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Tearing Back the Heavens: Sermon for the Baptism of the Lord

As I began to ponder these readings at the start of 2021 and the start of this week, there were two things that my mind associated with these passages. One was Call the Midwife, the wonderful British series on Netflix that my husband and I have become absolutely besotted with during the COVID19 pandemic. The other is a book that I began reading last week called The Work of Love: Creation as Kenosis, a series of essays edited by Anglican priest/scientist John Polkinghorne.

The former is a touching bit of entertainment. The latter is a work that combines theology and science in attempting to make sense of God’s ongoing work of creation in history. But they both share one common viewpoint: there is no new life without cost.

In Call the Midwife, young mothers in the postwar East End of London labor—usually with the assistance of midwives’ encouragement as their only pain relief, to bring their babies into the world—a world that is filled often with poverty and misery as well as the strength of the human spirit. As I learned when I became a mother, even with all the advantages of modern medicine, there is a real reason why they call childbirth “labor.” And as I learned in the years afterward, all of parenting should rightly be called “labor,” too. The labor that brings life new life into being is not simply a static moment in time, nor does it occur without pain and suffering as well as joy and love. All is bound up together, and is ongoing.

In The Work of Love, and in the work of W. H. Vanstone, whose writing inspired the essays within, multiple writers attempt to illuminate the ways in which science and theology shape our understanding of a God who is ever-creating, ever engaged with the world that was and is and is to come. As organisms evolve, their evolution cannot be explained by natural laws or selection alone, for, as anyone who ever watched the movie Jurassic Park knows, randomness is also shot through all creation, and some may attribute that randomness to God.

Science aligns with scripture in revealing to us a dynamic picture of a world involved in continuous and incessant change. Creation—the creation of new life—is not limited to a single moment in time, but is ongoing—as our friends in New Zealand insist in their prayer to God who IS CREATING the heavens and the Earth. God's action as Creator is both past and present as well as future: it is continuous. The scientific perspective of a cosmos, and in particular that of the biological world, as developing continuously in time. So it is in nature, and so it is within us, God IS creating ever anew within us, and asking us to be partners in that creation is one of God’s greatest compliments to us.

And any time there is change, any time there is transformation, there can also be resistance. Thus I and all of us were brought up short by the events of Wednesday in our nation’s capitol. We witnessed the forces of resistance to change, specifically the forces who cling to notions of superiority based on race and privilege, abandon their claims to lawfulness and order and instead engage in destruction, violence, and subversion.

I went from contemplating the beauty of the opening words of Genesis to seeing the ugliest impulses generated in our political life play out before my horrified eyes. Unbidden, the opening words of Psalm 130 echoed through my head and heart as I watched the chaos in our national capitol unfold: “Out of the depths have I called to You O Lord: Lord hear my voice!”

As I watched the forces of chaos, conspiracy, and division rampage through the halls of democracy, all I could think of was the depth of the waters into which our nation was treading. But sometimes profound shocks can lead to a shaking off of the willingness to accept the banal, everyday evils that creep and infiltrate into our moral framework.

Deep waters, which in Genesis are the canvas upon which creation springs forth, became a murky symbol of loss of control and danger. From my TV screen, I heard person after person, on both sides of the aisle as the events of the day spiraled more and more out of control, protest that “this is not who we are.”

But we can’t fool ourselves. When violence, intimidation and murder are elicited from a mob this easily, we must face the uncomfortable truth that, yes, somewhere within us, this IS who we are.

But it is NOT who we are called to be.

In our gospel reading, Jesus leads us by example into the waters of baptism to give us the courage and endurance to strain toward who we are called to be. In Christ, we are called to be one people, united by our common heritage as being beloved children of God. The waters of baptism are the waters of creation, of new life that is centered in hope, faith, and embracing the miracle of the panoply of life all around us. The waters of creation from which we all spring, the waters of baptism which are the gates to eternal life for which we all thirst, call us to resistance against the anarchy, intimidation, and mob rule that swirled violently around us, and continues to threaten unless confronted.

Repeatedly in so short a passage as we see in our gospel today, border after border, barrier after barrier will be ruptured, but ruptured not in the name of violence and oppression, but in the name of LOVE and true justice. The Jordan River itself is the boundary between the wilderness and the promised land, a land flowing with milk and honey. It is on that border, that marginal space, that John the Baptist stands, enticing the people to repent and be baptized.

What’s fascinating to not here is that our reading today takes place beginning a mere four verses into Mark’s gospel. Jesus here is a cipher—John gets the more thorough treatment: we hear him described by how he dresses and what he does. What he says gets described, even if not quoted directly. Jesus gets no description at all. Jesus is silent. What Jesus sees is described, but that is only possible if someone else saw it too.

If Mark were a journalist, he wouldn’t be a very good one. If Mark were a cameraman for an NFL game, he would be fired, because his camera is on the tight end, dutifully blocking away on the end of the offensive line, instead of the quarterback, and the quarterback has just decided to keep the ball and call his own number.

