“And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” Mark 1:10
You probably hear it before you see it. You’re pulling a shirt or a dress over your head – or you’re leaning over in a pair of pants that’s gotten a bit snug – when you hear that sound [tear paper]. Something has torn. A seam has ripped apart – perhaps you can feel cool air against your skin in a place where you shouldn’t be able to feel air at all. Or you stare in dismay at the ragged edges of the hole in the fabric. There’s nothing that can be done, at least not before you have to head out the door. When something is really torn, there’s no quick fix. You’d better find another pair of pants.
The gospel of Mark is pretty spare. It doesn’t include lots of extra details. This gospel doesn’t even give Jesus a birth story. No shepherds. No angels. No “Away in the Manger” pictures of a sleeping baby. The first time we meet Jesus, he’s fully grown and wading into the river to be baptized.
So it’s important to pay attention to the details that are included. For the stories that appear in more than one of the four gospels, it’s often helpful to compare accounts, to notice how the details differ and to imagine what those differences might say to us.
For example, in all three of the gospels that include a story of Jesus’ baptism – Matthew, Mark, and Luke – there is an opening of the heavens and a voice from God that pronounces Jesus beloved.
At that moment Matthew and Luke describe the heavens as just that – being opened. The author of Mark’s gospel, on the other hand, uses a different word. The heavens in Mark are “torn apart.” The verb is a form of “schizo” – to tear, rip, rend.[i] It’s the same root from which we get words like schism or schizophrenic. Mark suggests that some kind of barrier between heaven and earth is being ripped apart. It is not a gentle tearing. It is dramatic and bold and can’t just be sewn back together with some needle and thread.
This small detail highlights that God is breaking into the world in a new way in the person of Jesus. Whatever veil might exist between the heavenly kingdom and the earthly one is there no more. God will not be confined. God is on the loose.[ii]
We even have that image of the Holy Spirit coming down. Our translation this morning describes the Holy Spirit as descending like a dove on to Jesus. We could more accurately translate that to say that the Holy Spirit descends into Jesus. The Spirit will fully inhabit Jesus. It has entered into him and will throughout his life send him to the most unexpected places.
The Holy Spirit that enters into Jesus at his baptism will propel Jesus into the wilderness to face temptation from Satan. It will lead him into confrontations with evil in all its forms. It will send him across the sea of Galilee and into places that no one imagined the messiah would go. It will bring him to people who have been rejected by society because they were too sick, too strange, or – in many cases – merely too different from the people who held power. To borrow that classic movie line, “Nobody puts Jesus in a corner.”
I ventured into our church kitchen earlier this week and had a good laugh when I found the baby Jesus up on the counter by the dish drainer. It was the doll we use in the Christmas pageant, and I’m not sure how he got there, but it was the perfect reminder that Jesus is a Savior on the move. I joked that the spot on our counter was probably a step up from where he was born, and it certainly won’t be the strangest place that he will go in his life. At least here he can get some good coffee.
That’s what the gospels show us in the life and ministry of Jesus. There is no place that Jesus won’t go. There is no border he will not cross, no country he will not enter, no group of people he will not seek out. That includes the darkest corners of our own lives, the places we’d rather let no one see. Jesus is there too, telling us that even the most painful parts of our story can hold something holy.
Sometimes after a tragedy like a school shooting, you’ll hear people – even some prominent pastors – say, “This happened because we took God out of schools.” I take issue with that statement for two reasons. The first is that God is not a petty, vindictive deity looking to settle a score with us. But it’s also true that we couldn’t keep God out of schools if we wanted to. Schools of course must be places where children of all faiths are taught and loved and supported; that’s how it should be. But God is there. We don’t get to relegate God to the spaces that we deem appropriate. God does not consent to stay behind the barriers we try to build or the lines we try to draw in the sand. God certainly isn’t confined to this space where we worship but instead goes with us out into the world, walking with us in the joys and challenges of each day.
