Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Heavens Torn Apart

Baptism of the Lord 2015

The Baptism of Our Lord is an event recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and also referred to in the Gospel of John. But only Mark, which we had just heard today, uses these words: “And when he came up out of the water, than he saw the heavens torn apart. . . .”

“The heavens being torn apart.” That’s an interesting way to put it, isn’t it? For most of us, the idea of the “heavens being torn apart” often innocently conjures those poignantly stunning shafts of smoky sunlight that break through brooding clouds – every cameraman’s or painter’s dream.  The word that’s used here in the Greek is not so innocent. The word, “schizo,” has violent and destructive connotations. It’s the word from which we get our English words “scissors” and “schism,” “schizoid,” “schizophrenia,” etc. “Schizo” means to “split,” to “rend,” “tear apart” or “rip open.” So the heavens were being “split wide open,” “torn apart,” when Jesus was baptised.

If you want to understand the expression of heaven being torn open, you should know first what heaven meant to the people in ancient times. According to the creation myth, on the second day God created heaven with dividing the water above from the water below. The gap between waters is a celestial sphere, the firmaments, or simply heaven. In the Hebrew mindset, the supernatural world (heaven) and the natural world (earth) were so closely bound up that they touched and, at points, whatever divided them was quite thin indeed.  The Holy of Holies in the tabernacle and temple was one such place.  That’s why there were guards and priests, blood and altars, washing bowls and thick curtains.  They were all there to mediate the touchpoint between two worlds. And what separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple was this huge curtain, called the Veil, with embroidered symbols depicting the cosmos. It’s as if the world of God was just hidden behind this thin membrane yet formidable veil of the cosmos, a veil which mortals would have little opportunity to pass through.

In Heaven, the Creator’s authority held sway and was uncontested.  But on earth this same authority was contested in every heart.  Thus, the earth was filled with injustice and avarice thus motivating someone like the prophet Isaiah to plead with God that he would tear the heavens open and unleash and rain down his justice (of the destructive kind).  “If You would but tear open the heavens and come down, So that mountains would quake before You…” Isa 64:1. 

What do you think of when you hear that the heavens were “torn open?” Man’s sinfulness in the past had occasioned both the opening and the shutting of heaven. In the time of Noah, God opened up the heavens and flooded the earth. Or during the time of Abraham and Lot, the heavens opened up and rained down fire and brimstone on the wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. But there were also occasions when God chose to shut the heavens, and prevented the needed rain to fall on earth, during the great famine of the time of Elijah, and only opened the floodgates of heaven after Elijah had defeated the pagan cult of the evil queen Jezebel.  

But something entirely different takes place at the Baptism of Jesus. Instead of torrential rains and floods, instead of destructive fire and brimstone, we hear the voice of God the Father and we see a glimpse of the most profound mystery of faith, the innermost centre of God’s life, the manifestation of the Most Holy Trinity. No, not fire and brimstone, not a flood, but a dove, a sign of peace, divine forgiveness and reconciliation. Not a booming voice of God announcing the wrath and judgment of God over sinful humanity but an affirming voice of love and paternal charity. “You are my Son, the Beloved; my favour rests on you.”

So what did the tearing apart of heaven reveal? First, it revealed that there is no longer an impassable barrier that separates man from God. This the amazing good news that we heard on Christmas day and is now manifested to the world at the Baptism of the Lord. Jesus is the sign of God’s conciliation. He is truly God’s righteous Beloved Son. True God and true man. God in man made manifest. It’s as if Jesus, the Beloved Son, the only one who could truly claim to be free from sin, holy and righteous, now stands in the gap between sinful humanity and a Just God. Instead of seeing the sinfulness of man, the real cause for the separation between God and man, God instead sees his righteous Son, the new Adam. Whatever cause for His divine displeasure and wrath, which is truly just, dissipates. His Beloved Son stands in the gap and shields humanity from the death, judgment and destruction it deserves. For the holy Son of God would take on himself the sins and the guilt of all mankind.

And so at our baptism, when we are united with the death and resurrection of Christ, God removes the barriers separating sinners from him and him from sinners so that mistakes, rebellion, guilt, and shame no longer keep people from God. Instead, we now share in that divine favour of being the beloved ones of God. God does all this because of his Son Jesus.

When heavens were torn apart, we also receive a second revelation - we are treated to a glimpse, a momentary peek, into the dynamic life of the Triune God.  Man throughout the ages have attempted to speculate about nature of God. Thinking about this can wrack our brains, but it can also ignite our imaginations. But God is no longer the subject of speculation and imagination. Jesus has revealed God to us as Three Persons in one God.  Jesus has revealed that God is a Community of Love in and of Himself. So when the heavens are “torn open,” when the Spirit hovers over the baptismal waters and descends upon Jesus as a Dove, when the Father commends Jesus as His Beloved Son, it is as if we are standing on sidewalk looking through a lit window to see the fullness of God residing.  Jesus bursts into the world not as a mere Messiah (though that would satisfy plenty of expectations in itself), or not as a messenger bearing a good word for people to accept (after all that was sort of John the Baptist’s job), but as the very image of the God who creates, redeems, and loves.

We’re here today because we know heaven is open. And the good news is that the tear has not been repaired. Heaven’s graces is still leaking, nay, it is still invading this earth. Now heaven is torn open when the heart of a sinner turns from sin to grace. Now heaven is torn open when the Word of God is read. Now heaven is torn open every time a baby or adult is baptised. Heaven is torn open each time we come before the Lord’s altar and receive the body and blood of Jesus in His holy Sacrament. Heaven is open, and God gives us His Holy Spirit. And because Jesus is our Saviour and has washed away our sins and made us His brothers and sisters, our God says about us, “You are My son, or My daughter, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” And when we die, we will truly see heaven torn open as God’s holy angels come down to escort our spirits into His presence – until the day heaven is really torn open, when our Saviour comes in His glory with all His holy angels to judge the earth.

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