Torn Apart Mark 1:1-11

Torn Apart Mark 1:1-11

January 8, 2012
Bridget Fidler

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Title: Torn Apart

Text: Mark 1:1-11

January 8, 2012



During the season of Epiphany we tell stories from the gospels that reveal the power of God at work in the person of Jesus.  That’s what “epiphany” means, to reveal, to shine light on.  And from the opening story of that light shining from the infant Jesus, especially to the three wisemen, we jump ahead today to a moment in Jesus’ life maybe thirty years later.  What went on during those intervening years during which Jesus grew and matured is mostly a mystery to us, although there are lots of fascinating theories that we’ll have to leave for another time.  But today we hear the story of a pivotal moment in Jesus’ life, his baptism, which reveals him unmistakably as the Son of God, the one with whom God is pleased.  It is in this moment that Jesus’ public ministry begins, a moment through which grace still shines on you and me.


We also hear the story of John the Baptist, who initiates Jesus’ ministry with his baptism.  It is critical, as we hear about John and his baptism of repentance, that the word, repent, is correctly understood.  To repent is to return, to follow 'the way of the Lord' that leads from exile to the promised land.  The Greek roots of the word suggest an additional meaning; to repent is to 'go beyond the mind that you have' - to go beyond conventional understandings of what life with God is about.












I think you would all agree that one of the most meaningful experiences in our congregational life is celebrating the sacrament baptism.  When we pronounce, "The Holy Spirit be upon you, child of God, disciple of Christ, member of the church," we bring one more into the household of faith and promise together to help him or her to grow in faith and discover the love of God already present in their life.  We anoint with water, we pray, we affirm, we introduce and we sing in celebration for this new member of our fold.  

And yet, rooted in the sacrament, stemming from Jesus’ own baptism is something dramatic, risky, dangerous, even.


And as I have just stated, baptism, especially of child, is something lovely and sweet.   So a "nice" baptism of Jesus goes well with our own experience of baptizing babies and even adults; a happy occasion that renews our sense of new life, commitment, and the hopefulness that the sacrament brings.  Few of us think of it as being brought into a renewal movement and viewed from the comfort of inside church we’re not experiencing or expecting any sense of risk, danger or drama.


However, this aspect of risk and danger is born directly out of Mark’s interpretation of the life and ministry of Jesus.  This is not a gospel with soft edges; rather it is one that seeks to unsettle our comfortable assumptions with its starkness and urgency.  If we look closely at the text, the sky doesn't just open up; it's "torn apart."  The only other time the Gospel uses that same "violent" verb is to describe the temple curtain being torn apart when Jesus died.  And yet even with a torn-open sky, the words we hear a God uses the words, "beloved," and "listen," hardly words of judgment or words that should inspire fear.

As Christians we like to categorize the New Testament as goodness and grace and the Old Testament as filled with judgment and wrath.  However, in both testaments, God comes to us in fierce and gentle ways.  Jesus and John stood in a long line of prophets, including Isaiah, who had prayed long before them, "O that you would tear open the heavens and come down" (64:1).  


And once the heavens are torn apart, God invades this sinful world with a  "dive-bombing Holy Spirit" ripping into the scene (Elton Brown, Feasting on the Word).  Have you ever had a gull swoop down on you at the beach?  Do you know what it is like to feel the rush of wings at your ear?  Startling, to say the least.  The drama created by this scene helps us to see Jesus as filled with the power of God's Spirit to do what he was called to do.


There is no birth story in Mark.  Jesus comes on the scene as a full-fledged adult ready to begin his ministry.  Yet, even in Luke and Matthew’s birth stories, there is a familiar violence.  No matter how common, no matter how we may try to sanitize it, birth is a fierce act of nature.  In order to be born, there is a violence of contraction, blood and afterbirth that emerge as the body forces the infant from one world into the next.


