Our gospel reading for today comes from the beginning of Mark’s gospel. One of the striking things about Mark’s gospel is how quickly everything happens. While Matthew’s account of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness stretches over several chapters, Mark covers this material in a few short sentences. Mark’s focus on immediacy is telling; Mark is less interested in the details of the stories about Jesus and more interested in the substance of Jesus’ ministry. And for Mark, the substance of Jesus’ ministry is his proclamation of the kingdom of God.
When Jesus emerges from the wilderness, he proclaims that the “kingdom of God has come near.” The word that the New Revised Standard Version translates as “has come near” can also be rendered “is at hand.” In other words, the kingdom of God, according to Mark’s Jesus, is right around the corner. God is just about to break into the world and transform it. This is, by no means, a benign or routine event. It is a life-changing, earth-shattering experience. We get a clue about the violent drama implicit in the arrival of God’s kingdom when we read that the heavens are “torn apart” when the Spirit descends on Jesus.
The Spirit is an elusive, yet dynamic force in Mark’s gospel. While it only appears in a handful places, it plays a very important and powerful role. It is only in Mark’s gospel that the Spirit “drives” Jesus into the wilderness. Jesus, in other words, does not enter the wilderness of his own accord. Jesus does not enter the wilderness for the purposes of self-actualization or even to cleanse himself of impurity. Rather, Jesus enters the wilderness to fulfill his mission. For Mark, Jesus’ temptation is a critical component of his proclamation of God’s kingdom.
In the same way, let us think of Lent not as an opportunity to cleanse ourselves from impurity, but rather as an opportunity to proclaim that God’s kingdom has come near.