News & Events
Sermon - January 10, 2021
Baptism of the Lord
January 10, 2021
The heavens were torn apart. Schizo is the Greek word Mark uses. While Mark provides the fewest details of all the Gospels and gives the shortest description of the baptism of Jesus, it is the most dynamic. We are not told how Jesus was baptized but just that as he was coming up out of the water, he saw “the heavens torn apart”.
Schizo: disagreement, dissension, discord, rupture, disunion, fracture, splinter, need I go on? Any one of those words is an apt description of the events of this past week. Believe it or not, I chose today’s sermon title, “Torn Apart” on Monday afternoon. I hadn’t the foggiest notion of just how prescient that title was.
Schizo is a foreboding image of the schizophrenia we know as a mental disorder which makes it difficult to tell the difference between real and unreal experiences. Not to make light of those persons afflicted with horrific mental disorder, but I think it presents a painful, regrettable vision of our nation. Perhaps, even, you find yourself struggling to determine what is real and unreal.
Matthew and Luke simply say the heavens were opened up as a breeze would move clouds. Mark, though, sees clouds tearing. Heavens ripping. Divine voice booming. Spirit descending. In this moment, God breaks into the world in which we live.
These are terrifying words. It is the language of slashing and slicing, shredding and clawing until something once locked up, safe and seldom seen, knifes its way free to this human side where we’re standing.
Dr. Don Juel, professor of New Testament at Princeton Seminary, was telling a group of teenagers about schizo, the tearing of the heavens (by the way, the same word Mark uses of the Temple curtain tearing during the crucifixion of Jesus), that we now have access to God. A young teenager in the group raised his hand and said, “I think you have it wrong…(imagine saying that to a renowned scholar) I think it means that all of a sudden God has access to us!” Schizo!
As far as Mark is concerned Jesus’ life begins with his baptism in the River Jordan. The first thing that Mark tells us about this man Jesus is that he shows up one day on the banks of the River Jordan there in the Judean countryside and lines up with all of the other people to get baptized by John. Maybe Mark doesn’t know about Jesus’ birth and early life. Maybe he does but he doesn’t find it particularly important to understanding Jesus.
I recently heard a story told by a man that worked in Egypt with refugees from South Sudan a number of years ago. To his great surprise, he discovered that most of them celebrated their birthdays on January 1. “What a coincidence!” he thought. How did all of these people from all different villages in remote areas of southern Sudan get born on the same exact day, in different years?
As it turns out, they did not, of course. The reality was none of them knew their real birthday because that kind of information was not really valued to them and many of them were born in such primitive regions without medical care that dates and times were not officially recorded. As it turns out, however, when they applied for refugee status with the United Nations, they had to put down some date on the official form. From their perspective, it must be a strange funny detail to include to prove their humanity. So, most of them would go with the year they were born in, which they knew, and rather than make up a day, they defaulted to January 1.
Mark defaults to this baptism by John. John is preaching and performing a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That is, people came to be washed by him in the Jordan in order to demonstrate their readiness to live in God’s coming kingdom. They were not the most religious people you could find, but (in contrast to the most religious types) these people knew their sin—that is, their shortcomings, their brokenness—was causing them to live out of step with God. They knew enough to know that their own sinfulness and imperfections were somehow not what God expected of them and that in God’s kingdom, only the cleanest and purest would be appropriate.
Repentance is a fancy way of saying a change in mind, or a change in heart. That is what they felt—a need for a change. So, in spite of the fact that the River Jordan was and is one of the muddiest, dirtiest rivers around, they came by the hundreds to be made clean and to show, through their repentance, their readiness to be claimed for God’s kingdom.
So, in the midst of this hodge-podge group of sinners stands Jesus. He comes to John, also. He moves along, right there in among all of the ordinary folks—all those who have gotten in trouble with the law, all those who have made bad mistakes with their lives or some other crime of the heart, all those who have ever let God down in any way. It may seem a little strange to imagine Jesus there, in that line, because, to our knowledge, he has done nothing to get in trouble with anyone.
