Genesis 1:1-5; Mark 1:4-11
John the Baptizer appeared in the wild, preaching a baptism of life-change that leads to forgiveness of sins. People thronged to him from Judea and Jerusalem and, as they confessed their sins, were baptized by him in the Jordan River into a changed life. John wore a camel-hair habit, tied at the waist with a leather belt. He ate locusts and wild field honey. As he preached he said, “The real action comes next: The star in this drama, to whom I'm a mere stagehand, will change your life. I'm baptizing you here in the river, turning your old life in for a kingdom life. His baptism—a holy baptism by the Holy Spirit—will change you from the inside out.” At this time, Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. The moment he came out of the water, he saw the sky split open and God's Spirit, looking like a dove, come down on him. Along with the Spirit, a voice: “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.” Mark 1:4-11, The MessageJesus saw the heavens being ripped open. It doesn’t quite come through in most English translation. Most say something like, “He saw the heavens opening and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.” But Mark actually wrote that when Jesus came up out of the water, he saw the heavens being ripped open and spirit coming upon him through the tear in the fabric of the great dome.
We’re accustomed to a gentler notion of baptism. At TCC, the clergy and deacons lead the congregation in a ceremony in which a baptized child is brought into the community of God’s people. Family members, godparents, and congregants promise to be a part of the community of the baptized. The moment is filled with warmth. It’s a sign of our togetherness. It’s our way of saying that we belong to one another and that we are glad to be on this journey with each another. Hardly anything we do in the church community is more affirming of our life together than our celebration of the sacrament of baptism.
Jesus’ baptism is not like this, at least not in the Gospel of Mark. In Mark’s account, the heavens forcefully split open. The phrase only a few times in the Bible. For instance, in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, Abraham splits apart the wood he uses to sacrifice Isaac. Luke and Matthew soften their accounts of the baptism of Jesus and use a word that is more comforting. They say that the heavens were opened or revealed. For them, things are revealed; for Mark the heavens rip.
The only other place that Matthew, Mark and Luke all refer to something ripped apart is at the crucifixion. Mark says “Jesus uttered a loud cry, breathed his last, and the veil of the Temple was ripped in two from top to bottom.” Mark uses this provocative image only twice, when the heavens are ripped apart at Jesus’ baptism and when the Temple veil is torn apart at his death. Mark wants us to understand something forceful and unsettling about Jesus’ baptism.
“Jesus saw the sky split open and God’s Spirit, looking like a dove.” If the heavens split open, one would think that God would appear to everyone. The irony is that the heavens rip apart and no one but Jesus even notices. Jesus sees the heavens split apart and the dove descend. No one else perceives it.
This is the pattern throughout the rest of Mark’s Gospel. People don’t see or hear. They don’t understand. They are not changed. After he is baptized, Jesus goes into the desert where he is tested. Then he begins his ministry of healing. At first, it goes well. People are amazed and his fame spreads. But already in chapter one, some begin to question Jesus. They ask, “What is this, a new teaching?” By chapter two, just barely into his ministry, after Jesus has done nothing but make people better, the scribes charge him with blasphemy. We haven’t even gotten out of the second chapter of the Mark’s Gospel and a plot is already in place. The end is already arranged. The crucifixion looms in the distance. By chapter six, those in his hometown say he is too big for his britches. By chapter eight Jesus has healed countless illnesses from deafness to leprosy, from epilepsy to mental illness, from paralysis to apparent death. He has fed five thousand and then four thousand people on what appeared to be scraps. He has forgiven sins. He has calmed storms. Eventually, the religious authorities can no longer stand this challenge to their authority. More than that, they cannot recognize the fact that Jesus keeps trying to uncover their ears and eyes. Jesus threatens to reveal their hypocrisy, their pretense, their comfort and their denial. So they do what comes naturally. They do the very thing that Jesus had come to change about human ways. They shut him up permanently. They nail him to the cross. And as he breaths his last, the heavens split apart. As far as we know, only a lone Roman centurion was the only one to see it. The rest of the world seems oblivious to what has just happened, except for one representative of empire and military might – one hardened, battle-trained soldier who says, “Surely this man was the son of God.”