So, if we are to learn anything about the incident, we have to focus on that tell-tale line: “He saw the heavens torn apart.” In the Jewish depiction of the world, the heavens weren’t just a place of fluffy clouds. The heavens set a cap on the universe. The barrier between heaven and earth was there for the protection of humanity, for the establishment of order.

In the Jewish scriptures, when the heavens were torn apart, as in Isaiah 64, it was so that God could come down-- and mixed into the hope for this was a healthy dose of fear. The Jewish cosmology perceived the sky as a dome that held back flood waters and the armies of heaven, when they were stirred. Tearing open that dome would destroy the order and categorical purity of the universe. Similarly, this was also akin to the curtain in the Temple that set apart the holy of holies to be torn in two, for it was said that to enter through the curtain was to enter back into the first day of creation—a place outside of time and space, before the universe itself was formed (taking us back to our first reading). This, of course, is related as happening after Jesus’s death on the cross.

For the heavens to be torn open, God would be tearing the roof off the universe for the purpose of coming down—a prospect that reorders the barricades of power in the human world as much as in heaven. And so what then traverses the gap in the dome?

The Holy Spirit. It “descends like a dove upon Jesus,” we are told. Those of us who are familiar with doves have seen their heavy bodies descend onto the lip of a birdbath or upon a branch—it’s like watching a heavy cargo helicopter touch down. But the Greek here doesn’t say the dove alights on Jesus—it implies that the Holy Spirit ENTERS into Jesus.

Thus we are reminded that the Incarnation represents a rupture, a breaking through of God’s power and glory and power into our walled off little reality. Here is the subversive heart of Christianity. The incarnation is not about order. The incarnation is about reordering, and about opening ourselves to the in-breaking of the Holy Spirit in all its power and unpredictability. The in-breaking of God destabilizes all our attempts to hold God at a distance, to control God to fit our own needs, to make God our wish-fulfilling servant rather than the other way around.

God’s in-breaking into the human experience as represented here today by Jesus's baptism reminds us that God's justice destabilizes notions of human justice and order. Jesus submits to baptism in the Jordan not because he needs to confess his sins but so that he can align fully in sympathy for and alongside us, frail fragile human beings who do need to confess our sins and repent.

Jesus’s ministry on earth is ever oriented away from pacification of evil or tamping down our proper response to injustice and oppression. No, far from it—Jesus comes to set the captives free, to proclaim liberty and favor tot the oppressed, to heal those suffering in body or spirit rather than casting them out or claiming that they deserve their fate as some sort of punishment. Jesus is a Man for Others. Jesus becomes flesh to show us how to orient our priorities toward the Other in our midst too—to really perceive their suffering, to respond with compassion and empathy, and to work for God’s justice to be implanted on earth. God's justice emerges as a call or a demand for responsibility to the Other.

For we are called as Christians to follow Jesus into the waters of baptism, and to ourselves be opened to the power of the Holy Spirit within our own lives. It’s an amazing journey parents commit their children to when they are baptized, and not to be taken lightly. It will require the remainder of our lives to be shaped by, and it’s one that lays out for us the requirements for living a fully human, fully God-directed life—a life of integrity. A life of resistance to evil. A life described in our baptismal covenant as requiring faith, a commitment to learning and intellectual rigor, a determination that the good of community and the protection of the vulnerable within that community is the greatest obligation of the command to love God.

It is seeking to serve Christ in all persons, especially those the world despises, and that we might be prone to despise ourselves. It is about understanding that when people riot in the name of “law and order,” what they are really trying to impose is peace without justice, a peace founded on injustice and the denial of rights to others in the name of protecting their own rights. What they are trying to impose is oppression and tyranny. It is a mockery of true justice, a demand for control that merely seeks to overpower and terrify rather than enlighten.

This is not a gospel passage for the faint-hearted. But neither are the times in which we live. Jesus is transformed by his experience in the Jordan to immediately get up and do battle with evil, for here is what the next 2 verses after our gospel reading say: And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now is not the time to embrace the powerful ongoing creation within us that began at our baptism. Now is the time to reject the demagoguery that seeks to conquer the power of the people through division in favor of remembering the shared sacrifice, integrity, justice and compassion that is the foundation of virtue, generosity, and decency.

Perhaps we can begin to instead embrace the transformative power of God to aid us and to enact creation within us in becoming a beloved community, guided by values of shared burdens, shared dreams, and shared sacrifice for the common good. The Spirit is calling us to reclaim our humanity—in the name of Jesus to stand for right, integrity and honor. Creation and its drive for life over the forces of death is washing over us anew. Let us wade into the waters of a new creation, and labor for a new birth of freedom and justice in our communities.


Preached at the 10:30 online worship service at St. Martin's Episcopal Church, Ellisville, in time of COVID-19 restrictions.



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