“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.