Of course, the story isn’t over. Easter comes. Jesus rises. He gets the last word. Ultimately, it becomes the basis for the Christian church. But a funny thing happens along the way. The church that grew out of Jesus’ resurrection falls prey to the same human faults that preceded it. In Jesus’ name, war is justified. Wealth and privilege are seen as gifts of God, while poverty and powerlessness are characterized as God’s judgment. Hatred toward others is attributed to God.
As blatant as those things are, and as much as we ought to unmask them and fight against them, I wonder what Jesus would say if he joined us here this morning. I wonder whether Jesus would ask us to focus on where our ears might be blocked and our eyes closed. I wonder if Jesus would want to know how the heavens were split open at our baptisms. He would want to know what difference our baptisms make. He would remind us that baptism is the start of something new—the birth of a new creation. Today we heard the opening words from Genesis. In the beginning, out of nothing, God creates. Every time God inspects the creation, God sees that it is good. Baptism is the beginning of our transformation. The heavens rip open once again. God creates something new. And it is good. It is beautiful.
This week we had a memorial service for Margaret Pavlik, a long-time friend of this congregation. Her son-in-law Michael spoke about her final days in the hospital. Lying in her hospital bed, she gazed toward some flowers. When Michael asked her if she was looking at the flowers, he heard her whisper one word in response. It was the last thing he ever heard her say: “Beautiful.”
I believe that God sees you and speaks the same word. Listen for God’s first and last words about creation, whispered from the heavens: Good. Beloved. Beautiful.
Garrison Keillor tells the story of Larry the Sad Boy. Larry the Sad Boy was saved twelve times, which is an all-time record in the Lutheran Church. The Lutheran Church has no altar call, no organist playing “Just as I Am,” as people come forward to be born again. These are Scandinavian Lutherans, and they repent the same way that they sin -- discreetly, tastefully, and at the right time. And they bring a Jell-O-salad for afterwards. Keillor writes, “Larry Sorenson came forward weeping buckets and crumpled up at the communion rail, to the amazement of the minister, who had just delivered a dry sermon on stewardship, and who now had to put his arm around this limp, saggy individual and pray with him and see if he had a ride home. Twelve times. Granted, we’re born in original sin and are worthless and vile, but twelve conversions is too many. There comes a point where you should dry your tears, and join the building committee and start grappling with the problems of the church furnace and the church roof and make church coffee and be of use, but Larry just kept on repenting and repenting.”
Keillor reminds us that repentance has a point, and that point is to get about doing God’s work. It begins in baptism. God creates something new and beautiful in order for us to do something new and beautiful.
Jesus would be asking us two related sets of questions. He would be asking, “Do you understand how different the world you have been baptized into is from the world from which you came? Do you understand that in this world into which you have been baptized, love replaces hate, humility replaces arrogance, forgiveness replaces retribution, peace replaces violence? Do you understand that in this world into which you have been baptized these things are not just noble ideals – that they are values by which you are to live your life. Do you realize how difficult these things are?”
And then he would ask the second set of questions. “Do you understand how uncomfortable these things make not just you but other people when you take them seriously? Do you understand how dangerous people will consider them? Do you realize that people will even use the name of God to condemn you for them? Are you of the human tendency to destroy what it doesn’t like? Are you aware that human beings fear those who expose their tendency for destruction and that their knee-jerk response is to destroy that which would expose them? Are you aware that if you share my baptism, you will drink the cup I drank?
The baptism of Jesus is our baptism, and each one is a world-shattering affair. Once the waters of baptism touched you, there is no turning back. In our baptism, in this unmasking of the violence that we justify in our world and justify in ourselves, in this ripping open of the heavens, we can find the dove of peace. Peace within us and between us. Peace that lies far beyond the cycles of violence and retribution we see every day. Peace that comes as the heavens rip apart and we listen for the voice of God. Can you hear it? “Good. Beloved. Beautiful. You are my beloved child -- my new creation. In you I am well pleased.”