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Torn Apart Forever
January 11, 2015
A reading from the Gospel of Mark:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Is 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” ’, 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.’
Notice how Mark’s Gospel begins. There are no angels or shepherds, and there’s no manger scene, as in Luke’s Gospel. No family genealogy, wise men, or trip to Egypt with which Matthew introduces his Gospel. And we won’t find any lofty, poetic flourishes like those that characterize the beginning of John’s Gospel. Mark just plunges right in to the story. Mark’s beginning, like his entire narrative, is terse, direct and fast-paced, so much so that we may miss the novel way Mark introduces his narrative. He takes us immediately to the Jordan River, where John the Baptizer is proclaiming a baptism for the repentance of sins. Mark doesn’t offer any theological elaboration, nor does he record any conversation with John. He simply reports that Jesus came to the Jordan and was baptized. It’s what happens next that commands our attention this morning. Mark uses an unexpected image that no other Gospel writer employs–an image that flashes the good news of God in Jesus Christ right before our eyes.
Now, all three of the synoptic Gospels report that when Jesus came out of the water something transpired between heaven and earth. Matthew and Luke say that the heavens opened and the Spirit descended. But Mark doesn’t say that the heavens opened. He chooses a different verb to describe what happened. He says that when Jesus came up from the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
This startling image of the heavens being ripped apart offers us a window into the very character of God. It signals to us that the God who is made known to us in Jesus is no aloof, dispassionate deity. Rather, Mark suggests that God is more like a lover who craves to be reunited with the beloved. One who detests separation, and who yearns for restoration and relationship. Mark’s depiction of God is similar to that of the father in the parable of the Prodigal Son. When the father glimpses the son in the distance, he doesn’t calmly walk through the door. No, he flings the door open, banging the screen against the wall and racing to embrace the Son. So right at the beginning of his narrative, Mark invites us to imagine a God who, in Jesus’ baptism, ripped apart the barrier separating heaven and earth, God and humankind.
Consider, too, that what is merely opened can be closed. But what is torn apart can never be reversed. The ragged edges never go back together exactly as they were. Just so, there’s something irrevocable about the new relationship with humanity that God initiates in Jesus’ baptism. No doubt Mark has in mind Isaiah’s plea, centuries before, when the prophet cried out to God, “Oh, that you would tear the heaven open and come down and make your name known to your enemies and make the nations tremble at your presence.” In Mark’s telling of Jesus’ baptism, there’s no indication that the voice was heard by anyone other than Jesus, nor is there any suggestion that the nations trembled. Still, in an unexpected, unprecedented way, Jesus’ baptism signals the beginning of a new creation, a restored relationship, a permanent joining together. The heavens, Mark proclaims, have been ripped open, never to close again.
And think about how, just as God’s Spirit entered the world through a torn place, Jesus, in his ministry, continued to bring God’s Spirit into the torn places of people’s lives. He went to those whose health has been ripped from them…to the lepers whose skin was torn and disfigured…to the broken-hearted parents whose child had died…to the widows and the poor who had lost any shred of hope…to the blind and the lame who were impaired and disabled. Jesus came to others, just as God’s Spirit had come to him, through the torn places of our lives and world.
And remember how, at the end of Mark’s Gospel, Mark employs the same verb he used at the beginning of his Gospel. Mark tells us that when Jesus breathed his last, the curtain of the temple was torn from top to bottom. Thus the holy of holies no longer separated God’s presence from the people. In the crucifixion, God tore apart the last barrier that separated God from humankind–death itself–and filled this chasm of darkness with God’s grace.
This morning it was so enjoyable to introduce many of the little children of our congregation. We were reminded how we sense God’s presence in the smiling faces of children, the joy of parenthood, in health and in all the comforts and pleasures of life. True enough. But at the outset of his Gospel, Mark gives us even better news: the assurance that God is with us in the hard times, in the losses, the sorrows and the disappointments of life. I’m thinking of all the torn places in our lives, the sore spots, the open wounds, the enduring scars that we all carry.
Most of us would agree that death is the hardest loss to accept. Certainly this morning we’re feeling the loss of our good friend and parish associate, Keith Wright, who died Friday morning. Death is a tear that separates us from those we love and care about. We already miss Keith’s sweet countenance, his good humor, his compassion, his eloquent and heart-felt prayers that so enriched our lives and worship. Nevertheless, we take comfort in the promise declared at Jesus’ baptism, and again at his death. It’s a promise that the Apostle Paul articulated with these words: “We now know that nothing, not even death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”
In a still different way, with my retirement on the horizon, we’re facing another kind of loss–the severing of a long-time pastoral relationship. Our bond has been strong, close, and so important in our lives. It’s natural that we will grieve the loss and feel some uncertainty about what the future holds.
But friends, in the midst of all life’s changing circumstances, and especially in the midst of life’s most challenging circumstances, we are buoyed by our baptismal promise–the sure and certain knowledge that God is not a detached observer of our lives. To the contrary, God’s Spirit is streaming through these windows, racing through the doors, and crashing into our hearts. Why? “Because,” cries the voice from heaven, “You are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”