A Sermon from the Episcopal Parish of
St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Massachusetts
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on January 8, 2012 (Baptism of Jesus)
This is the gospel passage where John earns his title. Throughout Advent we heard John as the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. He was busy eating locusts and wild honey, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and preparing the way for the one whose sandal he was unworthy to untie. But this morning we see him doing what defines his ministry and forms his identity. He’s not known to us as John the Preparer or John the Connoisseur of Fine Honey any more than he’s known as John the Plumber or John the Accountant. He is, of course, John the Baptist. And so we finally hear about the baptism of Jesus at John’s hand in the River Jordan.
What happens in the immediate aftermath of the baptism is quite remarkable. The heavens are torn apart, the Spirit descends like a dove, and God’s voice pronounces for all to hear, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
Whenever I hear this story, I can’t help but wonder what someone like Steven Spielberg would do with this. Give him $20 million and let him go crazy with special effects – dark clouds and lightning, James Earl Jones as the voice of God, and a dramatic original score by John Williams.
On the other side of the spectrum, I can see this being done as a Church School pageant. A ripping sheet of construction paper representing the skies being torn apart, a paper dove floating down on a stick, the voice of God emanating from a bad sound system behind a curtain. All of which is to say that this is a dramatic scene, an unforgettable scene. No matter how you envision the particulars, it’s a scene that sticks in the imagination.
Sometimes it takes something dramatic to get our attention. We humans are not always the most attuned and focused lot. So, the heavens didn’t gently part; there wasn’t a rainbow arcing over the Jordan. The skies were “rent asunder;” the distinction between heaven and earth was blurred and we see, once again, evidence of God’s presence in the world.
What particularly struck me this week was the whole notion of the heavens being “torn apart.” The verb “torn apart,” skizo in Greek, only appears twice in Mark’s gospel. Once here as the heavens are opened and the voice of God affirms Jesus’ identity as his own son. And then again at the very end of the gospel as Jesus, lifted high upon the cross, breathes his last. We hear that at that very moment the curtain in the temple is “torn apart.” And just as God’s voice affirms Jesus’ identity at the Jordan saying “You are my Son,” the centurion representing humanity proclaims after the Temple curtain is torn “Truly this was God’s Son.” So the word skizo appears once as Jesus’ earthly ministry begins and once when it comes to its conclusion. These two scenes serve as bookends for all that takes place in Jesus’ life and ministry. And in between, Jesus’ life is opened up for all the world to see and know and believe.
Interestingly this word skizo is the root of the word schizophrenic when a person’s personality could be said to be torn apart into two halves. And Jesus does have, if not a dual personality, a dual nature. He is both fully God and fully human. Which was precisely what was highlighted on the banks of Jordan. Jesus approaches John on his own two feet along with countless others drawn to John’s prophetic message. But the voice from heaven clearly announces that this is God’s son. He is both human and divine and in Jesus this intersection between divinity and mortality is complete.
Now, we usually associate tearing something apart with abject destruction. If I don’t like something I’ve written I tear the paper apart and fling it into the recycling bin. When the early Christian martyrs were tossed into the Roman Coliseum their bodies were torn apart by lions. If you’re remodeling a bathroom you tear the old stuff out and toss it in a dumpster. When we deal with profound grief it feels like our hearts have been torn apart and will never again be made whole.
But sometimes a tearing apart is necessary. Sometimes it takes being emotionally torn apart before true healing can happen. Jesus often tears apart our preconceived notions. Which can bring about feelings of loss as the old and familiar pass away to make room for the new. Jesus often tears us apart from our comfort zones. Not because he likes to toy with our emotions but because the human status quo doesn’t always mesh with the divine plan. Which makes the old notion of faith as something only insecure people cling to because it is safe and familiar, something of a joke.
There’s an ancient Anglican prayer that says, “Let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” Things being torn apart can lead to new life. And isn’t that the heart of the Christian faith? That out of darkness there is light; that out of death there is resurrection.
Jesus’ baptism marks the start of something new but it begins with a tearing apart. Sometimes the only way we can get to a place of deep and abiding peace is by going through a trial of discomfort and dis-ease. That’s true in our faith lives as well as our daily lives. Which doesn’t always make things easy but we can go through difficult periods in full confidence that God is with us at every step of the way.
It’s not that Jesus needed to be baptized in the same way that we do. But by submitting to this baptism he is modeling for us the need for forgiveness, the need for relationship with God. The heavens may not have been torn apart when you and I were baptized but just as God’s voice affirms Jesus’ identity as the Son of God, so does God affirm our identity as children of God. The good news for all of us in this is that when things inevitably get torn apart, wholeness, and healing and peace await.
© The Rev. Tim Schenck 2012