The Call of the Desert (1)


Mark's Gospel begins with "the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight - " At once we are introduced to John the Baptist, who lives, preaches and baptises in the wild, wearing the roughest clothing and eating the meagre food that the desert provides[1]. However, though John identifies with the voice, it exists before, beyond and apart from him. For it is the voice which spoke to Abraham, calling him away from the cities of Mesopotamia; to Moses from the burning bush, commanding him to lead the Israelites to freedom; to Elijah, urging him to confront despotism and idolatry. It is the voice which has always addressed the community of Israel from without. It is the desert voice of God.

John stands in the tradition of those who, venturing into the Wild, found there that God is imminently, awesomely present, offering a covenant of grace but also of responsibility. John's place in this lineage is clearly defined: his camel-hair clothes and leather girdle associate him with Elijah, who, according to Malachi, would return "before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes."[2]   In Mark's Gospel, John's role as Elijah eclipses everything else which could be said about him: he has no message and no purpose outside it[3]. And Mark draws a sharp distinction between the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. There is no suggestion that they were related, shared ideas, or even knew each other in any personal sense. There is no communication, no interaction recorded between them, even when Jesus approaches John for baptism. The vision and the voice are for Jesus alone.  

However, as "Elijah", John's importance is profound. He is the physical link between Jesus and the desert, the spiritual link between Jesus and the prophetic tradition. He conveys the voice of God which is only heard in the wilderness - the call to depth, purity, simplicity, humility and hope - the call which draws Jesus away from home, work and family to consider what God might be asking of him.

John's vocation is a vivid reminder that all prophets, not least the Messiah are called to the "way of the desert". When the worship of God had seemed to be on the edge of extinction in Israel, Elijah undertook a lonely and perilous journey to Mount Horeb, or Sinai, where the commandments, statutes and ordinances of holy living had been given to Israel through Moses. There he learned that, at times of crisis, God speaks, not in the drama of earthquake, wind and fire, but in the "still, small voice" which sounds in the depths of the human heart. Re-invigorated, with new insight and confidence, he emerged from the wilderness to set in motion changes which altered the course of Israelite history[4].

The desert is the natural habitat of the Hebrew prophet, the landscape which forms them, even they experience it chiefly as a metaphor for the aridity of an alienated heart, a corrupt society or a city besieged by fear. God speaks in every human wilderness. Those who go there, knowing their need, hear a word of secret wisdom; a voice which speaks so softly and in such hidden ways, that it can only be heard by the ear of faith, yet which possesses an awesome, holy power. The desert voice of God strips away all that is not vital (literally, life-giving) to expose the inner truth of the person and their situation. John is an example of this process in action: of the way in which the desert clarifies our priorities and perceptions. As pride and pretensions are peeled away, we are stripped down to the raw truth of our inner selves.

The effect of the desert is preparation, a thorough spiritual house-clearance, the removal of everything which will comes between ourselves and God, between humanity and the vision of God's glory[5]. Nothing remains to distract us from the truth: God is present, and this nearness puts all else into perspective. It pierces complacency, security and ease with the reminder of stark choices. To those whose spiritual senses are dulled by wealth and comfort, it sounds a discordant, alarming note, undermining the assumptions amongst which we have grown comfortable. Our world is shaken to its foundations: one moment we are choosing houses or deciding between holidays, the next we are unsure if we even have enough bread to eat.

As Elijah, John faces Jesus - and his contemporaries - with the challenge of the desert way. Malachi phrases the question as "Who is fit to stand before the Lord: who will endure the day when God appears?"[6] John's task is to strip away the fudges, compromises, accommodations and distractions that have accrued over the years to reveal the founding truths in all their dynamic directness. The purifying process will begin with the religious elite, and continue until the offering of Judah and Jerusalem is cleansed and their worship pleasing to the Lord. Those who do evil or exploit others will find God to be a refining fire.[7]

But the challenge is offered from the depths of God's enduring love for us, a love which recognises when our suffering outweighs our sins, and which acts to provide a way of release.[8]"God with us" is cause for the deepest rejoicing. The arrival of Elijah is therefore a gift and a mercy, a sign that God is giving the people an "hour" of grace, a last opportunity for reconciliation before they must face the fruit of their complacency and wrongdoing. He will "turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents."[9] Jesus, in speaking of John as Elijah, describes his mission as being to "restore all things."[10] The desert voice is not the harbinger of doom, but the herald of tangible relief: a clear and even road to freedom and the strong arm which carries us home[11]. For those who fear God, "the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings."[12] The God who gave the covenant does not change. Because of God's enduring love we are not consumed, either by the fire of holiness or by the consequences of our sins[13].

At the beginning of Mark's Gospel, John the Baptist stands as one who, like Elijah before him, has emerged from the Wild to preach with discerning simplicity. His experience of the desert way has given him an authenticity, and this, in its turn, grants him authority with those who seek him out. John identifies with the desert voice of God, but envisages the arrival of one who will embody it.