The other place where that verb for “torn” gets used in the gospel of Mark is in the account of Jesus’ crucifixion. In Chapter 15, as Jesus is being tormented on the cross, we hear:
Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way Jesus breathed his last, the centurion said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’ [verses 37-39]
At the moment of Jesus’ death, the temple curtain is torn, ripped apart, split in two. The curtain mentioned here was probably the one that separated the Holy of Holies, the place in the temple where people believed the divine presence lived, from the rest of the building. Nobody but the high priest was allowed there, and he only entered it once a year as part of a ritual to to atone for the sins of the people. So we see that in both his baptism and in his death, Jesus is about making sure that nothing comes between God and God’s people. Boundary-breaking is God’s specialty.
That tearing open of the heavens in Jesus’ baptism – it’s good news. Much better news than a rip in your pants. Because this kind of tearing does not have to be repaired. It opens the way for the repair of the world.
There is no place that Jesus will not go, no part of the world or of our lives that he does not hold in love. For that we can give thanks. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[i] I am grateful for the observations about this language as found in Following God Through Mark: Theological Tension in the Second Gospel by Ira Brent Driggers, Preaching Mark in Two Voices by Brian K. Blount and Gary W. Charles, and Mark (one of the Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries) by David Schnasa Jacobsen.
[ii] I am influenced here by Donald Juel’s language and interpretation, as quoted in the sources above.
The following sermon was preached by our Seminarian Leif McLellan.
“…And Precious Is Their Blood in His Sight.”
Blood. Bloodline, mixed blood, pureblood, bloodbath, blood pact, blood feud, signed in blood, blood sacrifice, blood relative, blood money. Blood infuses our language with so many different words and phrases. And all these phrases conjure up a wide variety of different feelings and images: family and history, pride and shame, gore and queasiness, faithfulness and fear—a whole range of realities and life experiences. Blood has this curious power in our imaginations and in our lives. I myself cannot stand the sight of blood before I start to feel a bit faint. Blood is, in fact, the stuff of life; it brings oxygen to our cells; it is how we talk about our family relationships; it connects us to those living and to those who came before us.
And we as humans have this odd tendency to value some blood over others. In Star Wars Episode 7, the central hero, a young woman named Rey, was abandoned as a little girl on a desert planet. There she lives a hard life as a scavenger waiting for her parents to return, although she has no living memory of them. Throughout the movie, we get flashbacks of Rey’s past as she gets swept up into the grand galactic conflict. But neither she nor the audience learns anything more about her parents. After Episode 7 hit the box office, Star Wars fans immediately began speculating about Rey’s bloodline. Many fan theories tried to connect her to the heroes of the old movies. She was important, so she must have inherited important blood. Or so the logic goes. However, this most recent Star Wars movie, Episode 8, dashes fans’ expectations. Rey did not inherit any heroic blood. She is special but not because of any special lineage. Her parents were nobodies and she is a nobody who still chose to fight against the forces of evil. Regardless of everyone’s assumptions and expectations, this young woman had precious blood.
In the psalm that we proclaimed together a few moments ago, we said a prayer for the blood of the poor and the oppressed, for the lives that society does not value. The psalmist—the author of the psalm—expresses to God a deep desire for a king to bring justice to Israel and the world. For the world is in clear need of justice. The poor are crying out in distress and the needy lack defense in the face of their oppressors. I can imagine this psalm being sung at a new king’s coronation, with new hopes and dreams for the beginning of a dynasty. The kingdom is weary from those in power taking advantage of the vulnerable. It seems that the previous king had let corruption, poverty, and inequality run rampant. The people are ready for a change.
The people have suffered so much for so long that they cannot but dream of a complete transformation of the world. The psalmist sings of majestic and beautiful renewal:
5 May [the king] live as long as the sun and | moon endure,
from one generation to another.
6 Let him come down like rain upon the mown field,
like showers that water the earth.
The psalmist implores God to let the dynasty rule for as long as the cosmic bodies stay in their courses. This rule of justice shall be like the fresh Summer rain that, after a drought, makes the grass and tress green again.
