January 17, 2016, Mark 1:1-11
We’re spending extra time on Epiphany this year. Last week I mentioned that historically Christians have marked three events on the day of Epiphany: the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem, Christ’s baptism, and the miracle when Jesus turned water into wine, recorded in John’s gospel. Each of these was a huge sign, very early in Christ’s life or ministry, that showed that Jesus was truly unique. The Wise Guys visited again this morning and I’m thinkin’ they’ll be back next week, because of that guy Vinny knows who can score them some myrrh. They’re making progress, they’ve already got the frankincense…we’ll see how they do this week.
Next week I’ll explain why gold, frankincense and myrrh were such important gifts for magi to bring to the newbord king to really help us understand the work that Christ accomplished for humanity. Their gifts were valuable and precious, just as the gift of grace is to us. See, we have received the greatest possible gift, which God sent us in Christ Jesus, and as we grow in understanding, receiving and celebrating that gift, I invite you all to consider how to support this congregation, as we seek to respond to the gift of grace here in the heart of Oshkosh. Really, give that some thought in the weeks ahead. What have you received? And how do you feel called to respond?
Today I’m going to have us look at Jesus’ baptism as a second epiphany. My definition of “epiphany” is a moment when you say, “Wow! I get it now!” Epiphanies are dramatic and sudden. And you know they’re important right away.
I looked at the four accounts of Jesus’ baptism in the gospels this week. There are minor differences between the passages in Matthew, Mark and Luke. In John’s gospel it’s a little odd, because Jesus’ baptism isn’t recorded. All that’s there is John the Baptizer’s description of what he saw when it happened. And like the other three accounts it says that the Spirit descended like a dove. In John, though it says the “spirit remained” on Jesus. And also something slightly different in John’s account is that there is no mention of God saying that Jesus is God’s son, with whom God is well pleased.
The differences in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s accounts of Jesus’ baptism seem tiny, but I believe they are significant. Matthew says, “the heavens were opened to him…” Luke reads, “the heaven was opened…” but Mark reads, “(John the Baptizer) saw the heavens torn apart.”
For years I have tried to picture the heavens, or the sky, being torn apart. I looked online for artistic depictions of Jesus’ baptism as recorded in Mark’s gospel, and this particular detail, the heavens being torn apart just isn’t shown in any of them in the way I imagine. And the more I thought about this, the more confused I got. For example, what would it look like on a cloudy day to have the sky torn apart? I grew up fearing tornados more than anything else. I must have seen the Wizard of Oz at an impressionable age, and even now the most frightening nightmares I have are about tornados. Would the sky being torn apart look like a tornado? What would it look like on cloudless day?
At this point I need to point out that 21st century Americans understand the sky differently from 1st century Palestinians. We’ve been shooting satellites and weather balloons and rockets into the sky and outer space for decades. We know that the atmosphere contains many different layers of gas of different density, and as long as what we fire off the ground is fast enough to escape the earth’s gravity things can truly fly away. What goes up may not come down.
People in biblical times understood things differently. They thought of the sky as a dome that rotates around the earth. One word people still use for the night sky is “firmament” which helps us conceive of the sky as something solid, even permanent. In the first chapter of Genesis, for example, the word for “dome” is used for the thing that separates the water above the earth from the water on the earth, and only later is the dome called “Sky.” And a few verses later when God is placing stars in the dome of the sky, the verb for that action is the verb for shaping metal with a hammer. God isn’t attaching twinkly lights to the firmament with ductape, God is pounding them into the metal dome, the firmament we call the Sky.
There’s another idiom we use even today that reflects this understanding. When it rains really, really hard, sometimes people say, “The Heavens opened up.” That expression goes back to the biblical understanding that the role of the sky is to hold back the water from drenching the earth. Right after Noah and the others got on the ark, it says, “the windows of the heavens were opened.” [Genesis 7:11]
OK, so I’ve gone all historical/critical on you as a way of trying to imagine that the sky was torn apart when Jesus rose from the waters of the Jordan after having been baptized. I still don’t know what it would look like, but it helps me see how violent the sky being torn apart would be.
Then there’s the Spirit descending like a dove onto Jesus, “and a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” So right there are three different huge things that make Jesus’ baptism an unmistakable manifestation. Could anyone who witnessed the baptism not have seen, and heard and understood that Jesus was unique?
Remember, people from all over Judea and even Jerusalem were going out to the Jordan, confessing their sins and being baptized by John. There was a movement here, and being baptized was a huge part of the renewal movement. There was even probably some rivalry between those who followed John the Baptizer and those who followed Jesus. I looked up the distance between Jerusalem and the Jordan. In Jesus’ time it was 21 miles. That’s 21 miles walking through the desert. But it was telling, my computer search first showed the distance was a little over 87 miles. That didn’t sound right to be, but in some ways it is, to get from Jerusalem to the Jordan River in Israel, one has to travel really far north to avoid the Palestinian –occupied West Bank. You can drive along Route 90 and get to the Jordan in a little less than two hours. And you’ll be well north of the spot on the Jordan where John most likely baptized Jesus.
On a good day it makes me sad that the world is so divided. On a bad day, it makes me angry. Jesus was born into a world full of strife, poverty, disease, confusion and fear. And the world is still filled with strife, poverty, disease, confusion and fear.
We have a long way to go. And we know the road we can take to get there. It’s really, really significant, this image of the sky being torn apart and the Spirit descending onto [or into] Jesus like a dove. The barrier between God above, or heaven above, and people below was ripped apart and destroyed when Jesus was baptized. In the Season of Christmas we sang, “God and sinners reconciled.” We’re brought into agreement with God through the birth of Jesus Christ. We’re not estranged from the Living God. Christ’s birth demonstrates God’s profound love for humanity.
Last week I pointed out that the sign of the birth of the King of the Jews was only noticeable to foreign authorities in a discipline forbidden to the Jews, astrology. What was God up to with that epiphany? I believe God was saying, Christ’s birth is good news, for all people.
Today’s epiphany is that the sky was broken apart, ripped apart violently. The word for that ripping in Greek is σχιζω. It only appears one other time in the gospels. It’s a special word, and a word that would point to another epiphany, except it comes so late in the story, that we don’t need more signs to show us that Jesus is God’s son.
In Matthew’s gospel, right after Jesus cried out and breathed his last, it says, “At that moment the curtain in the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” [Matthew 27:51, nrsv] And this was not just any curtain, like the curtains that hang in our houses. This curtain separated the outer chamber of the temple in Jerusalem from the Holy of Holies. The most sacred place on earth to Jews; the room in which only the high priest could go, once a year and utter the name of God. The curtain separated what was the most precious, holy place on earth from the rest of the world. At Jesus’ death, that separation was ripped apart, torn asunder, obliterated, gone. At Christ’s death God and sinners became reconciled. That which separated us, the barriers between humanity and God’s profound love were dramatically and permanently destroyed.
That’s the gift we receive every day. That’s the gift we are challenged to respond to by the Wise Men’s example, and also by the Wise Guys. You’ll receive a letter from church this week. It will include your record of financial contributions to the church in 2015, a letter from the Mission Interpretation Committee and a pledge card for 2016. Really, give that some thought in the weeks ahead. What have you received? And how do you feel called to respond?