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Tearing the Sky

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Mark 1:4-11

All four of today’s lectionary texts talk about water.  Our Hebrew Scriptures lesson is from Genesis 1, about the primordial waters covered by darkness.  Our psalm is number 29, which speaks of the voice of God over the waters.  The third reading is from Acts 19, which tells the story of Paul            baptizing the believers in Ephesus.  And our gospel reading is this passage from Mark 1:4-11.

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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.”

I want to go back and include three verses before our passage started.  Before the words “John the Baptizer appeared in the wilderness,” the Gospel begins with these words:

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”

 These words are actually a composite of a few texts, not just Isaiah.  But the author uses them to weave together the threads from Old Testament prophecy into his contemporary context, and by doing so, to draw comparisons and connections between the two.  So the account of John the Baptist begins by aligning him with the prophets from Israel’s past.  The author of the Gospel According to Mark takes it a little further with the inclusion of strange details.  Unlike Paul, who never met a run-on sentence he didn’t like, the author of Mark’s Gospel exhibits an economy of language that is often abrupt and lacking in detail.  Scholar Alastair Roberts says, “It might surprise some readers that Mark, so terse in much of his narration, should needlessly expend words describing John’s clothing and diet.  However, these seemingly extraneous details are carefully chosen.  They have the effect of placing John within a rich web of scriptural associations and symbolism.  John is most immediately connected to the character of Elijah, who was also a desert prophet who wore a leather belt and a hairy garment.  John is also associated with . . . foods that are evocative of both the blessings of the land (wild honey) and the threatening opponents of Israel (locusts).”[1]  By connecting John the Baptist with both the plagues in Egypt and the honey of the promised land, the author is foreshadowing what is to come.

“Finally, Mark places us in the wilderness on the far side of the Jordan.  To any attentive reader of the Old Testament, the location of the action with which Mark’s gospel begins will be noteworthy.  The Jordan River and its crossing played a crucial role in the formation of Israel’s identity and within its history.  It was at the crossing of a tributary of the Jordan that Israel first received its name.  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.”[2]  So symbolically, by stepping into the Jordan to be baptized—by leaving the land—the people were re-entering the promised land through the Jordan River, just like before.  Their baptism placed them “within the waters of Israel’s drama,” reconnecting them through the place where “the pangs of a promise nearing its realization were experienced and a people approached the moment of its rebirth.”[3]

And as if all that weren’t enough, “The banks of the Jordan were also a place of transition and succession.  It was at the Jordan that Moses passed the baton of leadership to Joshua….It was at the Jordan that the desert prophet Elijah passed the baton of his prophetic mission to Elisha….When John the Baptist, who is strongly associated with Elijah, is introduced to us on the banks of the Jordan, in connection with Mark’s Old Testament citation, we know that the stage is set for a dramatic new period of ministry to commence. The dryness of the desert will be left behind for the opened heavens and Spirit’s descent upon a new blessed land.”[4]

I realize that’s a lot of information, and you may be wondering if I have a point.  I do.  The baptism John offered was not an individual baptism.  We tend to think of repentance as an individual, personal act, and baptism as the same.  I don’t think that’s what John was offering, at least not according to the writer.  The scholar I quoted earlier says, “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 favour.”[5]  Or to put it more simply, the author of Mark’s Gospel is trying to tell us that John was taking the people, as representatives of a nation, into the waters of their past, the waters of their sacred story, and helping them repent of their communal sins so that they—as a people—could reenter and rebuild the land called promised.  This is what it meant to prepare the way for Christ’s coming.  And that is the water into which Jesus stepped, and out of which Jesus rose.

This understanding of the baptism John offered asks us some important questions.  Do we, like the individual Israelites on Jordan’s banks, represent more than just ourselves?  Do we carry within ourselves the moral understandings of our nation?  Are we a repository for the lessons of our country’s past?  If so, then how might we, as individuals,  recover the lost or compromised parts of our nation?  How can we take responsibility for or at least contribute to the wellbeing of our communities?  How do we repent in the waters of God’s mercy for the waters of justice that have been long denied?

I know that we all sat in horror on Wednesday as we watched insurrectionists take over the U.S. Capitol, threatening and endangering lives.  We watched as our elected officials were forced to flee or hide.  We heard the terrified voices of war survivors as they told the story.  And as we watched, even before we heard the full story, we knew several things: that our democracy was under attack, that these were not peaceful protestors exercising their first amendment rights,            and that these individuals would never have been allowed into the capitol if they had not been white.  If a Black Lives Matter protest had been planned instead of this one, the police presence would have been very different, and blood would have been running in the streets before a single protestor was allowed in.  Racism, and the white privilege that goes along with it, is what allowed these people entry.  It was their free pass.  As always.

We have a lot of problems as a country, but one of the most significant we must continue to wrestle with is the racism that is baked into our entire system.  It is our plague, our affliction, our bondage.  In the coming days we will continue to hear many calls for peace and unity— and I am all for peace and unity—but it must not come at the cost of truth.  It must not come at the cost of justice.  And we, as people of faith, and as representatives of our nation, need to walk into the waters of repentance just as the people of Israel did, if we ever hope to enter a new land of promise.

Both our confirmation ritual and our membership liturgy call us to resist oppression and evil, and so we will.  And here is the why and the how.

The way the other Gospel writers tell the story, 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.

We are concerned and anxious about our future— as a country, as a community, as individuals and as families.  We face challenges small and large.  We face anger in our households and a virus that seems relentless.  We have every reason to be worried and afraid.  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 the earth’s 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 that calls us Beloved.  We pray for the sky to be torn open . . .and our prayer has already been answered.  Feel the water. See the sky.  Hear the voice.   Beloved. Beloved.

[1] Roberts, Alistair. “The Politics of the Individual.” PoliticalTheology.com, January 5, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

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