people can be so literary and sophisticated when reading the Book of the Month, but the same person is so literal and linear when reading the Bible.
See Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels by Bruce J. Malina and Richard L. Rohrbaugh. Loc 2925 on Kindle, “That is one of the reasons why travel was considered a deviant activity in the ancient Mediterranean, especially when done alone.”
The entire G. K. Chesterton quote is, “easier than joining the Catholic Church and much easier than trying to live the Catholic life. It is like discovering a new continent full of strange flowers and fantastic animals, which is at once wild and hospitable.” He is talking about conversion. Chesterton has a lot of great quotes. If you get a chance to read something, just do it. He really knows how to turn a phrase.