Salem Lutheran Church


Heaven Torn Open

As I read our Gospel text today, you might have been thinking, haven’t we just read this story? Well, we did read the first five verses back on the second Sunday in Advent and today we hear it again as we add to it the story of Jesus’ baptism. So let’s take a look at what is happening.

Mark begins his Gospel with John in the wilderness and he says, “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” (1:4). John was telling the people that they needed to repent because they were sinners, and what is really interesting to me is that the people believed him and we know they believed him because Mark says, “And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins” (1:5). The people knew the lives they were living were not as God intended and when faced with that reality, they were willing to try and do something about it, so they came and agreed to try and change their ways and they were baptized.

They second really interesting thing that Mark tells us is that God had sent John, as he did Isaiah, to prepare the world for something new and that something new is actually someone very special, even more special than all the other prophets God had sent, even John. And with that said, Mark says, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan” (Mark 1:9).

So imagine this scene: people are flocking out to the river where John is, they are confessing their sins (1:5), and then they are being baptized. And in the midst of this crowd, Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee, walks up and is baptized, too. Now before we talk about the incredible things that happened next I think we need to ask a couple of very important questions. First, “Why did Jesus get baptized?”. And second, how is his baptism connected to our baptism? Or, maybe, this second the question ought to be, does our baptism really matter? I mean, with everything that is going on in our lives — the economy, a divided government, an increasingly polarized culture, wars and rumors of wars, concerns about our families, our jobs, school, our faith communities, loss of loved ones, or a parent struggling with memory issues, illnesses, and more — does baptism really have anything to do with all this?

To prepare for Jesus’ coming, John was telling the people that they needed to change their sinful ways and to begin that process they needed to confess their sin and then repent, that is change to living the ways God says to live. But Jesus didn’t need to confess his sin. Jesus was already living as God said to live, so what was the point? Well, if it wasn’t because he had sinned and it wasn’t because he needed to change his ways of living, then I would argue it was that by being baptized, Jesus totally identified with people then, as well as us today. Sin was a problem then and whether we want to admit it or not, it is a problem today and what Jesus did in consenting to be baptized was to identify with humans in every age. Jesus, although more worthy than any of us, was, and is, willing to be with us in every way and that is the incredible good news we hear today, but that isn’t where this story ends today.

No, Mark tells us three more things that happen that make this story even more incredible and I believe help me understand what baptism means for me, and you today. Mark says as Jesus came out of the water, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, 'You are my Son, the Beloved with you I am well pleased' ” (1:10-11). Jesus’ willingness to do as God desired pleased God, and that same thing holds true for us. When we reject the ways of this world and live as God desires us to live, God is pleased. Secondly, in doing as God desired, God also showed Jesus that he wasn’t alone; God’s Spirit was with him, as well, and that same promise also holds true for us. In our baptism, God sends God’s Spirit to us, too. And lastly and the thing that I find the scariest in this story, but the most powerful, is that in this act of being baptized, Jesus caused the Heavens to be “torn open.” According to Mark, God literally tore apart the separation between God and us, and God’s kingdom began to enter this world.

Now although this may sound really awesome, I find this to be scary because of what it means for us. With the heaven’s torn open, God’s kingdom is present here, now, that means you and I have a responsibility. In our baptisms, God’s Spirit rested upon us and with that Spirit God has gifted us with everything we need to follow in God’s ways. With God’s Spirit we are those that are to continue to prepare the way. We are those that are called to act like Jesus in this world and love as he loved which means we are called to even love our enemies, too. With the heavens torn open and filled with the Holy Sprit, we are to be the hands and feet of Christ today, even when it seems too hard.

Are you getting the picture? Like our ancestors before us, we love to make excuses as to why we can’t do all the things God desires of us. We say things like well that can’t apply to us today. Or we say things like well that is for when I am at church, but I can’t do that at work, or at school. Or, well, God can’t really mean we have to welcome all strangers into our midst because we have national boundaries now and we have to have strict immigration laws.

But I would argue that by tearing open the heavens and making God’s kingdom available to us now that we can no longer use our modern excuses to not focus on using our lives to bring about God’s kingdom in everything we do. Yes, there are issues in this world that are bigger than us; yes, we are faced with daily issues in our families and in our jobs that seem to be impossible to overcome, but as baptized children of God, we have God’s Spirit and we do have the power to focus on living differently. We are baptized!

Here at Salem, as you know we are facing what seem to be impossible odds when it comes to our finances and our ability to repair, update, and expand our facility, but if we make our mission about our budget, or about this building then we will fail. God has gifted us with God’s Spirit and like Jesus, we are called not to focus on those things, but on what it is God is calling us to do. I would argue God is calling us to feed the hungry, reach out to and support the marginalized, care for the poor, study God’s word, and grow in our faith. Our building and our budget cannot and must not be our focus. We must first figure out how to grow our mission and ministry and when we do that, the answer to the other issues will be clear.

What does baptism have to do with us today? It has empowered us, it has gifted us with God’s Spirit and it calls us into a world that desperately needs us to care for it, love it and show it a better way to live. God has torn the heavens open for you and I, and as scary as it is, there is also joy in knowing God desires that we share it with the world knowing that God is pleased. Amen.

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