On this first Sunday of the new year we begin a year-long journey with the book of Mark. Mark may be my favorite gospel writer. I call it the gospel of the cranky Jesus because the Jesus we meet through the eyes of Mark is always a little on edge, he never wants anyone to say who he is, and he loses his temper with the disciples all the time. Maybe it’s not that he’s cranky, but through Mark’s eyes he is maybe more human than we find him in other gospels.
In Mark there is no Nativity Story like we find in Matthew and Luke. There is no long preamble preparing us for who Jesus is like we find in John. Mark’s writings plop us right into what he considers to be the start of the important stuff, the ministry of Jesus and it begins on the banks for the Jordon River in Mark 1; 4-11
4 John the baptizer appeared[a] in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 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. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 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. 8 I have baptized you with[b]water; but he will baptize you with[c] the Holy Spirit.
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved;[d]with you I am well pleased.”
May God Bless to our understanding the words we hear today.
Today we move into another new season of the Church year, epiphany. After Advent when we prepare for the birth of Jesus and then Christmas when we get Jesus, the first week of epiphany always seems to land a bit hard sometimes. All our festive decorations that have been in the church for the last month are gone, and it feels like we have been very abruptly thrown out of the manger, yanked away from the sweet baby Jesus and rather unceremoniously come face to face with a grown-up Jesus. The word epiphany has several different definitions. It is usually a sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something. An illuminating discovery, realization or disclosure. And that is what Epiphany is about, illuminating discovery about our relationship with God, the discovery of who Jesus is and what better way to begin our season of Epiphany than with today’s sudden discovery that happens at Jesus’ Baptism. Will you pray with me please?
May the Words of my mouth. And the meditation of all our hearts and minds be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen
On the surface the baptism of Christ appears to be a nice, simple story. It is the reintroduction of Jesus into our collective memories, the first time we hear about him again about 18 years after his time in the Temple and it is the “official” start of his short, three-year ministry. A baptism seems like a nice way to reconnect with the grown Jesus. I think we like it because we have a sense of what a baptism is about, it’s a happy occasion and not one that holds much risk, or danger or drama, or does it?
But this story is less about baptism and more about discovery. It is, in some ways, less about Jesus and more about God and God’s insistent impatience to get back in relationship with us. Last week we were reminded that it had been well over 400 years since God has sent a prophet to the people to help keep the relationship between heaven and earth open. In many ways it may have felt like God has been strangely silent…but all of that, ALL of that changes dramatically today.
To find that change we need to go back and relook at verse 11 because it is here that we find some very specific words by our gospel writer Mark that leads us into this dramatic moment of discovery and reconnection with God.
Listen and read again. “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.”
Now you may think that I am going to focus on the “You are my Son” part, and that is a lovely, lovely affirmation. But that is not the part that I find fascination…it’s the part about the heavens which don’t just open up to let a dove descend and to let the voice out; rather, the heavens are TORN APART.
This is an interesting choice of verb here. None of the other gospel writers use these words and Mark uses the same verb only one other time, when he describes how the temple curtain was torn apart when Jesus dies. His choice of words, also points the reader back to the cries of their ancestors who prayed along with the prophet Isaiah, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down”
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” That may have been the plea of our long -ago ancestors in faith, but isn’t it still our cry today? When I hear those words, I am reminded that maybe we really aren’t done with Christmas. That today is a continuation of the Christmas story, a continuation of the old promise made new again, that Immanuel, “God is with Us” is now, is HERE and much like a 3- year-old who has been presented with a present and in their excitement to see what wonderful gift they got TEARS open the paper with elation to get to it, God is tearing open the heavens not just to get a message to Jesus, but to get a message to us!
Here on the banks of the Jordan, comes a man of the people and in the midst of the men, women and children of Judah, on the muddy banks of the river, in the arms of John the Baptist, Jesus is baptized. The mud, the water, the torn open sky is a reminder that the gospel, the good news is down on earth, dwelling here with us. It is the good news that is grounded in the real, tactile, sensual, fleshy world. It is the good news that meets us right where we are in the less than perfectness of our own lives.
I take great hope from this scripture reading today because I think it gives us, the church, and us as individuals an opportunity to reflect on our life in the church where we tend to clean everything up, we try to make things neat and orderly and “sacred” by taking them out of the disorder of the world. Our time in church is so often, nice and neat and in order, that we fail to hear the implications of the words that are spoken, words that invite us to allow God to invade our lives…not come into our lives, but invade our lives through the torn apart skies.
Now I am a person who avoids violence in any form. I don’t like it, I don’t believe in it, so I find it odd that I feel pulled to such violent verbs like invade and torn, to talk about our relationship with God. It’s a little dangerous and it feels uncomfortable, but I am, I am intrigued by what it would be like to be invaded by God, to be torn apart by God. How would our lives change, how would our church change if we really and truly allowed ourselves to be torn apart and invaded by God?
That sounds a little scary doesn’t it? To invade means to conquest or plunder, it means to encroach upon. We usually fight against those things, as difficult as it feels, this is what we should be welcoming God to do. Don’t we want God to conquer our hearts, to plunder our souls, to encroach upon all that we do?
This may sound strange to say, but to truly allow God to invade our lives we must be brave, because when God conquers us God asks us to redefine our lives, God asks us to be open to new experiences, God asks us to live as servants of Christ in the world, helping others not because we can but because we must. God asks us to let go of old hurts, let go of our anger, let go of our pettiness, let go of the way we have always done things and go forward into a renewed life that is guided and directed not by what we want but by what God wants for us.
In this moment, God is so excited to get to us to be reunited with us, reconnected with us, to have us return to the parent whose love for us knows no boundaries. Unfortunately, all too often we fend God off, holding ourselves at arm’s length because we have some sort of crazy notion that we are not good enough for God. God does not stay away from us, rather we keep ourselves from God. But we can see today, right here is this scripture that God is not about that. Whoever we are and where ever we are on our life’s journey God just wants to love you and God will tear apart the heavens to get to you, but in return we need to be prepared to be torn apart as well, to be changed. I wonder if the question here today is, “What are you willing to tear apart to get to God?”
This is the first Sunday of a New Year, a time that we make resolutions to make changes in our life, resolutions that usually fall by the wayside within weeks, if not days. I know I have broken resolutions strewn behind me in my life. When I go back and reexamine them, trying to figure out why such good intentions can’t be attained, I realized that it is because all too often I think about the things I would like to change in my life without inviting God in to make those changes with me. I suspect that if you looked in your broken resolution closet you may come to the same conclusion. Why do we keep God from being part of our lives? I think sometime that we think we are of so little consequence to God that we don’t want to bother God with the mundane parts of our lives, saving our interactions for the BIG things. People, this is the God who TORE APART the heavens for us, so that we could hear and understand the great love of God that was and is before us in the son Jesus Christ. This is the God who TORE APART the heavens to assure us that we are loved, TORE APART the heavens to be in relationship with us! We mean something to God, each one of us, we mean something to God and by golly I don’t want to save that love for a rainy day, I want to be a part of that love each and every day of my life and I can be, and you can be because God TORE APART the heavens to get to US. And If that is not an illuminating discovery for epiphany I won’t know what else is!
On this first Sunday in Epiphany, in this time and in this holy space, I invite you to be invaded. I invite you to be torn apart by God, I invite you to continue to explore the discoveries of God in your life. HA