Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Heavens Torn Apart

I owe much to the writing of Kathryn Matthews Huey (as usual, it seems) and the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton in preparing this sermon.

Your comments and suggestions are appreciated.

Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Acts 19:1-7
While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul passed through the interior regions and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers?” They replied, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They answered, “Into John’s baptism.” Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied — altogether there were about twelve of them.

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.”

This is the Word of the Lord.

For many of us, our Gospel reading calls to mind a quiet, pastoral scene; one we’ve seen in the movies: John the Baptist is standing waist-deep in the water – you know it’s John the Baptist because he has the biggest beard, and he’s dressed like a caveman – and along comes Jesus, who looks a lot like Jeffrey Hunter, wading into the water as the violins swell in the background. John and Jeffery – I mean, Jesus – say their lines (with proper British accents, of course, because everyone knows people in first-century Palestine spoke in British accents), and John pushes Jesus down into the water (that makes the Baptists happy), then pours water from his cupped hands over Jesus’ head as he comes up (that makes the rest of us happy), and a spotlight comes on, a deep voice speaks, and a shiny white dove flies down.

It’s one of those cases where, at least for me, the story is so familiar that when I read it in the Bible my eyes kind of drift over it, not really seeing the words anymore. So it’s easy to miss the fact that there is some real excitement, even violence, going on here.

For starters, John the Baptist wasn’t just some guy who liked dunking people. He was calling people into repentance, offering baptism for the forgiveness of sins. These were the actions of a radical, a revolutionary. John was bringing people far away from the temple courts, out into the wilderness, out into the dirt and mud… but as far as the established order was concerned, this fringe-element prophet had no business forgiving sins! The temple folks had that all under control, thank you very much.

But the people came to him, because the people were thirsty – not for the muddy waters of the Jordan, but thirsty for God. Longing, anxious and eager to experience a new day, that day long promised to Israel.

For more than five hundred years the Jewish people had been reading all of the prophecies all across Scripture which promised a Messiah, which foretold of a day when the Kingdom of God would burst forth upon the earth, restoring all things to God.

And now, here was someone shouting at the top of his lungs that this day had come. Of course they would leave the temple, leave the city, journey into the wilderness to the Jordan!

And what about this repentance John spoke of, this return to God? We most often associate repentance with Lenten observance, and with our guilt, especially our personal, private sins, and that’s accurate, in and of itself. But the word that means "being sorry, remorseful, or penitent" had additional meanings in Jesus’ Judaism: According to Marcus Borg, “It was associated with return from exile; to repent is to return, to follow ‘the way of the Lord’ that leads from exile to the promised land. The Greek roots of the word suggest an additional meaning; to repent is to ‘go beyond the mind that you have’ – to go beyond conventional understandings of what life with God is about.”

“Come to the water,” John was saying. “Come change your direction. Come see things differently. Come and follow ‘the way of the Lord.’”

And Jesus came. And Jesus was baptized. And  when Jesus came up out of that water, the heavens were torn open!

Half a millennium before, the prophet Isaiah had seen the ruins of the Temple, had seen the best and brightest of Judea taken far away into exile, and had cried out to God, “Oh, that you would rip open the heavens and descend, make the mountains shudder at your presence—As when a forest catches fire, as when fire makes a pot to boil—To shock your enemies into facing you, make the nations shake in their boots! … Your holy cities are all ghost towns: Zion's a ghost town, Jerusalem's a field of weeds. Our holy and beautiful Temple, which our ancestors filled with your praises, was burned down by fire, all our lovely parks and gardens in ruins.
In the face of all this, are you going to sit there unmoved, God? Aren't you going to say something? Haven't you made us miserable long enough?”

And it was this moment that God chose to invade the sinful world with torn-apart skies and a dive-bombing dove – not to wreak havoc upon the enemies of Israel, though.

There’s a tendency to read into this account in Mark’s Gospel what’s known as an “adoptionist” theology – the idea that Jesus didn’t actually become God until John baptized him. I contend that, in this action of the heavens being torn open, and the Holy Spirit flying down upon Jesus, God is saying, “The gloves are off. It’s time to make things happen.”

The people were thirsting for God. They had looked in the Temple; they had followed this and that person, claiming to be the Messiah, only to see one after the other destroyed and his followers scattered. They prayed, they sacrificed, they searched, but it was hard to find God when they were hungry. It was hard to find God when their religious leaders were more interested in political power than in guiding the people. It was hard to find God when Caesar had you under his boot.

They couldn’t reach God.

