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 ripped open. The ferocity of Mark’s text doesn’t always 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 arose from the water, he saw the heavens ripped open and the Spirit descending upon him through that gash in the fabric of the sky.
We’re accustomed to a gentler notion of baptism – like what we celebrated today in the baptism of Benjamin. A 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 child’s life. The moment is filled with warmth. It’s a sign of our togetherness. It’s our way of saying 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 split open forcefully. The phrase only appears 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 place where 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 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 by the end of Mark chapter one, right at the very beginning of this work, people 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. He has fed five thousand and then another four thousand people on what appear to be scraps. He has forgiven sins. He has calmed storms. The religious authorities cannot accept this perceived challenge to their power. 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 has 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. The world seems oblivious to what has just happened, everyone except for one representative of empire and military might – one hardened, battle-trained Roman Centurion who sees it all and says, “Surely this man was the son of God.”
Of course, the story isn’t over. Easter comes. Jesus rises. Love 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 and revenge toward others is attributed to God. We saw this in France over the past week, as craven and murderers justified their craven killings in the name of God, as if God somehow needs human protection with guns.
As blatantly horrible as shootings are, and as much as we ought to unmask and undermine the perpetrators, 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 us to know how the heavens were split open at our baptisms. I think Jesus would want us to know what difference our baptisms make. I think 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 it is good. We affirm the same theology about Baptism. God looks at our baptisms and sees something 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. God sees you as part of creation and says in admiration, “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.
If Jesus joined us here this morning, I think he would ask us two related sets of questions. First, he would ask, “Do you understand that in this world into which you have been baptized, love replaces hate, humility replaces arrogance, forgiveness replaces retribution, and peace replaces violence? Do you understand that in this world into which you have been baptized, these are not just noble ideals — these are values by which you are to live your life?”
Then he would ask a second set of questions. “Do you realize how difficult it will be to do live out values like love, humility, forgiveness and peace? Do you understand how uncomfortable these values make people when you take them seriously? Are you aware that human beings fear those who expose our tendency for destruction and that the knee-jerk response is to destroy that which would expose us? Do you realize that people may even use the name of God to condemn you for living according to your faith?”
The baptism of Jesus is our baptism, and each one is a heaven-ripping, world-shattering affair. Once the waters of baptism touch 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.”