May the grace, mercy and peace of God our father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.
The story of Jesus' baptism in the gospel of Mark is my favorite account of this event in the Bible. Oh sure, we can find it in Matthew 3, Luke 3 and John 1, but I have always preferred the Mark version to the others.
The first thing you notice in Mark is that there is no Christmas story. Verse nine is all that we get – “In those days, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.” No angels or shepherds; no magi or Herod slaughtering innocent children to try to get rid of the newborn king. Some of our young people last week suggested that next year the annual Christmas Program be, “The Christmas Story according to Mark” – everyone gets in place and someone reads verse nine and says, “The End!” It would be the shortest Christmas program ever! While I appreciate the fact that they are learning their Bible enough to know this – and I also appreciate their sense of humor – it wouldn't seem right to rely upon Mark's gospel as a script for a Christmas program. For Mark, the importance of telling the details of the warm story of the birth of a little baby is not as important as the telling of the Good News of Jesus Christ. So Mark skips right over not only the birth of Christ, but seemingly his first 30 or so years of life, to the very beginning of his public ministry
I guess the thing that catches my attention most about Mark's version of the Baptism of Jesus is the way he crafts his words to bookend the beginning and the end of Jesus' ministry. Notice that when he comes up out of the water, Jesus sees the heavens torn apart. I am at first taken back to the scripture from Isaiah 64 that we heard as the first lesson on the first Sunday of Advent, “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down.” In Jesus the heavens are torn open and the distance between God and God's people is eliminated. The Greek word, “skizo” is used here, and it is only used one other place in Mark's Gospel – at the end of this Gospel account when Jesus is on the cross, he gives a loud cry and breathes his last breath: “Then the curtain of the temple was torn (skizo) in two from top to bottom.” That curtain temple was a deep blue color with images of stars and planets on it. Behind it was the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant rested and (according to the Jewish authorities) the very presence of God resided. This place was visited only once a year on the highest holy day, and then by only one High Priest.
It is this word, “skizo” that Mark uses to bookend Jesus' life; language he uses intentionally to lead us to understand the great impact of Jesus' life, ministry, death and resurrection. It is interesting how at his baptism, the voice from heaven speaks only to Jesus: “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” These aren't words for the crowds to hear, they are for Jesus. Much like other parts of Mark's Gospel, there is a messianic secret here – the people with whom Jesus comes in contact do not know that he is the messiah, and they are not ready to know who he truly is until his story is fully told. And so, after Mark reports the tearing of the temple curtain at Jesus' death, he also claims that there was a voice speaking – but this time it was a human: the centurion at the cross, “Truly this man was God's son!” This is the second half of the bookends, proclaimed so that all around could hear exactly who Jesus is from the lips of one who we least expect.
Let's return to Jesus' baptism; as his public ministry is about to begin, he hears the affirming voice of his heavenly father and he experiences the visible signs of heavens rending and dove descending. The fact that he will be driven from here by the Holy Spirit right into the wilderness for forty days to fast and be tempted means that Jesus' status as God's Son did not mean that he was exempt from the trappings and struggles of the world – but because of this affirmation at his baptism, he can enter into the struggles and face the trappings confident in the presence of God which travels with him always. Enduring all of the temptations and struggles perfectly, the voice at the end proclaiming him as God's Son affirms for him, for those at that event, and for us these many years later that Jesus indeed is God's word of love made flesh to dwell among us full of grace and truth – that which we have celebrated at Christmastime.
In Jesus the heavens are torn open and the distance between God and God's people is eliminated. That notion can be a bit frightening to people, and I remember once preaching a sermon in a former church on this very notion. I asked people to think about two movie scenes where things were torn apart in order for someone to gain access to others: The first was the famous scene from The Shining, where Jack Nicholson, a man possessed by the spirits of an old hotel, takes an axe to the door of a bathroom to get at his wife. In a scene that still sends the hairs on the back of my neck standing straight up, he looked through the small hole he had just ripped open in the door and said, “Here's Johnny!”
The other scene I offer up is from the 1972 movie, The Poseidon Adventure. A small band of survivors on board a cruise ship that has been capsized by a huge wave are making their way up, up, up to the bottom or the hull of the ship which is high above their heads since their lives have been turned upside down. After finally reaching the hull, the group hears voices above them on the outside. Quickly someone finds something to bang loudly on the skin of the boat. Soon the white hot flame of a torch tears through the steel, cutting out a hole through which the group can crawl to the safety and sunshine of a new day.
That last movie image is what Isaiah had in mind when he prayed that God would tear open the heavens and come down – what God had in mind when he did just that in Jesus, and showed him his love at his baptism. I truly believe that Jesus came to allow all people access to God as his own children, to tear apart all that keeps God away from us. We are called God's daughters and sons by virtue of our baptism. Sometimes it may seem that, like Jesus, we are driven into places that are hostile to us, threatening us in many physically, psychologically and spiritually. Seeking to walk with Jesus during our lives means facing those problems that are present in our own personal lives and in the world around us. We face these things, though, with Jesus and in the midst of a family of God. Whether you feel called to help teach, heal, feed, comfort or stand up on behalf of someone, may God bless you in your baptismal calling to live into the time when we all experience God's perfect presence with no curtains, doors, steel skins or even our own sinfulness to prevent us access to the abundant life that God has promised for ALL of his children. Thanks be to God for tearing open the heavens and coming to us in Jesus, today and everyday; may it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.