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A Torn Sky, A Broken World

Watch the sermon here. 

Mark 1:4-11

The story of Jesus’ baptism is told or at least referenced in all four Gospels, but this one is my favorite.  The Gospel of Mark is not usually my favorite.  The writing is abrupt, terse at times, often lacking in detail.  But this story—oh, this time the writer gets it right!

We start with John the baptizer.  From his clothes to his diet, everything about John reminded the people of one of the greatest prophets: Elijah.  Then we have the setting: the Jordan River.  According to scholar Alastair Roberts, “The Jordan River and its crossing played a crucial role in the formation of Israel’s identity.  It was at the crossing of the Jabbok, a tributary of the Jordan, that Israel first received its name (Genesis 32:22-32).   It was the miraculous crossing of the Jordan under the leadership of Joshua that marked the definitive entry of Israel into the Promised Land after their period of wilderness wandering.  [So when John baptized Israelites in the Jordan] they were placed within the waters of Israel’s drama, reconnected with it in a place where . . . the pangs of a promise nearing its realization were experienced and a people approached the moment of its rebirth.”[1]

Another scholar, Oliver O’Donovan, says that “in moments of national crisis in Israel’s history, the prophetic summons to the individual often comes to the fore.” He says that when a nation is in a crisis of collapsing morale or morals, the “the conscience of the individual members of the a community is a repository of the moral understanding which shaped it, and may serve to perpetuate it in a crisis.”[2]  In other words, when a nation is in crisis, the people’s conscience can save the nation.  “The Israelites who came to be baptized by John were performing such a role.  In the face of corrupt leaders and institutions, these common people bore the identity of Israel in themselves, returning to the banks of the Jordan River so that they might be restored and re-established as a people in God’s favor.”[3]

All of this is in play before Jesus even steps on the scene.  We have John, with his aura of Elijah-ness about him, at the Jordan River, this water so crucial to Israelite identity and promise.  And we have the people, concerned for their nation, returning to a place of promise.  And then we have Jesus, being baptized by John.

And here’s where I love Mark’s telling of this story.  The other Gospel writers say that when Jesus came up out of the water, the sky opened, and the Spirit of God descended like a dove.  This image of the sky opening sounds like something we’ve seen a hundred times—clouds part and the sun shines brightly through.

But that’s not what Mark says happened.  Mark doesn’t say the sky simply opened.  Mark says that Jesus saw the sky ripped open, torn apart.  The Greek word is “schizo,” the same root from which we get “schism.”  Mark seems to be responding to the prophet Isaiah who prayed, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (64:1).  It seems that this is exactly what God did.  If the sky just opened, like a cloud parting, everything can go back to the way it was.   The clouds can merge, and the sky can be whole again.  But once the sky was ripped open, the boundary between earth and heaven was destroyed.  That which separated God from humanity was torn, never to be replaced.  The sky was torn . . . and God came through.

I can find so many parallels between this and our present situation.  We live at a time when we, too, are concerned about the collapsing morals in our country.  We, too, are concerned and anxious about our future.

We fear war with North Korea.

We fear isolation from former allies.

We fear gas on the fire of racism.

We fear foreign influence and political exploitation.

And those are just our fears for our country.  Then we have our personal fears.

We fear for our children and grandchildren, for their health and safety.

We fear for our parents as their bodies and minds weaken.

We fear for our marriages and all the threats against them.

We fear for our dreams, that we will never realize them.

We fear being alone.

We fear being bereft.

And so we come to the water.  We come to the water to be cleansed, refreshed, renewed.  We come to the water because this is where we were named.  We come to the water because this is where our identity was formed.  We come to the water because it connects us to all the earth’s waters and therefore all people.  We come to the water because we, like the Israelites, need to remind our country who we are and what we stand for.

And now that we are here, we don’t need the clouds just to part—for they will just go back when we leave this place.  We need the sky to be torn open so that we can see the Spirit and hear the Voice.  We need the sky to be torn open . . .      only we forget it already was.  The barrier between us and God was already demolished—we just need to be reminded so that we can hear the voice of the one who calls us beloved.

Poet Jan Richardson offers this blessing:

Begin here:

Beloved.

Is there any other word

needs saying,

any other blessing

could compare

with this name,

this knowing?

 

Beloved.

 

Comes like a mercy

to the ear that has never

heard it.

Comes like a river

to the body that has never

seen such grace.

 

Beloved.

 

Comes holy

to the heart

aching to be new.

Comes healing

to the soul

wanting to begin

again.

 

Beloved.

 

Keep saying it

and though it may

sound strange at first,

watch how it becomes

part of you,

how it becomes you,

as if you never

could have known yourself

anything else,

as if you could ever

have been other

than this:

 

Beloved.

 

Yes, this is where we begin.  This font, this water, this word: beloved.  But before we bask in the beauty of that name, there is one other schism we need to know.  The Gospel of Mark begins with the baptism, and this schism, this tearing of the sky between God and us.  At the end of the Gospel of Mark is another schism, another tearing.  We are told that when Jesus died, the veil of the temple was torn in two.  The same Greek word is used: schizo.  Scholars debate which veil was torn—the inner veil or the outer veil.  The outer veil was in essence the door to the temple, and of the twelve tribes of Israel, only the tribe of Levi was allowed in the temple.  The inner veil was the entrance to the holy of holies, and only the high priest could enter there.

I’ve always heard that the tearing of the veil was the inner veil, telling us that we no longer needed this division between us and the Holy, we no longer need a high priest.  But I don’t think that’s right because the barrier between us and God was already removed, at Jesus’ baptism.  You see, both of the temple veils said only certain people could enter.  So perhaps the veils of the temple did not divide us from God, but us from one another.  If this is true, then when Jesus was baptized, the sky was torn apart and nothing could separate us from God.  And when Jesus died, the veil was torn apart, and now nothing must separate us from one another.  Yes, I am God’s beloved . . . and so are my enemies, and so are the people of other countries, and so are all God’s children.

In recent days we have heard many disparaging words about certain countries and people.  We live in a broken world, a world that desperately needs a torn sky and a torn veil.  So this morning I am going to invite you forward to remember your baptism.  We will form two lines, and Jill and I will place a drop of water on your head and remind you of who you are.  But first, before we place the water on your head, you will pass by this basket.  You are invited to take a slip of paper out of that basket and read it before you receive your blessing from us.  It will give you a new identity, a new place of birth, a new religion perhaps.  And holding both this new written identity, and your own, then you will hear the words we all need to hear:  You are God’s beloved. Remember your baptism.

We need to know this. We need to remember.  We need to remember not only that we are God’s beloved, but that we have been baptized.  Baptism enlarges us.  Baptism makes us bigger.  Baptism makes us one with all creation.  You are God’s beloved. Remember your baptism.

So come. Take a piece of paper, and be broadened. Receive the water, and be blessed.

[1] Roberts, Alastair. “The Politics of the Individual.” Political Theology Today, January 5, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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