Likewise, the water, the mud, the torn open sky all go well with this wild, anti-establishment prophet, John the Baptist whose dress and preaching style would hardly fit in most "respectable" pulpits in his day or ours.  John ripped into the stale, staid institutionalism of Judaism telling people to get ready and they flocked to the river, more wilderness than the nice, clean temple, and sought forgiveness for their sins.


John’s radical call to repent, to turn people back to God, attracted the attention of all kinds of people who despite their place in society were spiritually thirsting to experience a new day.  This in itself was a radical act, because as a fringe prophet, he had no standing in established religion and no business getting into the forgiveness of sins.  The establishment had that covered; it was their work, their right and their responsibility to mediate the forgiveness of sin.   When this troublemaker preached a baptism "for the forgiveness of sins," it was more dangerous than it sounds. 

This offers us an opportunity to reflect on our life in the church, where we tend to clean things up and "make" them sacred by taking them out of the "earthly" realm, connecting our actions and objects as symbolic stand ins for that muddy river water and the risky immersion in it that baptism represents.  Theologian Elton Brown asks, "Are our baptism rituals sometimes so nice that we neglect to mention the uncomfortable implications of inviting God's Spirit to invade our lives?" 


We too, are called to the margins, to the wilderness.  Are we willing to heed such a call?  This challenges the church, not just us as individuals to repentance.  It is a call, to examine how we invest our resources, which traditions we uphold, and to explore which cultural practices may not cohere with God's purposes for peace and justice in the world.   Where has the church become too nice, too comfortable, for its own good?

No matter how we try to sanitize it, our earthliness and the Spirit exist together.  The Spirit is always present in the physical material - real water, real bread, real grape juice, and beautiful baptismal fonts all become accomplices to the Spirit’s wild call.     


The meaning of baptism, then, is deeper than what we see on the surface.  It’s no wonder our Baptist friends continue to baptize by immersion.  Just like the experience of being submerged in a living body of water – a river, lake or ocean, water that swirls and churns around you -- no one has to tell you that it’s a powerful thing to be submerged; you can feel the water’s power, the risk and danger. 


And born out of these churning waters of baptism, we are made new.  We, as the church, the gathered body of Christ, participate with each baptism in the ancient renewal movement. 


What does that mean?  It means, we are part of something much older and larger than we most often acknowledge.  It begs the question, “how do we remain faithful to that risky, demanding call” that began for most of us in a beautiful sanctuary surrounded by love and promise?


Jesus discovered this right after his baptism when spent 40 days in the wilderness, and experienced multiple temptations to his faithfulness to his call and his sense of who he was.  Jesus knows what we experience, and that must be why he waded down into the water and wandered in the wilderness. What will help us remain faithful to our own call?  F. Dean Lueking tells the story of an anxious Martin Luther, the Reformation leader, "as he struggled through the lonely months of his safekeeping in the Wartburg Castle. 'I am baptized,' he would scribble on his desktop, and remember his baptism as he battled back despair" We're exhorted, too, to "Remember our baptism," not as a sentimental journey or an effort to recapture lost enthusiasm, but to seek equilibrium on a storm-tossed sea, to get our bearings, to remember who (and whose) we are amid the static of the competing gods of our culture. (The Lectionary Commentary).


Today we celebrate this holy collision of water, Word, and Spirit, risk, danger, love, promise and celebration.  In celebrating Jesus’ baptism, we also remember our own, our incorporation into the family of God, and into this wonderful, countercultural, dangerous discipleship journey.  By water and Word God named and claimed us – adopted us without our permission and gave us the gift of the Spirit.  Nothing should ever be the same again; if it is, if the world is too much with you and you are distracted by worries and concerns then trouble those waters, my friends.  Be willing to stir up those waters and remember whose you truly are.  Let the grace and the wonder and the expectation wash over you again and again.   Amen.


Together we will recite our baptismal vows.  If you are not yet baptized, do not worry, you are also God’s beloved and keep in mind that Jesus was 30 when he was baptized.  Pretty old in the first century!