Tearing Open the Heavens (January 8, 2012 Sermon)
Tearing Open the Heavens (Mark 1:4-11)
Seminary, as you might imagine, has occupied a great deal of my educational life. Heck, if you ask my wife, it's occupied a great deal of my actual life. I enjoyed seminary—each of the three different times I went.
Seminary, like any other trade school, has certain points of emphasis. They want to teach you to think theologically, for instance—which is to say, they want to train you to view the world through the lens of a theologically informed faith.
When the country goes to war, for instance, they teach you to think of it not first in political terms (What will this mean for the party in power?) or economic terms (What is this going to cost me?) or even in practical terms (What will this mean for me and people I love?), but in theological terms (What does God think of war? How does Jesus view violence?). Sex, money, politics, justice—all of these things are meant, according to seminary, to be passed through the filter of our relationship to God and God's relationship to us as expressed in Christ.
Another biggie they teach you in seminary centers on one word. This word has to do with the minister's relationship to the world—in particular, her relationship to other people.
You walk into Pastoral Counseling 101 all ready to learn about how to fix people, and they ruin your day by telling you that fixing people isn't your job.
"What do you mean? I thought fixing people was the job. That's why I came! The world's messed up. It needs fixing. And I'm the one for the job, because I know how the world ought to be. I have a particularly good idea of how people ought to be."
Sorry, young master Freud, but that's not how it works. One of the most important things we can teach you has nothing to do with fixing anybody; it has to do with boundaries.
Boundaries, my friend. We're here to teach you boundaries.
Why is that such a big deal?
Well, you can never help anybody if you don't know where you end and other people begin.
Ministry, they teach you in seminary, is about having good boundaries. Otherwise, you get the idea that people have hired you to come in and fix them—or perhaps, worse, that you're the main point of everything that goes on.
But people, generally speaking, don't want to be fixed. And those who do want you to fix them, trust me, you learn very quickly there's not enough Transactional Analysis or Systems Theory in your ministerial tool kit for those people.
Boundaries. You've got to know your limits.
Mark, however, completely messes up the whole boundaries thing in our Gospel for this morning. Let me set the stage.
The Gospel of Mark, unlike Matthew or Luke's Gospel, opens without any mention of Jesus' birth or early life. In Mark, Jesus shows up on the scene, fully grown and ready for baptism.
No history. No background. No polite introductions.
Just John the Baptist—"the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"
In fact, our passage this morning begins abruptly: "John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins."
Who is John the baptizer? Where did he come from?
No artful segues for Mark.
Then, after we meet John, Mark thrusts Jesus on us: "In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan."
The next two verses, however, are the ones Mark's been chomping at the bit to get at: "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.'"
This is the first Sunday after Epiphany, the Sunday traditionally called The Baptism of Our Lord. Mark recounts the story in a straightforward manner. Short. Concise. No extra window-dressing. No flowery language.
First, there's John. Then Jesus shows up, and John baptizes him. God identifies Jesus as the Son.
It would be easy to dismiss Mark's rather spare account of the baptism of Jesus as workmanlike and uninspiring, wouldn't it?
But, there's a little nugget hidden in Mark's prosaic rendering of the scene—one that distinguishes it from Matthew and Luke's telling of the story, setting up this short narrative as a crucial signpost for us.
And it's found in one word. When Matthew and Mark tell this story, they use the tamer Greek word, anoigo—to open up—as in, when Jesus "came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him."
Anoigo. Open. Nice. Inviting. It's the word Matthew uses when he says, "Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you" (7:7).
Anoigo. Open. It's the same word Luke uses when he says, "For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened."
See what I mean? Welcoming.
Good liberals like anoigo. It's how we like to see ourselves.
Mark, on the other hand, uses a different word. A much less polite word. Instead of anoigo Mark uses schizo. It means to split or tear apart. That's, of course, where we get the word schizophrenia—literally, to split or tear the mind in half.
"Ok," you say, "That's interesting, especially for the word nerds. But so what? Mark chooses "tear open" instead of "open up nicely." What difference does that make?"
