Saturday, January 10, 2015

The heavens have been ripped open, the curtain has been torn in two

Mark 1: 4–11

In our class Monday night we discussed this Gospel passage, telling the story of Jesus’ baptism. The question that arose first is, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized? Wasn’t he sinless?” The short version of my answer was, “His baptism shows he is just as human as the rest of us humans. Jesus is human and divine all of the time.”
Mark’s story of Jesus’ baptism is a little different from the ways Matthew and Luke tell the same story. In Mark’s version, the heavens are not simply opened, the way a door may be opened. In Mark, the Greek says that the heavens are ripped apart. When we get a rip in our clothing we can tell where it is, even after it’s repaired. It’s never quite the same. So the heavens are now permanently open.
The same Greek word is used again at the end of Jesus’ life, when Jesus has breathed his last breath and the curtain in the temple is ripped apart. The curtain Mark is referring to is the curtain that separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple. It was believed that God’s presence on earth resided there. With the ripping apart of the curtain, God can no longer be contained in the Holy of Holies.
The word in Greek is schidzo – from which we get the English words schism and schizophrenia. From this time forth, beginning with the baptism of Jesus and reinforced by the tearing of the curtain in the temple, God is not only in the heavens; God is not just in the Holy of Holies; God is present everywhere on earth. God is accessible to all people, not just to the priests and Levites who serve in the temple. God is available to all of us, anywhere, and everywhere.
For most of us, this is good news. But it doesn’t always feel like good news to everyone. Here’s a story that tells how some people react to this news with some dismay.
One time a group of teenagers was study­ing this passage. Their teacher told them that the skies ripped open in a very dramatic and forceful way. The teacher said, “Do you get it? When Jesus was baptized, the heavens that separate us from God were ripped open so that now we can get to God. Because of Jesus we have access to God—we can get close to him.”
There was one young man sitting in the front row, with his arms crossed, making a fairly obvious display of his disinterest in that wonderful way that only teenagers can do. But suddenly he perked up and said, “That isn’t what it means.”
“What?” the teacher said.
“I said that isn’t what that means,” the teenager repeated. “It means that the heavens were ripped open so that now God can get at us anytime he wants. Now nobody’s safe!”
Whether you believe the heavens being opened is good news or not, baptism is clearly an important event in our lives.
In baptism, we get a whole lot of stuff – we get forgiveness of sins, as John the Baptist promised. We also get the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives; we get to be part of the community of faith, the community of believers around the world and through all of time; and we get the promise that death is not the end of the road for us.
I asked the class on Monday if they remembered their baptisms, or if they knew anything about the event. Except that we all knew that we had been baptized, we didn’t have any of the details.
And even if we are the type that regularly dip our fingers into the font and remember our baptisms, we may not think often about our own baptisms. This is why I love to do baptisms – because we are all reminded of our own baptisms, and that of our children or siblings. We are all reminded of the baptismal and confirmation promises to worship together, to study the Bible, to know the Ten Commandments and the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer, and to live out our faith in community with other believers. 
Sometimes, we need reminders of what it means to be baptized. We need faith revivals. Some revivals are major events; some revivals are as simple as a new way of reading a Bible passage in a new way; some revivals occur in conversations with friends. Revivals are ways in which God can get to us through the ripped-open heavens.
In 1962 Billy Graham was in Chicago, leading a Crusade. The closing ceremony was at Soldier Field, with a packed house of 100,000 people. I was 14 years old, and the guest of a friend and her family. I was entranced with his message. My parents and I rarely went to church. This was new and exciting, and Reverend Graham had moved me. I wanted to hear more of what he had to say.
When the service ended with a call to make a commitment to Christ, I was ready to head down the stairs, onto the field and make my commitment. So, I was really puzzled that the family who brought me headed to the parking lot as quickly as they could. God had spoken to me in Soldier Field and I wanted to respond. I was unable to commit myself on the field, and eventually almost forgot about it.
Since that time, without really knowing it, I began to be aware that God called me to do certain things in certain ways. I taught Sunday school, I led Women of the ELCA in congregational and synodical expressions. I sold shoes and clothes and office supplies, all with the sense that I was serving God when I served my customers well.
It was conversations with a friend that made me realize that the next “thing” God was calling me to was seminary and parish ministry. I remember yelling at God when considering going back to school. I told God, “You can’t do this to me!” And here I am.
I discovered essentially what the young man in the class discovered. God can get at us anytime God wants to, even if we don’t want God involved. The heavens have been ripped open, the curtain has been torn in two, never to be sewn back together again. We can always get to God, whenever we want to. And God can always get to us, whenever God wants to.
This “getting at us” is not to do us harm, but to develop our faith further, to help and challenge us to live out our baptismal promises. This “getting at us” is out of love for us.
Baptism is the first event in Jesus’ ministry. In his baptism, God speaks to Jesus and calls him Beloved Son. From here on, Jesus will do what God has sent him to do. How many times, I wonder, did Jesus look back on this moment and remember God loves him? Was it this love that got him through the darkest days?
We are God’s Beloved Daughters and Sons, and God loves to “get at us” to lead us into our faith-filled future. This week I pray you will remember you are baptized and beloved sons and daughters of God. Take time to reflect on those revival moments, those times when God has “got at you,” and changed your life, caused you to be more faithful.
Please pray with me. God our Father and Mother, we thank you for your love for us. We also thank you for those times when you challenge us to new discoveries about you and about ourselves. Help us open our hearts to you so that you can “get at us” whenever you see the need or opportunity. Amen