BIBLE READINGS: Isaiah 64:1-9 Mark 1: 4-11
“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 and the fire causes water to boil...”
So says the prophet Isaiah to the Lord, in a fearful time. Isaiah is protesting the silence of God - the dreadful silence, known by some who desperately wait in intensive-care waiting rooms... by others who travel on the way to unexpected funerals.... “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down” O that you would break silence. O that you would reveal yourself, O God, and rescue us!
For Israel, the words of Isaiah become a grim and desperate plea - words repeated again and again, by those who looked back to the times when God did split the heavens and come down...
On on Mount Sinai, when the Lord descended upon it in fire.
At the gates of Jericho, the Jewish army marched around the city, blowing the ram’s horns: and the walls came tumbling down.”
On Mount Carmel, when Elijah challenged the Baal-prophets - and the Lord sent fire from heaven to ignite Elijah’s sacrifice.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down...” For centuries those words of Isaiah hung over the worship in the Temple - while the people witnessed the cruelty of one conquering army after another, and endured the tyranny of indifferent kings. Isaiah’s words are known to John the Baptist, standing knee-deep in Jordan river - baptising the crowds, who dream that maybe this man can make a difference in their hard, hopeless lives.
Off to one side that day stands another man. He watches John baptise one person after another. Finally he joins them, pulling off his sandals, wading into the water until he comes face-to-face with the baptiser.
John lowers this figure into the water - and as he emerges, Mark tells us, he sees “the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” “The heavens torn apart” The word is schizomai - the same word that forms the basis for our English words “schism” and “schismatic.” Yet Mark’s choice of words is more than just expressive. It expresses the anguish of a people: ”O that you would tear the heavens and come down!” Long centuries pass, before Isaiah’s prayer is finally answered - answered in Jesus of Nazareth.
The faithful throng on Jordan’s banks have no way of knowing it, but as John performs that baptism - that one among thousands – a new creation is begun. Suddenly, it is as though a dove descends on the stranger. As Jesus wades out of the river and replaces his sandals, there is a road stretching out before him, a road that can lead to only one destination: Calvary. In deciding to be baptised, Jesus is resolving to give himself for the sins of the world.
The baptism of Jesus is documented in six books of the Bible - far more than the birth of Jesus, which is described in only two. It’s clear that the early church considered Jesus’ baptism to be a far more important celebration than his birth.
Yet of all these accounts, only Mark’s uses the expression, “the heavens torn apart.” The Greek word is the same word used in everyday speech to describe the tearing of cloth. In the world-view of the ancients, the world is a flat disk, over which is stretched the dome of the heavens: a blue, impenetrable barrier. Above this barrier are the waters that sometimes trickle through as rain - and beyond these is the realm of God.
We no longer regard the universe that way, of course. You and I know that the blue “dome” of the heavens is really an optical illusion: a trick of light, shining through the gases of the upper atmosphere. We know that heaven is not “up there,” above the clouds, but is rather a spirit-realm that exists, somehow, nowhere and everywhere at the same time.
We know it makes no scientific sense, but still we think of ourselves as “down here,” and God as “up there.” God separated and distant from us, Bette Midler sang a song “From the distance” God is watching – from a distance.
And we are left with so many questions we’d like to have answered:
“Why do the innocent suffer, and the guilty prosper?”
“Where have my loved ones gone, who have died?”
“What must I do, that will bring to my life meaning and purpose?”
The answers to these and other questions are locked in
the mind of God - and God does not appear to be telling.
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” Mark’s witness to us, however, is that at the baptism of Jesus, the heavens have been torn open - once and for all. It’s not like the curtain in a theatre, that the stage-hand pulls open, only to close it again when the scene is ended.
Because of Jesus Christ, the tear in the sky remains to this day.
There is one other place in the gospel of Mark when that Greek word schizomai, “torn apart,” is used. On the darkest day of all, the day of crucifixion, just after Jesus “gives a loud cry and breathes his last,” Mark tells us that “the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.” The curtain of the temple - that protected everyone from the holy presence of God Almighty – the Holy of Holies - that barrier, too, is torn open.
There are no delicate words here, no philosophical terms - just the language of everyday life. The heavens are ripped open, as a frustrated sewer rips open an imperfect seam; so, too, the temple veil is torn in two. And open it remains - for the way into the Holy of Holies is held aside by Jesus Christ himself, who invites us to come in.
At Jesus’ baptism there are also those mysterious words, the voice from heaven: “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” With him, God is well-pleased. The curious thing, though, is that God speaks these words before Jesus has done anything at all. Remember that this is the very beginning of the gospel of Mark. Jesus has not been tempted by the devil, he has not preached, he has not taught, he has not healed. All he has done is show up at the Jordan to be baptised. But still God gives him unconditional acceptance.
What a wonderful thing it is to feel the pleasure of God. It’s what you and I feel when we respond to God’s call in our life - independently of any success we may experience.
It’s what the character Eric Liddell feels in the movie, Chariots of Fire. Eric is also the son of a missionary, and his sister is trying to talk him into returning to China, rather than going for the gold in the Paris Olympics.
“God made me fast,’ Eric tells his sister, “and when I run, I feel his pleasure.” Eric goes on to win the 400-meter race: a much longer race than the 100-meter for which he had trained, but from which he had dropped out because the qualifying heat was on a Sunday.
There’s another Olympic story that has to do with feeling the pleasure of another. In the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona, Derek Redmond of Great Britain had dreamed all his life of winning a gold medal in the men’s 400-meter. Redmond’s dream seemed to be in sight, as the starter’s gun sounded at the semi-finals.
As he rounded the turn into the backstretch, Derek Redmond felt a piercing pain in the back of his right leg. The next thing he knew, he was lying face down on the track — having experienced a torn hamstring.
As the first-aiders approached, Redmond somehow struggled to his feet. "It was animal instinct," he would say later. He began hopping, in a crazed attempt to finish the race.
crowds looked on, in silent amazement. When Redmond reached the home stretch, a
large man in a t-shirt leaped down from the stands, hurled aside a security
guard, and ran over to the runner, embracing him. It was Derek’s father.
"You don't have to do this," he told his son.
"Yes, I do," insisted the son, through bitter tears.
"Well, then," said his father, "we're going to finish this together."
And there, before the eyes of the entire world, the son's head sometimes buried in his father's shoulder, the two men hobbled along in his lane all the way to the end, finishing the race.
The crowd went wild. Derek Redmond did not leave Barcelona with his dreamed-of gold medal - but he did return home with a precious memory of a father who looked down on his beloved son, with whom he was well-pleased.
There are times in life when God seems distant... when a barrier seems to obscure our view, and it becomes hard to understand why life has unfolded the way it has.
Because of what Jesus Christ has done, the heavens are torn open; the cosmic barrier is breached. When we imagine Jesus, coming up from the baptismal waters, you and I can almost hear that voice, saying, “You are my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.” Yet the same voice has spoken at our own baptism - when, quite independently of anything we had done, we were welcomed into the household of God.
This is good news: the greatest news in all the world!