Well, if that were the only instance of it, I'd be just as dubious about its importance as you are. If it were the case that Mark just used a more violent synonym than Matthew and Luke, it might be worth a mention, but certainly not the belaboring of it I'm doing.
Here's the thing, though. This isn't the only time Mark uses a form of schizo. He uses it another time, later in the Gospel. Way in the back, almost at the end.
In the 15th chapter, Jesus is on the cross; and verse 37 says, "Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last."
The next verse has this: "And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom."
Of course, the traditional interpretation of this act of the tearing of the temple curtain from top to bottom is that—because it's the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies (God's true home on earth) from the rest of the temple—it's a kind of metaphor for God's rending of the veil that separates heaven and earth.
Do you see what Mark has done? In critical terms, it's called an inclusio, which is a device in which an author uses a word or phrase twice, as literary bookends. These bookends modify and interpret that which lies between.
All right. Enough with the pointy-headed explanations. Mark opens and closes the ministry of Jesus in spectacular fashion. He announces that in Jesus—in his life and work and death—God has come among us. God has torn the veil that formerly separated humanity from the divine.
And this tearing is no sweet opening of a door. Open doors can be closed again. In Jesus, God has ripped the door off the hinges! God has transgressed the boundaries that separated us from God.
Since Jesus, there's no more, "You stay on your side of the car, and I'll stay on mine. Don't cross the invisible line."
In Jesus, God has announced an intention to barge right into the living room and take a seat in our favorite Barcalounger.
Now, at first blush, being in the presence of God sounds like what we regularly say we want. Right? We talk about seeking God's face, standing in God's presence—as if we expect it to be a tranquil encounter.
Come right in. Take a seat. Have a nice cup of cocoa while you wait. God will be with you momentarily.
I'm not so sure. I think this whole God-tearing-the-heavens-apart-to-get-at-us thing could turn out to be way more than we bargained for.
Don't get me wrong, I really like the idea of Jesus' presence ripping a hole in the fabric of reality—to the extent that it proves we serve a God who cares about us, who will stop at nothing to be reconciled to us, who loves us enough to become like us. That's good stuff.
After Jesus, God is no longer an abstraction—"out there." God, in Christ, is "right here."
The problem, though, as I see it, is that "right here" doesn't strike me as a place we want God snooping around. I mean, what with the way things are in the world—children dying in the night for lack of food and shelter, the elderly having to choose between buying their medicine or paying for heat, young African-American men lining the cells in a bloated correctional system, while other young people are imprisoned by a financial system that encouraged them to take on stiflingly large debt to get an education, LGBTQ folks sent to the back of the very dangerous and punitive social bus, animals factory farmed to make our Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets as cheap as possible, the environment overwhelmed by our ability to engineer machines—the by-products of which are strangling creation, political systems that ensure that the wealthy and the powerful retain their status, while the poor and the powerless are kept . . . poor and powerless.
I had a guy named, John, come into the office last week. He was a pretty big guy—leather jacket, beard, big workmen's hands. He just wanted to talk to a pastor. His wife died in July, after nine year battle with cancer. He's fighting for custody of his kids, because he's got a prison record. He can't find work. He's losing his house. His life is a mess.
After he finished this awful tale, he looked up at me, tears streaming down his face, and said, "Pastor, I don't know what to do. I keep praying for God to come and show me what I need to do. But I got nothing. Sometimes I wonder if maybe God is for other people—people who aren't like me. I keep waiting, but I haven't seen anything yet."
What could I say? I've taken the class. I've got good boundaries. I prayed with him, then took him to buy some gas.
It occurs to me that John doesn't need a nice door-opening God; he needs Mark's God, a sky-ripping God—a God who's not satisfied with the way things are.
So, here's the thing. If we've got a heavy investment in keeping the world situated the way it is, maybe having God kick down the front door isn't going to be that pleasant an experience for us.
If we think that our biggest responsibility revolves around trying to hang on to what we've got, then maybe having a God who's unconcerned about crossing boundaries is going to sound like bad news*.
If, however, all the boundaries in your world have been drawn to keep you out, to hold you where you are, to cut you off from life—maybe this transgressive, pushy, boundary-crashing God who tears open the heavens and comes to us in Jesus . . . is just the news you you've been waiting to hear.