Several years ago, “Life is good” signs, t-shirts, and spare tire covers began appearing overnight. Most of them feature a stick figure person with a smiley face. Others, however, feature pictures of a favorite place or activity such as a chair at the beach or a soccer ball.
No single answer will suffice to explain the declaration that “life is good.” Maybe someone engaged in a hard battle with a pernicious form of cancer and came out on the other side whole and well. Because that person got a second chance, she or he has broken into a frenzied happy dance to celebrate that life is indeed good, and every day is a gift to be treasured.
Perhaps the recognition that life is good stems from a dream fulfilled and the achievement of a worthy goal. Put on the cap and gown, hear your name called, and walk onto the platform to receive the diploma that is the culmination of a lot of long nights, a lot of hard work, and a lot of grit and determination. Making the grade is a lot to smile about, and in that moment, life is indeed good.
Or, something simple and good shows up unexpectedly. We get a note of appreciation. Someone calls out of the blue to check on us. Someone goes out of their way at the grocery store to come and tell us that we mean something to them. Moments like that make us feel like somebody, like the universe has just sat up and taken notice of us. We walk a little taller, and we smile because life is indeed good.
Life sometimes puts a smile on our faces—one of those “I can’t help myself” ear-to-ear grins! Something good happens, and we can’t help but flash all our teeth in a huge smile. We’re glad to be alive, and everything looks brighter and tastes better. Because we’re people of faith we might put it this way: “We’re blessed!” In some wonderful and unexpected way, God’s grace has broken through the normal routine, warmed our hearts, and we can’t help but grin.
According to Mark, Jesus’ baptism was just such a moment for him. As Mark tells it—in his usual terse, no frills, just the facts—manner, Jesus submitted to the baptism of John. Mark gives us no reason why Jesus felt compelled to do this. Mark offers no explanation for Jesus wading into the water. All Mark tells us is that Jesus did, and John immersed Jesus in the water.
When Jesus came up out of the water, he was dripping wet from head to toe. He took a moment to wipe the water from his eyes. John embraced him, and they looked at each other with knowing smiles. And right at that moment, as Mark tells it, the heavens were ripped open so that there was no distance between heaven and earth. In that one incredible instant heaven and earth kissed. The great gulf between here and there disappeared. As a sign of that incredible breakthrough the Holy Spirit lighted on Jesus as gently as a dove. All those signs signaled that this was indeed a one-of-a-kind moment, something that would never be repeated. The high point of this singular moment was this: right then and there Jesus heard God speak to him. Jesus heard God speak his blessing upon him: “You are my beloved son; with you I am well-pleased.” We might render it this way: “You’re mine, and I am so proud of you for doing the right thing!”
No doubt when Jesus heard that, he grinned from ear-to-ear. I bet when Jesus heard that, he almost walked on water. I bet when Jesus heard that, he knew life was good and wanted to go out and buy one of those t-shirts. God had given the blessing, and Jesus felt God’s delight dripping all over him. I bet he was about to explode! He would never forget that day, and if we had been there, we would likely have thrown Jesus some kind of party. It was a moment to be savored.
But there was no time for that.
The moment, as powerful as it was, as rich as it was, didn’t last long. Mark tells us that no sooner had Jesus come out of the water and heard God’s blessing that the Holy Spirit “immediately” (that’s one of Mark’s favorite words) drove Jesus into the wilderness. Instead of launching into his ministry, Jesus was driven out into the desert.
Let’s linger over that word “driven” (ekballein) for a moment. It’s a violent word. In fact, it’s the same word Mark frequently uses to describe exorcisms—those occasions when Jesus drove evil spirits out of people. Jesus literally wrenches evil spirits out of people and throws them away. It’s not a gentle word. In fact, it carries more than a hint of violence. Here, Mark paints a picture of the Holy Spirit picking Jesus up by the back of the neck and hurling him into the vast emptiness of the desert. In other words, Jesus didn’t choose to go there; the Spirit drove him into the wilderness forcibly.
Even more striking here is the fact that Jesus was driven to a hard and unforgiving place. He was in the desert, not exactly a welcoming place or a place hospitable to life. He also faced a real enemy, the Adversary. Not only is Jesus in a hostile place, he is with a hostile enemy, one who seeks to undermine everything Jesus experienced at his baptism. Mark’s brief account ends with the disquieting note that “wild animals” surrounded Jesus. Some scholars insist that this is a veiled allusion to the peace of creation where human beings and wild animals lived together in peace. I prefer to take it at face value. These wild animals posed a serious threat to Jesus’ life. By every conceivable measure, the Holy Spirit drove Jesus to a hard place, a very difficult place. In that hard place, he had to wrestle with his environment, his enemy, and all the other threatening forces.
He had to go to a hard place. And, if we’re going to be his followers we have to reckon with fact that at some point or another, we’ll be driven into the wilderness ourselves. Here’s the simple truth: following Jesus means the Holy Spirit sometimes takes us places we don’t want to go. Sometimes the Holy Spirit leads us to hard places, places full of challenge, stress, and even danger.
That idea runs counter to our consumer-driven view of the Christian faith. Most of us assume that faith is all about having our needs met. It’s all about God seeing us through life with as little difficulty as possible. It’s about easy answers and few struggles. We associate the work of the Spirit with places of abundance and joy. We link the work of the Holy Spirit to the healing of body and soul. We imagine the Spirit enveloping us in a wave of great enthusiasm and excitement. When our circumstances fall together in a beautiful but unexpected manner, we quickly conclude that such is the work of the Holy Spirit.
But Mark offers us a fuller description of the Spirit’s work. The Holy Spirit often takes us to places we don’t want to go. The Holy Spirit often takes us to hard places. Hard places and desert places are necessary if we are going to learn to be true to who God says we are. Hard places are where our souls are made!