No shepherds. No angels. No Magi. No star. No stable. Not a word about Mary and Joseph. Mark's story of Jesus begins at the river: "In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan." There's no list of ancestors. None of the cosmic wonder that opens John's Gospel: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God." Mark's word is far more ordinary and direct" "In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan." Jesus entered the river with others to be washed in a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In Matthew's Gospel John argues with Jesus: "Oh, I should be baptized by you," he said.
Some of us may join that argument worried about what people might think if Jesus submits to a baptism of repentance. But this is where Jesus would spend his earthly life--in the midst of sinners--eating with them, talking with them, healing them, calling them. Why should his baptism be any different? Jesus went under the waters of the Jordan as the others had--under the waters his ancestors crossed after 40 years of wilderness wandering. Historic waters, yet they looked quite ordinary.
Did Jesus look up at the sky before he went under the water? The narrator doesn't say, but when Jesus came up out of the water, wet from the Jordan, he did look up, and he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.
There's no indication that others saw this--only Jesus. He saw the heavens torn apart, not opened as in Matthew or Luke, but torn apart. The Greek word there is a form of the verb schitzo as in schism or schizophrenia. It is not the same word as open. I open the door. I close the door. The door looks the same, but something torn apart is not easily closed again. The ragged edges never go back together as they were. Mark wasn't careless in using that word: schitzo. He remembered Isaiah's plea centuries before when the prophet cried out to God, "Oh, that you would tear the heavens open and come down to make your name known to your enemies and make the nations tremble at your presence."
Now Jesus stood in the Jordan, dripping wet, without a hint that anyone else saw the heavens torn apart or saw the dove or heard the voice. And there wasn't a clue that the nations were trembling. But that did not mean that nothing had changed. Though we usually imagine God speaking in a booming voice, resonant and deep, that voice is more often heard in movies than in Scripture. God's voice can be a whisper, a breath, quiet as the still small voice that reached Elijah hiding in his cave.
At the Jordan the voice that came from heaven spoke to Jesus alone. It was intimate, direct. "You are my Son, the Beloved. With you I am well pleased. In you my Spirit will be present on the earth in a new way." The heavens were torn apart, and they would never close again.
When I was a little girl on the farm, I used to ride my bike as fast as I could down the lane that led out past the barn toward the pasture with grasshoppers whizzing around my ankles. At the end of the lane, I jumped off the bike and flung myself down on the pasture grass. I looked up at the wide sky. The flat lands of Iowa seemed to have far more sky than New York City. I lay very still, listening to my own breathing. The sunbeams broke through the blue and white sky reaching down to the pasture enfolding me with warmth and wonder. Those beams seemed to me the fingers of God. Later on, when I didn't think of God as a man in the sky, I probably said that it was the light of God or the presence of God. Whatever language I could find, I knew the deep certainty that God was with me. But that day is impossible to recapture. Our barn is now gone. The chicken house and the cattle shed, too. Soon perhaps the house will be gone, torn down and plowed under to make way for more farmland. Only the driveway will remain to remind those passing by that anyone ever lived there. If I could ride my bike down that lane, the sky would not look quite the same -- even on a sunny day. It isn't only nostalgia for a certain place and time, but a realization that the faith of my childhood has been torn in many places. It's impossible to put the pieces back together again as they were.
But the torn place is where God comes through, the place that never again closes as neatly as before. From the day he saw the heavens torn apart, Jesus began tearing apart the pictures of whom Messiah was supposed to be--
Tearing apart the social fabric that separated rich from poor.
Breaking through hardness of heart to bring forth compassion.
Breaking through rituals that had grown rigid or routine.
Tearing apart the chains that bound some in the demon's power.
Tearing apart the notions of what it means to be God's Beloved Son.
Nothing would ever be the same, for the heavens would never again close so tightly.
At the end of his life Jesus hung on a cross between heaven and earth, and when he breathed his last, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, torn apart as the heavens had been torn apart. The holy of holies no longer separated the sanctuary from the people. The curtain could never be repaired. There was no voice from the darkened heavens that day. God was silent, not even a whisper.
But there was a voice not far off but close. Not up but down. A centurion soldier stood at the foot of the cross keeping order, marking time, waiting to pronounce death. When he saw that Jesus had breathed his last, he said, "Truly this man was God's Son." Who gave him that word? Heaven knows. That soldier had somehow heard for himself the words whispered to Jesus alone at the Jordan. The word came through the torn place in the sky, through the torn curtain: "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased."
Is there a torn place in your life? I remember a young woman, thirty-something I think she was. We sat talking in my office at the church. She told me that when she was seven or eight, her mother gave her a book of Bible stories. She loved that book, and she read it over and over again. In fact, she read it so much that her mother feared that she was becoming a religious fanatic. So one day her mother took the book away and told her to read other things. Not wanting to upset her mother, the girl left the stories of God behind--all though school, all through college. Years later, her life was falling apart. What she wanted to tell me about that day was about her Good Friday--not that she had gone to church. She remembered it was Good Friday because she had the afternoon off from work. Her hopes for a career in music were going nowhere, and the man she loved had just ended their relationship. So that afternoon, she went into her apartment and locked the door. She went into her bedroom, turned off the lights, pulled down the shades, and put some music on the stereo. She couldn't remember for sure--she thought it was Bach, maybe the St. Matthew Passion--after all, it was Good Friday. In the darkness, she lay down to try to forget everything, to shut out everything but the music. Then suddenly, she told me, the room was filled with light. She couldn't explain it. The room was dark. The shades were down, but the room was filled with light. She wasn't near death or hallucinating. She wasn't feeling sick. She only knew that the room was filled with light. It was for her a turning point, the first step back to the stories that had been torn from her hands as a young girl. It was the presence of God coming through the torn places in her own life. A year later she was baptized at the Easter vigil surrounded by a circle of candlelight. Under the water, under the Word: "You are my own Beloved Child."
The torn place was still there, but God was in it.
Let us pray.
O God, come to us in the torn place where tragedy has broken us and we can't put everything back together again. Come to us in our hectic pace where we're far too busy to pray or to listen for a whisper. Come to us looking at the sky our parents saw, the sky we saw as children, yet knowing we are not the same. We have changed since long ago we felt the sunbeams on our faces. Come to us, feeling foolish about even believing in you for your voice is not as loud as we would like. Come to us in the torn place, oh God, that we might hear you say, "You are my Beloved Child." Amen.