The Rev. Dr. William Heisley
Lessons: Genesis 1:1-15; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11
“He saw the heavens torn apart.” Jesus came up out of the River Jordan, dripping wet and he, at least he, maybe others, but at least he, saw the heavens torn apart. Torn wide open as if at that moment God came to earth. As if God were breaking open the celestial sphere to say to us meager, us mere human beings, this is my Son. This, too, is God. Jesus saw the heavens torn apart. It’s not often that we see something like that.
Yesterday I met with a very bright, very lively, very observant three-year old and his parents to talk about Holy Baptism. He kept looking up at the ceiling here in the church and pointing and saying that the sky was breaking. “The sky is breaking.” I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I assured him that really everything was OK. After he said it several times his parents told me that recently a skylight broke in their building and the glass came falling to earth and the boy had seen it. The sky did indeed break.
Much like the day when Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River just south of the Sea of Galilee. The sky sometimes breaks open. And sometimes God reveals who God is. God breaks in to our world.
Since last September we have met in our adult forum called AfterWords eight times to study St. Mark’s gospel. One of the key things that we learned is that Mark is totally preoccupied not with proving that Jesus was God Incarnate, like Luke, and not that Jesus came to fulfill the Law, like Matthew, and not that Jesus existed through all of time, known and unknown, like John; Mark is preoccupied with telling us, showing us that Jesus is truly the Messiah, the One who was long expected, and that the way we see his exaltation, the only way we really see his godhood, is in his crucifixion.
Leading up to his crucifixion and death Mark tells us on three specific occasions that God has pointed out that, without a doubt, with no question about it, Jesus is the Son of God. The one who is suffering and walking in our sandals, or perhaps our snow boots, the one who is teaching and bleeding for us, is truly God’s Son, truly God.
It happens first in today’s reading from the beginning of Mark’s gospel. Jesus was baptized by John, 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.’” The ancient prayer offered by the prophet in the 64th chapter of Isaiah is answered: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence.” The heavens are torn apart. The sky breaks.
Another incident happens in Mark’s ninth chapter. Jesus takes Peter and James and John and leads them up a high mountain were he is transfigured. His clothes become dazzling white, and Elijah and Moses appear out of the mists of holy time and talk with him. A cloud overshadows them, and from the cloud there comes a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’” Mark’s gospel hinges on this moment, this scene, this breaking open of the sky through a cloud so that God’s voice can echo across the plains and reverberate off the mountains. This is my Son. This is God! The heavens are torn open and even though our eyes are clouded over, we hear. We know. This is God.
Finally, Mark tells us of another rending of the heart of reality. It’s in the 15th chapter of his gospel. Jesus is hanging on the cross. He calls out, “‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’” They gave him vinegar on a stick, and soon he died. The curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom, and along with it the heaven is torn wide open. And a centurion, a centurion of all people, a pagan, not a Jew, a Roman centurion watched him die and left his response as the culmination of Mark’s entire gospel: “’Truly this man was God’s son!’” The sky broke and God’s presence came in the Spirit of love and witness and Jesus was seen as God’s Son. Jesus was recognized, at last he was recognized as God’s Son by a human being. Mission accomplished, and mission just begun.
Victor Price and I were very lucky to be able to spend a week in Aruba on our honeymoon in September. We took great delight in walking across the beautiful beach where we stayed to relax in the warm, gently lapping water. And we loved watching Brown Pelicans soaring above us. Large and ungainly and yet, somehow graceful birds. But they struck us as living a rather clown-like existence, too. They would float around on the breeze, always alone, one by one going up and down the beach, their long beaks pointed down so that they could spy fish in the water. And without notice they would quickly fold their wings and dive straight into the surf, go headfirst into the water. A few seconds later they would surface, and take off. We never really knew whether they caught fish or not. But we loved laughing at their constant, instantaneous diving into the warm Caribbean.
Not that it was funny to them. It was a matter of life and death to them. Food for the living.
Today, the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus like a dove. Folds his wings and dives right down through a broken sky, and fills him with the presence of God for every moment of his eternal life. It’s a matter of life and death. Jesus’ life lived for us, his death died for us, and his climbing out of the River Jordan to minister to and with us.
Here is the essence of today: Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus is God. He is here. The preaching and witness of John the Baptist connects him with the promises that Israel had received for centuries. The setting of today’s scene in the wilderness reminds us of Israel wandering through the wilderness being prepared for its entrance into the long Promised Land that would flow with milk and honey, if only they could be freed from slavery to the Pharaoh in Egypt. And as we see the heavens being torn open, the sky breaking, John points us to God’s imminent intervention in human history to bring us new hope.
Today is about new hope. And basking in love. Basking in the light of the love that fills Jesus as a dove descending upon him. Basking in the light of the love that he teaches us to share. Basking in the light of the love that is the future – both his future and ours. Ultimate hope. Amen.