Mark has told us he is the Son of God. And, in addition to that, John himself declares that one is coming after him who is so powerful and outstanding that it may seem he won’t even need to be baptized. John says he won’t even be worthy to stoop down and untie his sandals. Yet there Jesus is, placing himself shoulder to shoulder with everyone else, like he could pass for one of us. And when Jesus is baptized, he sees the heavens torn open and the Holy Spirit descending like a dove. A voice thunders from above, identifying this ordinary man as the Beloved Son of God.
At the Jordan the voice that came from heaven spoke to Jesus alone. It was intimate, direct. "You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased. In you my Spirit will be present on the earth in a new way." The heavens were torn apart, and they would never close again.
The torn place is where God comes through, the place that never again closes as neatly as before. From the day he saw the heavens torn apart, Jesus began tearing apart the pictures of whom Messiah was supposed to be:
Tearing apart the social fabric that separated rich from poor. Breaking through hardness of heart to bring forth compassion. Breaking through rituals that had grown rigid or routine. Tearing apart the chains that bound some in the demon's power. Tearing apart the notions of what it means to be God's Beloved Son. Nothing would ever be the same, for the heavens would never again close so tightly.
Let’s be honest. We do not have those super-natural experiences, do we? Sure, we are torn apart ourselves: pulled between family and work, spouse and children, work and play, keeping for ourselves and giving to others. Politics!?
Right after this experience Jesus will come up dripping wet with the sins of humanity clinging to his sinless body and be led into the wilderness where temptations will tear at him.
We all long for something (or someone) to break into our world, tear apart the heavens so that we will know and feel a power at work greater than ourselves. It happens. It happens at the most unexpected times…even at baptism.
William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, tells the story of getting a telephone call from an irate parent one day:
“I hold you personally responsible for this,” the father told him.
“Me?” Dr. Willimon asked.
“Yes, you. I send my daughter off to college to get a good education. Now she tells me she wants to throw it all away and go off to Haiti as a Presbyterian mission volunteer! Isn’t that absurd? A degree in mechanical engineering from
Duke, and she’s going off to dig ditches in Haiti.”
“Well,” said Willimon, in a feeble attempt at humor, trying to break the ice, “I doubt the engineering department taught her much about that line of work, but she’s a fast learner; she’ll probably get the hang of ditch-digging in a few months.”
“Look,” interrupted the father, “this is no laughing matter. I hold you completely responsible for her decision. She likes you. You’ve filled her head with all those pie-in-the-sky ideas!”
“Now look,” said Willimon, trying to keep his composure, “Weren’t you the one who had her baptized?”
“Why yes,” the father replied.
“And didn’t you read her Bible stories, take her to Sunday school, send her off
to summer church camp with the youth group?”
“Well yes, but….”
“Don’t ‘but’ me. It’s your fault she believed all that stuff, that she’s gone and thrown it all away on Jesus—not mine. You’re the one who introduced her to
Jesus, not me.”
“But all we ever wanted was for her to be a Presbyterian,” the father said meekly.
“Sorry, you messed up. You made a disciple.”
You made a disciple. I wonder how those words rang in the ears of the father who did not imagine his daughter as a mission volunteer, but rather as something else. Yet, when she was presented for baptism, her journey to discipleship began. When her Sunday school teachers read to her from the children’s Bible, when she colored worksheets on Sunday mornings and robed for the children’s choir, this young woman was being formed as a disciple.
When she was in the Christmas pageants and joined the youth group – perhaps even traveling overseas on a mission trip – her formation continued. Each night when her family said grace before they ate, each Sunday her parents took her to church, her discipleship developed. As she stood before her church family and professed her faith, she claimed the promises made for her in baptism as her own, and she promised that she would continue to follow Jesus.
And so, she followed Jesus as she followed her call to college, and then to what she would do after. She was not only a Presbyterian; she was a disciple. She is one who follows Christ.
At the end of his life Jesus hung on a cross between heaven and earth, and when he breathed his last, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, torn apart as the heavens had been torn apart. The holy of holies no longer separated the sanctuary from the people. The curtain could never be repaired. There was no voice from the darkened heavens that day. God was silent, not even a whisper. (Mark wants his readers to make the connection between the Baptism of Jesus and his death on the cross).
