Grace Presbyterian Church
January 7, 2018, Baptism of the Lord B
The Heavens Torn Apart
Does anything about this story from Mark sound familiar?
In truth there are several passages that might evoke something familiar from the Old Testament, or scripture we just heard during the season of Advent in particular. John the Baptist gets his own Sunday in Advent, and his wilderness-chic wardrobe might have touched off sparks of recognition. Maybe the image of the dove descending brought back memories of, say, the story of Noah’s Ark, and the dove that finally returned, letting Noah know that dry land was on its way.
In this case, though, I have in mind a particular image, found in a particular scripture from Isaiah that actually got preached about a month ago. Maybe it sounds just a little bit familiar? From the very beginning of Isaiah 64…
“Oh, that you would tear open the heavens and come down…”
And there in today’s reading, verse 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.”
Honestly, it’s hard to believe Mark didn’t do that deliberately.
Of course, Isaiah had a much bigger display in mind. You might remember that the prophet spoke of mountains shaking, fire causing water to boil, enemies trembling, that kind of stuff. And of course in Isaiah’s prophetic wish, the heavens-being-torn-open act was meant for all to see. Everybody was meant to be impressed and “scared straight,” so to speak, turning away from sin and rebellion to obedience to God.
That’s not quite how Mark’s account goes. In this case it seems Jesus is the only one who sees the heavens torn apart. Other gospels record the scene differently, but here the vision was apparently meant for Jesus alone. And of course, the Spirit “descending like a dove” probably wasn’t the follow-up Isaiah had in mind. Screaming like a hawk, perhaps, but a dove? Too peaceful-sounding.
Nonetheless, even this scene should give us pause. This was not a “safe” act for Jesus. Directly after this baptism Jesus would be driven out into the wilderness, to face temptation at the hands of the tempter himself. The course of Jesus’s ministry on earth was never going to be smooth, and Mark manages to make that clear just from this one image. “The heavens torn apart…”
In fact, this isn’t something Mark overdoes. The Greek word used here only appears one other time in this gospel, at the other end of it. In Mark 15:39, as Jesus hangs on the cross and dies, at that moment (we are told) that the curtain of the Temple was “torn in two.” The disruptive image of being “torn apart” returns at the end of Jesus’s ministry as it had appeared at its beginning.
Let’s be honest, it’s hard for us to envision baptism in this way. Nowadays, particularly in church traditions like ours, baptism often gets made “cute.” We have this cute little bowl of water, a child is baptized wearing a specially made and very cute baptism garment in many cases, … it’s just not the kind of picture that lends itself to images of the heavens torn apart.
And yet, if we’re doing it right, this baptism can lead us places we don’t expect to go. If you’re lucky, it leads you to something manageable, like being ordained and then installed as an elder on your church’s session, as W.T., Carl, and Julie are being installed today. And sometimes even a form of service like that can feel a little bit as though the heavens are least being ripped a little bit.
You might find yourself being led into far riskier and more challenging forms of service, whether it be in a pulpit or a mission field. You might find yourself put in a position of having to speak unpleasant truths among people who don’t want to hear them. You might find yourself, in the words of the PC(USA)’s A Brief Statement of Faith, called to “unmask idols in church and culture,” which never seems to go well for the one doing the unmasking. You might find yourself challenged to walk away from the comfortable and profitable, towards the challenging and impoverished to whom Jesus ministered. There’s no telling where that baptism might lead you.
But baptism does come with its promises as well. You won’t find yourself abandoned. As a popular saying went in my younger days, “If you think God’s far away, guess who moved?” You won’t be left defenseless in the stormy and difficult times. You won’t be given up for lost or forsaken – not because baptism is some kind of magic talisman, but because the Jesus who took on baptism himself is faithful and unwilling to give us up, the ones whom he gave so much to redeem.
During our installation of elders in a few moments, one of the elements is a reaffirmation of our baptismal vows. Such a reaffirmation is not at all about needing to “recharge” or “reload”; if anything it’s about our need to remember the vows that were made for us, perhaps, and reaffirmed in our confirmation, or that we made ourselves if we were baptized as youth or adults. In either case, be aware that even now, your baptism may lead you somewhere you never expected, even if the heavens aren’t torn apart.
For the unexpected path from the baptismal font, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #375, Shall We Gather At the River; #164, Down Galilee’s Slow Roadways; #163, Wild and Lone the Prophet’s Voice; #480, Take Me to the Water