9And it came to pass in those days, that Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
10And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him:
11And there came a voice from heaven, saying, You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.
12And immediately the spirit drove him into the wilderness.
13And he was there in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; but the angels ministered unto him.
Our dear friend, the Rev. Lucas Grubbs, up for his priesting this week, preached a beautiful sermon on this text at Christ Church
yesterday; it begins with-
I ask you now, where is your Hell…without even blinking you can probably answer that question even faster than where do you find heaven. I speak to you in the Name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost
"Today’s Gospel reading from Mark is easily one of the most forgettable of all Gospel readings. At a mere five verses we run the risk of not even noting its subtlety, its power and its profound observation of who the evangelist is showing Jesus to be. We aren’t touched by a miraculous healing, nor are we challenged by the words of Christ, or the growling of John the Baptist as in other descriptions of the Baptism of our Lord. But listen now…as we see how the Spartan writings of Mark reveal a Christ who both is the “up” of the world, and also the “down”. A Christ who is above us and below, and a Christ who walks among us in every direction- How Jesus of Nazareth of Galilee demonstrates to us in a mere handful of versus a blueprint of the human condition, and what we are going to have to do about it if we have any hope for survival.
There is a term I am sure many of you are familiar with in religious imagery and architecture: It is that of the axis mundi
. The axis mundi
is that which visibly or invisibly connects heaven and earth. In Christianity, perhaps the most common of all axis mundis
is the Cross of Christ. Firmly planted upon the Earth yet even in its bloody and agonizing purpose, soaring toward heaving and through its power becoming the perfect link that unites you and I to God in our earthly flesh. Christ himself is the living axis mundi, the man who is God robed in flesh. Here, in Mark’s statement, we are privy to an image of Christ who not only links heaven and earth, but who goes beyond both of them in order to show us how to live.
Here every single realm and state of creation opens up before our eyes, and we stand humbled by this majesty. First, Christ sets forth an example for us in humbling Himself to the earthly ministry of John the Baptist in his Baptism; Christ enters the waters of Baptism here to prefigure his going into the depths of Hell. God’s love is so great, so deep and wide that even the gates of death and Hell cannot triumph over him. If we understand our own Baptism as a dying unto sin when we enter the waters, it is because Christ has already gone before, to sanctify death, to stare it down, to empty out its growling and ugly mouth before it can overcome us with its power. In the waters of death and chaos, Christ becomes our new ark of Salvation; His going down into the waters give us a hint of what must come before. That is his death.
And so here in this brief passage from Mark, Christ has already pulled the rug out from underneath Satan and Hell. The depths of death have dropped out from underneath him in his Baptism and there would appear that there is only one way left to go- Up: And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Here is our axis mundi,
here is the Christ who has gone into the depths and now, with the glorious opening of heaven, links both heaven and earth. But you see, because he has gone further in death, the axis mundi
has grown much more complete. Not only are heaven and earth connected in Christ, but the depths of Hell and all the cosmos are laid open to his power and love. Nothing will escape the power of God in His Christ. One of the constantly reoccurring answers has been that Jesus indeed decended into Hell to redeem those who had been separated from God for whatever reason, be it in this life or the next. Indeed, we believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, he decended into Hell, the third day he rose again from the dead. Our Hell here perhaps, or the Hell beyond…no matter, God’s reach in love spans unto everywhere and eternity.
But lest we get too far ahead in the Gospel story, we must remind ourselves that this is just the beginning of Christ’s ministry. Jesus prefigures his death in Baptism, and his resurrection perhaps in the breaking open of heavens power on earth. But he does not go, no he does not yet go. What comes next in this very Gopel passage is this. “And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts.”
Ok, let us pause here for a moment. All this talk of supernatural heaven and hell is well and good. We are Christians and we as a church believe in Hell and hope for heaven. But what about now? We also have an Axis Mundi in Christ that not only fills Hell with Love, and soars to heaven in glory. Again our Axis Mundi is cruciform. The vertical up and down of Christ would not be complete with out the horizontal "X" axis of the arms of the cross and his arms of Love. What value in our lives would this story have if Christ did not go into the wilderness, the flat lands, the ordinary time of our lives? However you conceive of Hell, and whatever you hope for in heaven, these are of lesser importance to what we must ask now. What must we do now, we ask? How are we to live? We can and should draw great strength and inspiration from the cosmic power of Christ in both heaven and Hell, but unless we put this to the test here and now these become mere background stories. Now is the time we must take our part in this. Now is the time we must enter the wilderness with Christ, for fear not he has already gone before and walks with us always. The difficult work of redemption has already been done, but Christ still will not rest. No, he goes into the wilderness, our personal and savage wilderness, to be as intimately close to us as God was intimately close to humanity in Jesus.
I ask you now again, where is you own personal Hell? You know you know where it is without even having to think long and hard I’m sure. You probably know where your personal Hell is more quickly than you personal heaven. Our Hell on earth is caused by the storm winds of our sins and failings, sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. Our Hell on earth might be caused by the sins of others rendered upon us. Sometimes the innocent suffer the effects of the Hell of others. And let’s be honest about it, sometimes there is no sense whatsoever of fairness in this. There are those among us today who are feeling the effects of sin and sorrow, no doubt about it. Perhaps even every single one of us. There are those in our very neighborhood who suffer for reasons we don’t always understand…how hunger and sickness and poverty can continue to exist even among the learned streets of downtown New haven, I think all of us are at a loss to explain. Lest we even mention the desperation of those beyond our borders.
But there again, we must know that because Christ descended into Hell to redeem its icy grip, and then continued and does continue and will continue to walk among us on this vertical plain of earth, therein lies our Call. Christ is our example, Christ is our hope, Christ is our help. This weary plain we now walk upon indeed resembles Hell from time to time. But take heart. Christ shows us that in love, and with God we might just be able to face this with grace, and help those in need as well. We walk the wilderness, horizontal axis of this world, but we do not do it alone. Christ is our Blueprint. Cling to him. Pray to him. Emulate his love in everything you do. In this, the difficulties we face, and the hells we experience are sanctified. And from him, and in him, we walk ever more closer to Resurrection, and heaven.