Just as there was a voice at baptism, there was a voice that day too. It was a voice not far off, but close. Not up but down. A centurion stood at the foot of the cross keeping order, marking time, waiting to pronounce death. When he saw that Jesus had breathed his last, he said, "Truly this man was God's Son." Who gave him that word? Only heaven knows. That soldier had somehow heard for himself the words spoken to Jesus alone at the Jordan. The word came through the torn place in the sky, through the torn curtain: "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
I have been thinking a great deal about “torn places” since Wednesday. I wonder,……. What are the “torn places” in our lives?
I think of a young woman, thirty-something I think she was. She sat talking with her pastor in the church office. She told her pastor that when she was seven or eight, her mother gave her a book of Bible stories. She loved that book, and she read it over and over again. In fact, she read it so much that her mother feared that she was becoming a religious fanatic.
So, one day her mother took the book away and told her to read other things. Not wanting to upset her mother, the girl left the stories of God behind--all though school, all through college.
Years later, her life was falling apart. She had come to tell her pastor about the Good Friday, which had just passed. She left work at noon; she had the afternoon off. She had planned to attend the 3:00 Episcopal Church service but drove right past the building and headed home.
Her hopes for a career in music were going nowhere, and the man she loved had just ended their relationship. So that afternoon, she went into her apartment and locked the door. She went into her bedroom, turned off the lights, pulled down the shades, and put some music on the stereo. She couldn't remember for sure--she thought it was Bach, maybe the St. Matthew Passion--after all, it was Good Friday.
In the darkness, she lay down to try to forget everything, to shut out everything but the music. Then suddenly, she told her pastor, the room was filled with light. She couldn't explain it. The room was dark. The shades were drawn, but the room was filled with light. She wasn’t near death or hallucinating. She wasn't feeling sick. She only knew that the room was filled with light. It was a turning point, the first step back to the stories that had been torn from her hands as a young girl. It was the presence of God coming through the torn places in her own life.
A year later she was baptized at the Easter vigil surrounded by a circle of candlelight. She heard the powerful, life changing words, "You are my own Beloved Child."
The torn place was still there, but God was in it.
Sam walked into his pastor’s office last week. Sam is a pretty big guy: her wears a leather jacket, has a long beard, big workmen's hands. He just wanted to talk to his pastor. His wife died in July, after nine-year battle with cancer. 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 his pastor, 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."
It occurs to the pastor that Sam 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.
When, like Same, you feel cut off from life—maybe this 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.
The torn places are still there, but God is in it.
There is a scene in a movie that some of you may have seen. It is a baptism scene in Robert Duvall’s movie, Tender Mercies. It came out in 1983. Duvall plays Mac, a down-on-his-luck country songwriter who battles alcohol. He fights back with the help of a young widow who offers him room and board at her roadside Texas motel in exchange for his handyman help. Her name is appropriately Grace, and she finds a toehold in Mac’s life, and eventually Mac and the widow’s young son Sonny, make the decision to be baptized.
Driving home after their baptisms, Sonny says to Mac: “Well, we done it, Mac; we was baptized.” Peering into the old truck’s rearview mirror, Sonny studies himself or a moment. “Everybody said I’d feel like a changed person,” Sonny continues, “Do you feel like a changed person?”
“Not yet,” says Mac.
“You don’t look any different, Mac. Do you think I look any different?”
“Not yet,” answers Mac.
Like Mac and Sonny, we may not always look in the mirror and see ourselves as changed people. But the truth is that when we were baptized, something happened to us. You may not realize it, and you may not see it when you look in the mirror; but your baptism places a spiritual watermark on your life.
That watermark identifies you as authentic. It is a reminder that you are God’s child, and you are loved by God. It is a reminder that you, too, have a calling and a mission, and your life is not just to float aimlessly in the sea of life being moved wherever the tide takes you. You have a watermark! You have purpose! You have a calling! Do you know the purpose of a watermark? I thought I did, but to make sure I Googled it. (Of course!) The purpose of a watermark is to identify the image’s creator. To identify the image’s creator. I love that!
And like a watermark, the image of Christ stamped into our life guarantees that we are authentic. We are not a counterfeit; we are the real thing. And as the real thing, our calling is to live into the implications of our baptisms.
As a community of God’s people, we come out of the water to follow Christ wherever he will lead us. And when that happens, God looks at us and says, “You are my child, and I am very pleased.”
Preached by Rev. Rich Hinkle
Scotch Presbyterian Church
January 10, 2021