“And just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” That’s the scene at the Jordan River, with John the Baptist and Jesus. There they are, at a baptism, and the heavens are torn apart.
This is apocalyptic language. This is what you say, what you write, when the world as you know it is collapsing, when everything is falling apart, when you’re in the middle of an upheaval—this what you say when you need God to show up, for God to make a difference, to change the world, to change your life, when you and everyone else need God to change everything, right here and right now. That’s when you say, you cry, you yell, you shout—that’s when you tell God to tear apart the heavens and come down here and do something. And you wait and hope that something happens.
This story about the baptism of Jesus is part of a call and response in the Bible, a prayer and an answer. The prayer comes from Isaiah, a prophetic prayer. Listen to the beginning of Isaiah 64, this apocalyptic cry to God: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood, as when the fire causes water to boil.”
That’s what hope looks like for Isaiah, a hope for God to tear open the heavens and shake the foundations of society, to come down and burn away all the injustice.
That’s the call, and here in Mark’s Gospel, in this baptism story, we get God’s response: “And just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” The heavens are torn open. It’s the same language we hear in Isaiah.
The Greek verb here is harsh, schizomenous—it has to do with gashing something open, ripping apart, slashing. The sky is slashed wide open. This is what the beginning of an apocalypse is supposed to look like. Next comes the earthquakes and the inferno.
But that’s not what happens here, in this story. Instead, we have the Spirit swooping down onto Jesus, the Holy Spirit like a dove. We are reminded of the dove that returned to Noah and the ark, after the flood, with an olive leaf, a sign of life. We are reminded of the beginning of Genesis, where the Spirit of God hovers over the waters, broods over the oceans, like a bird. We are reminded of a God who loves creation, a God who loves human life, a God who love us.
God tears open the heavens to start a movement of love—to announce God’s love, to mobilize love, to invite others into that love, to become love in the flesh. “You are my beloved,” the voice says from heaven. You are my love; you are the one filled with my love.
In John’s Gospel, as we heard last week, Jesus is the Word made flesh. But here, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is love made flesh. With this announcement, at his baptism, we see the life of Jesus as a revelation of God’s love. This baptism is an apocalypse of love, a revelation of our belovedness in Christ—that God has opened the heavens so that love may be poured into Jesus’ life, and through Jesus into our lives. That’s what it means to be baptized—to give ourselves to a life of love, of God’s love for the world.
But is it enough? Is this baptism enough of an answer to Isaiah’s prayer, the prayer for God to tear open the heavens, and to shake the foundations of society, to come down and burn away all the injustice. Is this story enough of a response?
Reports from Nigeria this week say that Boko Haram razed the town of Baga, killing as many as 2,000 people, mostly women and children and the elderly, because they couldn’t run fast enough, to escape. The Church of the Brethren in Nigeria, fellow Anabaptists, have been calling for us to pray, as their schoolchildren have been kidnapped, as their church members and pastors have been killed, along with thousands of others, their friends and neighbors. In their calls for prayers, I can hear echoes of Isaiah 64: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood, as when the fire causes water to boil.”
How is the baptism of Jesus a response to that call, to those prayers?
“Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water,” is says, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” Just a story about a dove—at least we could have an eagle or a hawk—but no, a dove, fluttering about, and one guy dunking another guy in a river, nothing spectacular.
We do, of course, have something here. We have a story about God’s commitment to be with us, breaking through the divide between heaven and earth, between the divine and the human—we do have all the good stuff that comes with the incarnation, that God is with us, in our flesh. All of that is good news, the good news I talked about last week, about how God is with us here in the middle, with us in our stuckness, with us even when the world is out of our control.
But, is that enough?—is it enough to be told that God is here, despite it all? What kind of assurance is that?
After the service last week, someone made a really good point about my sermon. What good is it to know that God is with us, when life gets so bad? Loved ones die. People get shot. Police officers kill unarmed African-Americans. We find out that a well-known Mennonite theologian had a long history of abusing women, more victims than any of us imagined, and that some church leaders wanted to hush his victims.
This is our life, this is what we’re stuck in, this is our middle—so what kind of reassurance is it to know that God is here, when God doesn’t seem to change any of these things? That’s a good question, an important one. And I didn’t have a good answer last week, and I don’t think I have a good answer now.
It’s the “so what” kind of question. We believe God is here, so what? We believe God is with us, so what? We believe God loves us, so what?
We want God to make more of a difference, for our lives and for life in our world—a public difference, a spectacular change, an apocalyptic reversal of the direction of the world, that the foundations of society would quake, as God’s justice overthrows the dominion of the rich, the reign of the oppressors, the kingdom of the violent; that God’s justice would overthrow the power of weaponized people—some in official uniforms, others in street clothes, and all of them using their guns to proclaim the triumph of death, not life, destruction not creation.
We want a God who puts an end to all that, in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye.
What we have instead is a dove, a little bird, gliding down from the sky, and coming to rest on Jesus, coming to rest on human life, on us.
I don’t know if you noticed, but the story is so quiet. There’s no mention of a crowd gathered on the banks of the river, ready to bear witness. No mention of anyone seeing the heavens tear open, other than Jesus. And no mention of anyone else hearing the voice from heaven. It’s such a quiet apocalypse.
If the passage makes any difference, if it does anything, it does something to us, to me and you, because we are the ones who read it—we see and hear it.
It’s a story for us, an invitation. It’s an invitation to be baptized with the life of Jesus, to become part of his life in the world, to see ourselves in Jesus, to become part his love—to know that we are beloved by God, and that we live-out this love for others. We become signs of God’s love, revelations of God’s life.
This means that if our loved ones, if our friends and neighbors, if victims of abuse near and far, if the poor and oppressed, if any of these children of God feel like they are living in a world abandoned by God, then we can’t help but be partly to blame; because, if they can’t see God, if they can’t feel God, then we have not been signs of God’s love, we have not been people of love, we have not lived as baptized people, baptized into the life of Jesus, a life of love for the world.
As people of the church, we take it personally when God doesn’t show up in someone’s life in their time of need, because it means we haven’t shown up either.
That’s the challenge of this passage, of this story, the baptism of Jesus. Because, for those of us who are baptized, when we read the story of Jesus, we read about ourselves.
And when we demand for God to take up the cause of those who suffer from injustice, we have to look at ourselves and wonder why we haven’t already put our lives on the line.
We should be careful when we pray for others, because God might remind us that we are supposed to be signs of God’s life in their world, signs of God’s love for their lives.
I think Czeslaw Milosz says all of this better than I can, so I’ll close with his words—“Veni Creator,” a poem about signs of God’s Spirit in human flesh, in your life and in the lives of others. Here’s Milosz’s poem, maybe we now can hear it as an apocalyptic poem:
Come, Holy Spirit,
bending or not bending the grasses,
appearing or not above our heads in a tongue of flame,
at hay harvest or when they plough in the orchards or when snow
covers crippled firs in the Sierra Nevada.
I am only a man: I need visible signs.
I tire easily, building the stairway of abstraction.
Many a time I asked, you know it well, that the statue in church
lifts its hand, only once, just once, for me.
But I understand that signs must be human,
therefore call one man, anywhere on earth,
not me—after all I have some decency—
and allow me, when I look at him, to marvel at you.