4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And 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.5Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He 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. 81 have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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.11And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
Throughout history, human beings have established rituals for the beginning and ending of life experiences. Think for a second about all the traditions you have celebrated to mark the beginning and ending of things — first days of school, first day of retirement, wedding days, graduation days. All of them serve as markers in the time line of your life and the lives of those you love. They are important, because the mark the beginning of things. Even those events that celebrate the end, in truth also celebrate a beginning. For many of us, one of the earliest rituals we experience is our baptism.
For Presbyterians, baptism is one of two sacraments. A sacrament is Sacred acts that we set apart daily symbols like water, bread, cups and tables and we use them as holy reminders of God's grace and covenant with us. Baptism is a sacrament that happens once to us and then we need to remember over and over again, that we belong to God
This morning we hear the story that marks the beginning of Jesus' ministry — his baptism by his cousin John.
All three synoptic Gospels — Matthew, Mark and Luke tell us that Jesus was baptized, that the baptism took place in the wilderness, that the event served as the starting point to his ministry and lastly, that it was theophany. — Meaning, it was a moment that God's presence was made known.
Now, each Gospel tells the story a little differently, mainly focusing on John the Baptists deference to the situation. But there remains three main characters in the story — John, Jesus and God. The account is similar in all three Gospels, Jesus comes to John and asks to be baptized, John agrees and at the moment of the baptism, as he comes from the water, a dove descends and God speaks. In Mark's story, the people keep coming and coming, and John keeps proclaiming and baptizing. Then one day, Jesus from Nazareth of Galilee slips in line, incognito. He takes his place in line with all the sinners, the broken people, the wounded. He takes his place there with those who truly understand the depths of their guilt, and with the rest, who in their blissful ignorance, haven't got a clue. He takes his place in line with all of them, in solidarity with a broken and fearful world. And perhaps most astonishingly, he takes his place in line...with us. Then, just when it seems the skies are falling - just as Jesus comes up out of the water of his baptism, drenched to the hilt, immediately Jesus sees the heavens ripped open.
The sky didn't crack open, or unfold, or separate — it ripped. The Greek word is Schizomai and it means "to rip, rend, tear apart in a way that cannot be put back together again." In the Gospel of Mark, we first see the verb appear at the moment of Jesus' baptism: "And as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens schizomai—being ripped, torn apart—and God's Spirit came down like a dove and rushed into him, possessing him, driving him, calling him" (Mark 1:10)
Now just think about this for a second with me. If something is ripped, its torn, it's broken. And if something is ripped apart, even when it comes back together, it's the never the same, you can always see where the tear took place. Mark says that the heavens were ripped open and exposed earth and heaven to each other. When Jesus' baptism tore the heavens apart, it exposed something, all right. It exposed what the prophet Isaiah long ago had prayed for — "0 that you [God] would tear open the heavens and come down."
At one moment you have this imagery of almost a violent act of tearing open the heavens, followed by the gentle descent of the Spirit like a dove exposed God with us in Jesus Christ. God comes through the torn place. That is Mark's Epiphany story — God comes through the torn places.
God comes through the torn places, and that is Jesus' ministry as well — to break into the broken world, and to wrestle with the devil, to name the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, to eat with outcast and to provide sight to the blind. Once Jesus is baptized, he is catapulted into the wilderness where he is tested and challenged by Satan, he is brought into sick rooms, where the dying lay and the grief is thick. It's face paced ministry with little time for contemplation until he finds himself only three years later at what looks like the end, when he is brought on trial and sentenced to death. And then at the end of Mark's gospel story, when Jesus was crucified, gave a loud cry and breathed his last, "the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom." And the centurion said, "Truly this man was God's Son." Two tearings; two divine affirmations. Like dramatic bookends to Mark's story of the in-breaking of God's forgiveness in Jesus Christ. It is not by mistake that the writer of Mark's Gospel book ends his story with this imagery...because at the beginning and at the end, heaven continues to break through.
That is what Jesus was and is about. Through Mark's telling of the story, we see in Jesus a God who refuses to be kept in place, apart, distant, withdrawn from creation and creature. And we also see in Jesus a God who refuses to be controlled by us.
As we follow Jesus all through Mark, we see that he is bound and determined to tear down all those boundaries, to rip them apart, to call us out beyond ourselves and "our kind" for the sake of the gospel, for the sake of a wholehearted, courageous, faithful life. And that implies that for those of us who are functioning more than adequately with things the way they are, sometimes the good news of the gospel might not sound like great news for us. Yet as theology professor Shirley Guthrie used to say, "God loves you for who you are. But guess what — God also loves you too much just to let you stay who you are." We see that in Jesus and in his schizomai ministry.
All throughout his ministry, his life, Jesus was God on the loose, engaging
in schizomai work, refusing to see the world as we so often see it, with categories of what is appropriate and what is not, who is clean and respectable enough to be worth our time and energy and who is not, what cause we can invest in and what cause we can shrug off. Frankly, the Jesus we see in Mark couldn't care less about any of the nice and neat ways we have ordered our world and our lives.
Jesus is all about schizomai work, being God on the loose in our world, jumping over the boundaries we have set up or just plain tearing them apart, whether we like or not, whether we are ready for it or not, even in church.
But in truth, the church should be the place where you walk in. and it feels like the sky has been ripped open and heaven and earth meet.
I am on a Facebook link for Presbyterian ministers and last week someone posed the question of whether people should clap in worship. You would not believe the heavy debate that took place. Back and forth, back and forth, strong feelings one way, strong feelings the other. You would think they were debating health care. I made a mistake of offering my opinion which was, Good Lord — Clap Away. That lead to me getting opinions of others. Until I figured out how to stop getting notices.
Here's what I think. When the Jesus became one of us in line and stood right there next to the sinner on the left and the sinner on the right, and walked into the water and was taken under and emerged glistening with water the heavens ripped open and a dove came to earth — all of heaven clapped.
When he walked the streets of Jerusalem and healed the leper, and casted out demons and stepped in front of the prostitute and ate with tax collectors. All of heaven clapped.
And when you remembered him and prayed to him and served him and sang to him and loved him and honored him and lived for him. The heavens could not help but open, and all of heaven clapped.
Today we remember our baptisms. We remember them and we affirm them. We remember that before we knew God, God knew us. We remember that we are saved only by the grace of God. We remember that in life and in death we belong to God.
Baptized in water, sealed by the Spirit, marked with the sign of Christ our king; born of one Father, we are his children - joyfully now God's praise we sing.