Today’s sermon can be heard on the Christ Church website, or read here.
One of the joys of my children getting older is that we can now watch shows that entertain across the generations. Gone are the days of endless episodes of Curious George and Paw Patrol. Now, in the evenings, we can all pile on the couch and watch something that everyone will enjoy. One of our favorites over the past year has been Americas Got Talent. The variety show format seems well suited for our wide-ranging tastes. Musicians, dancers, stunt artists, you name it, on AGT someone who has tried to win a million dollars doing it. My favorite performances of this past season were the street magicians. There is just something amazing about close-up magic. The prestidigitation of the magician means that what you think you see isn’t really what you are seeing. The thing you are paying attention to isn’t really the thing.
Mark’s take on the Baptism of our Lord recalled the street magicians I saw on Americas Got Talent because the thing isn’t really the thing. Having just heard Mark’s introduction a few weeks ago, we’ve already heard five of the eight verses in today’s Gospel lesson. We know about John appearing in the wilderness. We’ve heard about the crowds who came seeking baptism for the forgiveness of their sins. We can imagine John in a camel hair coat with a leather belt around his waist and a locust wing stuck in a bit of honey in his matted beard. Mark spends five verses describing the baptism of John, but this story isn’t about John.
This story is really about the baptism of Jesus by John. True to form, Mark is skimpy on the details. We get none of John arguing with Jesus about whether or not he should be baptized, like we do in Matthew. We hear nothing of Jesus’ personal prayer life like we do in Luke. All we know is that Jesus came from Nazareth and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
It is a story about the baptism of Jesus, but it is also about a whole lot more. The thing we should really be paying attention to comes next. Sure, Jesus went into and out of the water, thousands of others had too. What is remarkable is what happens immediately as Jesus comes up out of the water. While Mark is directing our attention down here, the thing we really should be paying attention to is happening up there. The heavens torn apart, the Spirit descending like a dove, and a voice from heaven declaring “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Mark is adept at hiding things in plain sight. Despite beginning his Gospel by calling Jesus the Son of God, one of Mark’s key motifs is the Messianic Secret. Again and again, Jesus commands his disciples and those whom he heals to not tell anyone what they have seen and heard. Unlike in the other Gospels, in Mark, the words we all know well from Jesus’ baptism seem to be addressed only to Jesus, as if the crowd gathered at the river bank couldn’t see or hear what was unfolding. As the reader, we get to see all the amazing details, even if they feel hidden among a bunch of superfluous content and sleight-of-hand. Like the close-up magic of a street magician, however, if we pay careful attention to everything we are seeing and hearing, we can begin to understand what is really happening. While our eyes are focused on the water, Mark’s deeper lesson is found in the great tearing of the heavens.
There are actually two great rips in Mark’s Gospel. They bookend the ministry of Jesus. The first, happens in our lesson for today, at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The second comes just as he breathes his last breath from the cross. Both are significant, not just because of what is happening in the moment, but because of what they signify in Mark’s larger theological scheme.
In this first great tear, we see the veil between humanity and God being removed. In taking on human flesh, Jesus forever altered the landscape of humanity and divinity. It is in this moment that the heavens show fully what God has done in the Incarnation. From here on out, there is no difference between the sacred and the profane. God is not an aloof deity, up in the sky, watching us like a divine security guard. In the Incarnation, God permanently opened the barrier between earth and heaven, and brought the fullness of the human experience into God’s self.
Not only do the heavens being torn in two break the barrier between the human and the divine, but by tying this story with the beginning of creation in Genesis 1, we see that our own baptisms, following the model of Jesus’ baptism, take us all the way back to that very first moment when God turned chaos into order. In the Hebrew, the word translated in Genesis 1.2 as “the deep” is tehowm, and it means deeper than deep. It is the abyss, the chaos in which fear and darkness and death reside. Nothing can exist in the deep. It is formless and void. Into that overwhelming nothingness, God speaks creation into being. From the depths of chaos, God brings order.
If that isn’t a metaphor for our lives in Christ, I don’t know what it. In our baptisms, through heavens torn asunder, God pulls us out of the overwhelming chaos of the world and brings us into the order of the Kingdom of God. Yes, we still live our lives on this plane, where there is still sadness, darkness, and death, but in baptism, we are also welcomed into the Kingdom, where God brings all things into joy, light, and life. In the water of baptism, we are welcomed out of the chaos, having been brought into the light.
As momentous as this is, the thing we are seeing still isn’t the thing. The Messianic Secret won’t fully be revealed until the day of Jesus’ death. The culmination of it all won’t come until the second great tear happens at the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. As Jesus breathes his last, Mark tells us that the Temple curtain, that which divided the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple, was torn in two from top to bottom. While the tearing of the heavens looks back upon the moment of Creation, this tearing open symbolizes our ability to enter fully into the nearer presence of God. Getting from earth to heaven is impossible on this side of the River Styx, but with the symbolic dwelling place of God on earth made accessible to everyone through the death of Jesus, all of humanity can now find themselves in the holiness of God. As this second great tearing happens, it is a Roman Centurion who is the first to fully understand what has happened. In words that echo the words Jesus heard at his baptism, the Centurion proclaims, “Truly this was the Son of God.”
Through the Incarnation of Jesus, God became present to humanity. Through the death of Jesus, humanity has been made present to God. These two great tears that bookend the ministry of Jesus have forever changed the landscape of our relationship with God. No longer is God some far off deity, but rather, God is fully available to humanity. The fullness of God is opened to us through these two rips in the fabric of creation. Despite all the hurry and all the secrets in Mark’s Gospel that might distract our attention, the thing that Mark’s story is really about is how God has entered fully into the messiness of human existence. Through Christ, God has called us from the darkness of the abyss to the light of the Kingdom. In our baptism, we enter with Christ into the chaos of the waters of creation one final time before we are brought into the light of God’s love.
As you came up out of the water at your baptism, you might not have seen the heavens torn in two. Maybe you didn’t hear God call you his beloved. You probably didn’t see the Spirit descending upon you like a dove. Yet, I believe that these things occur at every baptism. Each time someone commits their life to the Kingdom of God over and above the chaos of this world, a party erupts, and all of heaven rejoices. So, in case you didn’t hear it the first time, here’s the thing: You are God’s child, beloved, and with you God is well pleased. Amen.