And Mark is writing to show that Jesus is the one, that the significance of his story is the call of the desert. His insight into the nature and impact of Jesus can be summarised in words borrowed from Hebrews: "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account." [14]   In that his

work is the shortest of all the Gospels, and written with drama and pace, he does seem to evoke, perhaps more by intuition than design, the short stabbing sword of the Roman foot soldier. Those stories he selects from the Jesus tradition, he tells with great vigour[15]. And when he is recording Jesus' words on the "Day of the Lord" which will fulfill God's purposes in history, he writes with an urgency and directness which has no parallel in the other Gospels: "Therefore, keep awake - for you do not know when the master of the house will come, in the evening, or at midnight, or at cockcrow, or at dawn, or else he may find you asleep when he comes suddenly. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake."[16] 

In its form and style, therefore, Mark's Gospel reflects the picture of Jesus that he is drawing for us. Jesus enters the human story like a sword-blade, cutting to the heart and laying bare the truth of the human condition. But what he exposes, he also heals, for he baptises with the Holy Spirit, which both cleanses and restores. This is the desert voice of God, calling people to purification and renewal.[17]

(drafted for Advent Bethany Letter 2002) 

[1] Mark 1.1-8. See Isaiah 40.3.

[2] Malachi 3.1; 4.3-5

[3] Jesus identifies John with Elijah in Mark 9.11-13. John's wider message is barely reported, so as to emphasise his anticipation of one who will baptise with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1.7-8).

[4] 1 Kings 19 and subsequent chapters.

[5] Isaiah 40.3-5

[6] Mark 1.2. See Malachi 3.1-5.

[7] Malachi 3.1-5

[8] Isaiah 40.1-2.

[9] Malachi 3.6.

[10] Mark 9.12.

[11] Isaiah 40.3-5, 9-11

[12] Malachi 4.2

[13] Exodus 3.2; Malachi 3.6.

[14] Hebrews 4.12-13.

[15] Mark's version of many stories, is far longer, more detailed and more colourful than the versions in Matthew or Luke. Compare, for example, Mark 5.1-20 with Matthew 8.28-34 and Luke 8.26-39; or Mark 5.21-43 with Matthew 9.18-26 and Luke 8.40-55.

[16] Mark 13.35-37.

[17] John's baptism offers spiritual cleansing, but cannot provide anything more than a "clean slate". This is the most profound difference between John and Jesus, and the reason why Mark makes such a strong distinction between them.


The prophet Jeremiah promises that in the latter days, when God acts to restore the fortunes of the people of Israel, they will understand his purposes, even when they appear to break out in wrath and storm. Just as in the past, "The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness," so it will be again. The covenant between God and the people will be renewed.

Mark is writing for those who have "survived the sword," both literally, in that they have survived the increasing hostility between Christian and Jew, the persecutions of Nero's day, and the trauma of the Jewish rebellion against Rome, and metaphorically, in that they have been cut to the bone by emotional, cultural and spiritual upheavals. He is concerned for

God who calls us out into the wilderness is the same One who meets us there in the process of purification (perceptions and priorities) and exposure. Cuts away the dross to free the seed.

And at once the Spirit drives him away into the wilderness, where he lives for forty days. While this might be a specific length of time, it is also a symbolic period, reminiscent of Elijah's forty-day journey to Horeb, or the forty years that Israel spent in the wilderness after leaving Egypt. Here, too, Jesus is alone: no other human being goes where he goes, and his isolation anticipates how, in his Passion, he will reclaim the uttermost reaches of our estrangement and alienation.

Mark knows of the tradition that Jesus was tempted by Satan during this lonely time, but does not include details: for him what matters is that Jesus was in the desert, threatened by its wild powers, but protected by the grace of God."[1] Jesus' authority in the confrontation with adversarial powers is a major theme in Mark's Gospel: it is as though Jesus himself, or the truth within him, is the sword of God sweeping through the places of chaos, so that whether our enemy is the fear within us or the foe beyond us, their ability to afflict and oppress is disarmed by faith. In enduring the desert, and overcoming its dangers, Jesus demonstrates immediately the power within him which will cut to the depths of disease and devilry; the searing, liberating desert voice of God made flesh and blood and bone.

The period of withdrawal ends when John is arrested, a hint that John will also be Jesus' herald on the martyr's road. Jesus returns to his home district of Galilee, preaching good news.  

The desert demands total commitment, or we cannot survive. But it also gives beyond measure. John expects one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit, anticipating and enabling the widespread dispersal of the spirit which Joel described, a gift which would enable the young to prophesy and their elders to dream dreams[2]. The Spirit is the gift of the desert: it is given to those who are hungry. Those who are successful, prosperous and well-fed cannot recognise it, nor their need of it. It is those whose lives have been blasted by famine, destruction, desolation or death - or who fast as a means of rediscovering their basic hunger - who receive the gift[3].

So for Jesus, John the Baptist is the desert voice of God spoke to Jesus, and by baptising him, John provided the context within which Jesus was filled with the Spirit, and knew himself to be the beloved Son.

So Jesus, at his baptism, sees the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove; hears words of acknowledgement and affirmation. These are for him alone, as is the sojourn in the wilderness which follows, during which, like Elijah before him, he receives the ministry of angels[4]. When he emerges, prompted, perhaps, by the news that John has been arrested, it is to announce that the time is fulfilled. The age of the prophets is over, the time allowed for deliberation and decision has ended[5]: the kingdom is now at hand. God's presence demands a response.

Ability to find resources at depth, to meet the demands of difficult and dangerous times.

Drafted for Epiphany Bethany Letter 2003.

[1] Psalm 91.9-14

[2] Joel 2.28

[3] Joel chapters 1 & 2.

[4] 1 Kings 19.4-8

[5] Joel 3.14.

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