So God tore open the heavens, and came to them. God came to them not to destroy the earth, or at least the perceived enemies of God – make no mistake, Jesus Christ turned the world on its head, utterly upset the apple cart, completely destroyed the status quo, but not through violence or retribution. No, God-with-us, Emmanuel, came to bring peace, to bring restoration, to declare the time of Jubilee, when the debt is paid, the captive freed, and that which has been lost is at last restored!

I don’t have to tell you that this is a message which our own world needs desperately to hear. Perhaps we don’t live under the heel of Caesar’s boot, but there’s plenty of oppression, quite enough poverty, and loads of worry and uncertainty in this world. And we who follow Christ, who are part of the Divine presence in this world, are called as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God to be the messengers of this great Good News – God is with us! God has not forgotten us, but has come, in Christ, with healing, with hope, with salvation!

You know how some people think that Christianity is boring? You know, go to church, sing the hymns, hear the sermons, do the rituals, lather, rinse, repeat.

Well, I want to suggest to you that, to a world which is thirsty for God, in a world which, whether it knows it or not, is looking for hope and reconciliation with its Creator with every breath, every heartbeat, Christianity is boring – but I use the word in a different meaning – boring like the steady, incessant spinning of a drill bit is boring, cutting holes through the jaded crust of privilege and excess, of politics and reality television, of consumerism and jealousy, reaching to the core of life.

It begins, of course, with our own lives, as day by day, week by week, the Christian message and life in community bores ever deeper into our souls, until, we begin to realize the truth – that we are a beloved child of God, we are marked with the cross of Christ forever, we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we are called to follow Christ, we are to love one another unconditionally, we are forgiven and called to forgive others, we are ambassadors for Christ.

This boring life of faith is begun at baptism, and is not completed until the day we die. Each day, we grow in realization that God is not done with us yet – that it is a fact that God loves us with a love so deep, so wide, so complete that nothing, ever, can separate us from that love.

And when that fact hits home, we will at last loose our tongues to sing God’s praises and free our hands to do God’s works in a world desperately thirsty to come up out of the water, to see the skies torn open, to see God descend in love.

1 comment:

  1. Stupid am I that I have not been reading you regularly. This fit well with a thought that has been churning around in my head all week thanks to a new acquaintance Melissa Cooper (@revmelissa).
    Our young people walk away from the church because we were "without a concept of God that captures their imaginations."
    John drew folk away from established religion because for 500 years it appears in one sense that God had been silent. Part of me doubts that – part of me thinks when we have a concept of God that captures people’s imaginations, that is God speaking. There may not have been a lot of Israelites with that concept in that gap, but I’m sure there were enough.
    People are indeed still thirsty for God. God put this thirst in us – as you say, “with every breath, every heartbeat). When we are thirsty for something and get something quite different, our thirst is not slaked and we remain unsatisfied. Some of us keep looking – others settle for what they can get – and others walk away. Maybe walking away is just another way to keep looking – God is big that way…
    I don’t intend this to be political, but it’s probably going to sound that way. We as you say have our share of oppression. Other nations this past year have tried to shed oppression that looked more like Caesar’s boot. Ours is more subtle. I think in part, this is what the occupy movement is all about. I’m not fully drinking the occupy Kool-Aid but it is a reaction to something. There was a reaction 3 years ago here in the US – in essence “The gloves are off. It’s time to make things happen.” It was phrased a little differently – “Hope” and “Change” but there was a great response to this. Turns out in many ways, the words of The Who still stand and the new boss and the old boss, well…
    But I remember talking to a pastor under whom I previously had participated in a church plant during the election run up. It occurred to me that the division that the press kept claiming was tearing America down the middle was a load of BS. The ones they stick the microphones in front of the most are generally the marginal 5-10% on the extremes of both major parties, and yeah – they are so far apart little sensible will ever come from a conversation with or between them. So it left me wondering where the Christian voice was.
    I think I thought then that somewhere in the middle was a space, a vacuum even that could be filled with a strong Christian message. Now I’m not so sure about that – and I’m afraid I can’t fully articulate my thoughts on this, except to say God is not somewhere in the middle of the extremes of American left and right wing politics (and no God is definitely not either extreme either – even thought the extreme right thinks He is). That concept of God is WRONG! Gospel Christianity starting with repentance – and continuing with repentance from each time we get satisfied with a God who looks like us instead of constantly searching and growing to be more like Him – that “boring” process in a sense… Gospel Christianity is something quite different. Sorry I don’t have the words to really explain this.

    A couple of other stray thoughts I won’t elaborate on.
    Interesting that these readings appear early in the year. Seems to me some connection between repentance (despite the connection with Lenten observance) – that call to “change your direction” and our New Years traditions of resolutions or something similar.
    And secondly going out into the wilderness to hear God speak – going far from the Temple establishment or established religion. Going to a place where the sin goat went…

    Thanks again for your insights.