Signs in the Sky

Genesis 9:8-17, Mark 1:9-15, February 22, 2015

Sometimes I really, really, really want God to give me a sign. In January of 1991 I was really ready and open for God to show me what to do. I was interviewing for my first call. In January I flew to Minnesota for an interview. “Is this the one?” I kept asking myself, looking, looking, looking for some unmistakable something that would indicate that this associate pastor position was truly where God was calling me. I rented a car at the Minneapolis-Saint Paul airport on Friday afternoon and found the road to Mankato. I got to thinking, “what do I need to be happy in this state?” And my answer was “a good rock station on the radio.” I started the radio scanning the FM dial…sometimes a song is a sign…Just past Shakopee a song by a band I really like, REM, came on the radio. That was definitely a good sign! I had found a station that played my music! I drove a little farther, then I thought, maybe this was the opposite of a good sign. Uh-oh! The REM song, which would be their biggest hit, was called “Losing my Religion.”

I kept looking. Most of the details from that weekend have faded from my memory. But I have one other powerful memory that sticks in my mind. Saturday afternoon, after I had met with the Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry and eaten lunch with the pastoral search committee, I was walking into the church for the formal interview…and I looked up at the sky. Maybe there was some omen up there, a cloud of a certain shape…I was ready for anything to reassure or guide me. It was January in southern Minnesota, partly cloudy, mostly sunny…I gazed up and said to myself, “The sky is ambiguous.” We’ve got a lot of people here this morning. Raise your hand if you’ve ever said, “The sky is ambiguous.”

Last week I preached about how the discoveries of astronomy fill me with awe and the wonder I feel in contemplating the mysteries of astronomy point me toward the god who created the universe. For me, the sky has always been a metaphor for God: It is always there, we rarely really notice it; it can be filled with powerful, awesome dark storm clouds, or rainbows, or with beautiful stars. And the sky is always changing.

Our lessons this morning are based on two phenomena that appeared in the sky. We have to look up to see and recognize their importance. The passage from Genesis is the happy ending at the end of the Flood. This may be the most beloved and recognized story in the Old Testament. Noah built an ark and took his family and animals in the ark, and together they survived the horrible destruction of the flood. Back in chapter 6 of Genesis it says that the wickedness in the world made God “sorry that he made humankind on the earth.” God sent the waters of the Flood to blot out nearly all of humankind, and then to make a new beginning.

When the Flood was over, God made a covenant, an agreement with humanity: never again would “all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood.” God made this covenant with people, and it also covered animals. And this was a one-sided covenant. God did not place any demands or conditions on people or animals. Never again. Never again. And here’s something that it’s easy to overlook, so I want to point it out. God placed the rainbow in the sky, as a reminder to Godself. God says, “When I see the bow is in the clouds, I will see and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” The rainbow is like a string God tied around a finger, instead of “pick up milk on the way home,” it says, “never blot out all life on earth with a flood.” The rainbow is a sign of God’s steadfast love and the one-sided covenant God made with all life on earth. It might be the most recognized symbol from the Old Testament—it’s certainly up there with other symbols from the story of the flood, the dove and the olive branches as signs of peace. This sign is in the sky. And it’s beautiful and colorful and we understand now that it can only appear when both rain and sunlight are present.

The other sign in the sky is really different, and it is a really nice example of literary foreshadowing. Really. This Sunday is the first Sunday in Lent. We’ve started the season of counting down to Easter. We’re making ourselves aware of why we need the grace of Jesus Christ, and ready to experience the joy of the resurrection. We know the story.

Jesus appears as an adult when Mark’s gospel begins. The first thing he does is go out the Jordan, about 20 miles or so east of Jerusalem and get baptized by John. This is a movement of renewal and repentance, and lots of people were taking part in this renewal. When Jesus came up from the water, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” I want you to picture that for a moment. What would it look like for the heavens, that is the sky, to be torn apart? It’s a hard thing to picture, isn’t it? As I was thinking about it, I imagined a tornado or other violent storm. Some older translations of this passage say the heavens were “rent asunder.” The Greek word for what happened to the sky is “σχίζω.” It’s a really violent word. It’s as if the sky was shattered, or disintegrated or splintered into bits. You might hear the English word “schizophrenic” in the Greek word. A schizophrenic person’s mind has been shattered. That’s what happened to the sky when Jesus came up out of the water. And God’s voice came down from the splintered sky and said, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

And then, immediately, remember Mark is always in a hurry to tell the story, Jesus is driven into the wilderness for 40 days, where he was tempted. That’s an appropriate lesson for the first Sunday in Lent, isn’t it? Lent is a 40 day season of preparation for Christians. We did not just randomly pick 40 as a good number. It’s a number that repeats. It’s a number that reminds believers of struggle. It rained and rained on Noah and the ark for 40 daisy-daisies! The Israelites wondered in the wilderness for 40 years…Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days.

At the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry he’s in the wilderness and God speaks through the sky that has been “σχίζω ed.” Before Jesus has spoken a word, called a disciple or healed anyone. That Greek word appears only one other time in the gospels. Remember I said this was foreshadowing? Here’s when it happened. “About 3 o’clock, Jesus cried with a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?...Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” [Matthew 27:46, 50-51, NRSV]

That curtain in temple is what separated the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place on earth to the Jews, from the rest of the world. Once a year the high priest goes behind the curtain in the temple and speaks God’s name. It is the most sacred moment of the year at the most sacred place on earth.

At the moment that Jesus died, this separation was “σχίζω ed. It was utterly destroyed, smashed, disintegrated. When Jesus died on the cross, everything that separates humanity from God was completely destroyed. Imagine that! This sign in the sky was echoed on earth. On Christmas Eve we sang, “God and sinners reconciled,” and we could sing that today. When we remember that God sent Christ to cover our sins, to wipe out the barrier that our sin has put between us and our God. It was a violent, cataclysmic action. And! It was rooted in the love that God has always, always felt for humanity. Love that the rainbow at the end of the Flood reminds us—and God—of. Always. Amen.