Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
Jan. 11, 2015
Isaiah 64:1-4, Mark 1:1-11
Sermon: “Torn Open”
Choir Anthem: “Let’s Go Down to the Water to Pray”
Yesterday several of you were here to take down the decorations from Advent and Christmas. I imagine you have started doing the same thing at your homes too, maybe even finished the job. We’ve put away for another year the reminders of the star, the shepherds, the angels , the manger, the Wise Men . Tuesday was the twelfth and final day of Christmas. And now we are in the season of the church year called Epiphany.
So it is fitting in a way that our gospel reading for today is from the beginning of Mark’s gospel because there we find no reference to any of those events or people who have captured our imaginations since the end of November. No star, angel, stable, shepherds or wise men here. No mention of Mary and Joseph. Instead Mark’s gospel opens with John the Baptist prophesying the coming of the messiah, and by verse 9 the adult Jesus is at the river Jordan for baptism. After he is submerged in the historic waters, waters that his ancestors had crossed over after forty years of wandering in the wilderness, he rises to see the heavens being torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.
Mark doesn’t tell us that anyone else saw what Jesus saw or experienced what he experienced. Matthew and Luke’s descriptions make it seem as though Jesus looked up and spotted a little door ajar up in the sky, a door that could be easily shut again. But it was no little cracked open door as Mark describes it – it was the rending of the barriers between heaven and earth, torn apart as the Spirit of God, descended and brooded over the waters of the Jordan and over Jesus as it did in the beginning of creation.
Mark uses a form of the Greek verb schitzo – the same root we find in our words schism and schizophrenia. It is a more violent and dramatic word than “open.” When something is torn apart it is not easily returned to its original state. An open door may be closed again, but what is torn apart cannot easily be repaired Ragged edges cannot be put back together perfectly.
Perhaps Mark recalled the words from Isaiah that Beth read earlier, “Oh that you would tear the heavens open and come down to make your name known to your enemies and make the nations tremble at your presence.” In the baptism of Jesus, Mark is telling his audience and us that God has come down; the heavens have been torn apart, as Isaiah had beseeched; God ‘s presence and power are on the loose in the world, nothing will be the same again. And Jesus is the one in whom that presence and power are operating.
Of course those standing there at the Jordan that day were unaware of what had just happened. And outwardly nothing seemed to have changed. They did not see the heavens torn apart. Nor did they hear the voice that said, “You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased. “
Jesus’ first task after his baptism was to figure out what it would mean to please God, and in the verses immediately following today’s reading, we find that the same brooding, hovering Spirit that had brought blessing, driving Jesus into the desert to struggle with the meaning of his identity, “Son of God.” That he did not receive this name in the centers of power, in Jerusalem, in the Temple but on the margins, out in the wilderness is an indication that the usual assumptions about blessing will be challenged in the life of Jesus. Where we think of power and privilege, blessing will mean service and obedience. Where we think of piety and purity, blessing will mean compassion and inclusion. Where we think of the accumulation of material goods, blessing will mean giving it all away, even giving away your life.
“At the end of his life, Jesus hung on a cross between heaven and earth,” and when he died, Mark says “the curtain of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom,” (15:38) torn – schitzo – (there’s that word again) just as the heavens had been torn apart at Jesus’ baptism. “The holy of holies no longer separated the sanctuary from the people. The curtain could never be repaired.” Matthew and Luke also describe the Temple curtain being torn in two. It is only Mark, however, who goes on to say that a centurion –a despised Gentile, a member of the occupying army—says, “Truly, this man was God’s son.” And Jesus’ identity announced by God at the Jordan, is confirmed by what we might think of as one of Jesus’ worst enemies. What God had announced at his baptism, “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased,” has travelled, who knows how, by what means, to the most unlikely of people, who is the first human being to name Jesus as the Son of God.
Jesus had an experience that day at the Jordan River that changed everything. The heavens would never again be tightly closed; and God would never again be confined to safe and sacred spaces. John had preached baptism for forgiveness of sin, renewal, and new life in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets. They used the symbol of water to represent cleansing, judgment, and new life. With the presence of the spirit at Jesus’ baptism, Jesus becomes the realization of the cleansing, healing, forgiving, and renewing that John’s baptism had symbolized. Jesus is the one in whom God’s spirit is at work; he is God’s beloved Son. I may be going out on a limb here, but I can see this is Mark’s story of incarnation. Luke and Matthew tell of the nativity; Mark tells about when the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit came down.
Once in awhile, maybe only once in our lifetime, do we experience something like the heavens being torn apart and God coming to us, entering our world, touching our lives, changing our identity, changing who we are. When we know that God is present with us and actively participating in our lives. Times when we know that our core identity is “child of God,” when we know that we are called to live differently, and to give our deepest allegiance to Christ. An allegiance that will sometimes – often times – put us at odds with somebody!
This past Friday night, students – some documented, some undocumented – stood up at the University of Georgia for equal treatment for all who want to learn. Their protest was in the prophetic tradition, calling for justice to roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream. They spoke up for the alien in our midst, the stranger among us, the one for whom God has special concern, the one whom God’s people are commanded to attend to and look out for. And several of them were arrested. Probably not the way most young people would choose to spend their Friday night – in jail. I don’t know for sure if it was faith or frustration, or both, that motivated them, but it was a prophetic act. They may not have felt very blessed at that moment, but who knows what these actions may lead to in the future.
The movie “Selma” about the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is currently in theaters around the country. There again, is the story of what happens when you take your identity as a child of God seriously. The blessing of Selma – was certainly not in the beatings, the jailings, and the violence. The blessing of Selma was allowing oneself to be used to open the eyes and the conscience of our nation to the injustice of segregation, and to pave the way for the Voting Rights Act. John Lewis probably did not feel very blessed that day when he almost lost his life because of his injuries. And yet today, because of those events, he is a respected and honored member of the U. S. House of Representatives and we are blessed by his sacrifice and service. And now that we are blessed, we too are alled to be a blessing.
Today, as we remember Jesus’ baptism and the blessing it brought into the world, we should also remember our own vows of baptism and how those vows are affecting (should be affecting) the way we choose to live in the world – renouncing the forces of wickedness, rejecting the evil powers of the world, accepting the freedom and power God gives each of us to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in all their forms, and placing our faith in Christ, promising to serve him with people of all ages, nations and races.
There are a myriad of ways that God calls us to be a part of God’s redeeming work in the world, “to give our lives to something more challenging than any other kind of work – and in the end, surely more beautiful, true, and enduring than any other kind of work.” A time when, as for Jesus, the heavens are torn open, and we catch of vision of what the world could be like, of what our true identity is, and of what we want to give our lives to. Thanks be to God. Amen.