Finally, the psalmist’s tone shifts from wishing to virtual certainty: the king has compassion for the poor and the oppressed and “precious is their blood in his sight.” Precious is their blood in his sight. This phrase strikes me. What does it mean to see someone’s blood, their life, as precious? I know I feel valued when people listen to me; they show interest in my life and my story; they even laugh at my humor. Those who listen to me tend to build a strong relationship with me; they become like family. In fact, the people who find me most precious are my family—my blood, you might say. They know me and have invested so much of themselves in my life, especially when times were hard. Perhaps you can think of a time when you were struggling or hurting and someone took the time to listen to you…. This act of listening seems to be crucial in valuing another person’s life.
The psalmist prays that the king will begin the process of relationship building by listening to the oppressed so that he might see their blood as precious. In fact, the king must see them as family. As the psalmist hopes, “from oppression and violence he redeems their lives.” In other words, it is the king’s responsibility to literally pay for the freedom of the indentured and enslaved. In ancient Israel, when someone defaulted on their debts or fell into slavery, it was up to one of their family members to redeem them, to buy them back. The king, a man of royal blood, is expected to act as a family member to the lowest in society, to see their blood as valuable as his.
The author of this psalm prays to God and God responds AMEN. God responds, yes, the blood of the oppressed is precious. Our God who transcends all time and all space and all our wildest imaginations chose to take on human flesh. We celebrate Epiphany today because God made an appearance. God made an appearance to the peoples of the earth as a vulnerable baby, a child of a poor young mother and father, in a land ruled by a cruel puppet dictator under the largest empire the world had ever seen. So much could go wrong. Yet God chose to enter into the fragility of human life. God chose to have a real human body with real human blood. God chose to live and die in solidarity with the poor, the sick, the outcasts, to not only listen to the suffering of humanity but also to feel it in Godself. This ultimate act of compassion is part of God’s work to restore the broken relationships in this world.
The blood that ran in the veins of Jesus Christ comes with the wine we drink every Sunday. God has claimed us as God’s blood, God’s family. When we take communion we partake of one blood and one body. We are one family with Christ, with each other, and with those whom society deems unworthy. When we take communion we remember that God finds our blood precious and that this same precious blood resides in the poor and oppressed of our communities. Indeed, Christ lives in us and we live in Christ so that God might repair the relationships between us and the rest of God’s family.
This work of justice and reparation begins with listening. Last November I had the fortune of visiting Broad Street Church in Philadelphia. If you have not heard of Broad Street Church, I encourage you to look it up and go there if you get the chance. It is truly an incredible place. The ministry at this church started as a Sunday meal open to the public and has expanded to an enormous meal program that serves 7 meals, 6 days a week to the homeless of the city. The church not only serves meals, it also provides mental health services, dentistry, mail services (something particularly important for those seeking employment), as well as art therapy. But what really makes Broad Street remarkable is the way it treats every patron as an honored guest. The guests do not stand in line. Instead, they find their own seats at round tables and volunteers serve them like waiters at a proper restaurant. Every guest has their own story and, according to one of the pastors at Broad Street, because of the dignity and hospitality that the guests receive here, they begin to open up and share their stories. The guests do not remain faces in a crowd, but the pastors and volunteers at Broad Street listen to their stories and build relationships with them.
God is at work at Broad Street. God uses ordinary people to bring dignity to those who would otherwise not experience it. And the ministry there is growing. Over the years they have been serving more and more people. While the church is glad to serve as many people as they can, they also recognize that this growth has its roots in a larger societal issue. The city of Philadelphia as a whole needs to find a long term solution to its homelessness problem. So Broad Street Ministry has now set its eyes on advocating for legal and political action to transform the city. What has started with simple meal fellowship has turned into a real force for social change.
God’s work of justice is not yet finished. God is ready to repair the broken relationships and broken systems of this world. So I encourage us to listen to those who insist that society does not value them, whose lives don’t matter. Listening doesn’t mean agreeing 100% with what someone says or completely understanding where they come from. Listening means hearing their frustrations, their hurts, and their struggles. Listening means attempting to put our feet in other people’s shoes, like God walked in ours. In listening compassionately to these voices we hear the voice of God calling to us. God compels us into right relationship with those in need and God then uses us to restore justice for those whose blood is precious in God’s sight. AMEN