Tearing Apart the Heavens
This sermon was delivered at Cobleskill United Methodist Church on January 10, 2021.
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 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. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
After the Christmas stories are packed away each year, what do we do? Where do we go? The simple answer is that we follow Jesus as he grows older. Between Christmas and Easter we move with Jesus through the stages of his life and ministry from the days of his birth to the days leading up to his death and resurrection in Lent and Easter. Between last week and this week Jesus has already gone from a toddler with the Magi to a 30-year-old young adult standing in the waters of the River Jordan to be baptized. They grow up so fast.
That’s the simple answer. The more complicated answer is that we not only watch Jesus grow up, we watch his ministry unfold. And as he grows into the leader God has created him to be in his ministry, we immediately find ourselves no longer in a passive watching role, but being called into an active engagement. Jesus’ ministry is one of empowering us to follow. The power of God that rested in Jesus didn’t just exist in a vacuum. Jesus’ whole purpose was about sharing that power with those who would follow him.
So today we’re starting a new worship series called, “Follow Me.” We’re focusing on the call Jesus put out to join him in his work and the response required of us to follow. Jesus wasn’t born on earth to work out some sort of magical salvation for us, he came to engage us in a partnership- in which God works for us and we work with God- a partnership that ultimately saves our life and builds a better world.
As we heard the Gospel of Mark say, Jesus’ ministry began with his baptism. So what we are going to do here today is to refresh our memory about baptism, particularly how it relates to God’s expectations of us in, shall we say, trying times.
Earlier this week I was romantically speculating about how we could do a virtual remembering of our baptisms. How we could create a nostalgic and feel-good experience in which I might have asked you to dip your hands in a bowl of water on your coffee table and there gently allow your fingers to dance and splash around as I extolled the beauty and comfort God bestows on us through our baptisms and as you remembered lacy baptism outfits, ornate wooden baptismal fonts, squirming babies, or swooning grandparents.
I abandoned that line of thinking abruptly sometime around Wednesday afternoon. Or rather, that line of thinking abandoned me when I left no room for nostalgic baptism memories in a heart that was breaking open with an angry despair. Wednesday’s horrific scenes spiraled into even deeper despair as some people tried to justify the unjustifiable. As the hours and days passed, we saw the extent of the attack on the Capitol and the extent to which fellow Americans can go, some of them proudly claiming to be Christian, to beat the life out of people who stood in their way and destroy the values we supposedly hold in trust, not just as Americans, but as human beings, and especially as Christians.
It became clear to me that talking about our nostalgic baptism feelings today wasn’t going to cut it. It was clear to me that our baptism was going to have to relate in some way to the deep brokenness I was feeling for myself, my neighbor, my community and my country. What does baptism have to say to that? And what does it mean that some people who are “baptized” still do heinous things? Why do we even bother getting baptized when earth itself can seem like a living hell?
I don’t remember my baptism because I was a baby. Maybe you were, too. So, I opened the book of prayers and liturgy that would have been spoken at my baptism to help me remember.
And I found there a grittiness that can sometimes hide behind the flowing white gowns and the pomp. At our baptism, promises are made. Not just sweet and feel-good promises; gritty and difficult promises. Our baptism, like Jesus’ own baptism, is not a promise that our life will be happy or a bequeathing of privilege for us to wield over others. Our baptism is a higher calling and a very difficult one to live out well, apparently. Our baptism begins with a promise God makes to tear open the heavens for you and love you when the earth is going to hell. But our baptism continues when we respond with our own vow to fight the forces of hell and brokenness at work on earth with every last ounce of the love God has given us.
When you are baptized you make a promise to God. You promise to renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sins. Just like John the Baptist yelled from the Jordan River: Repent of your sins!
When you’re baptized you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. This is not just the evil and injustice and oppression that threatens and offends you, this is the evil, injustice and oppression that threatens anyone.
When you’re baptized you confess that there is no other Lord in your life except Jesus Christ and you put your whole trust in him. Nothing comes before Christ- not country, not leaders, and certainly not ourselves.
Some people like to claim the promise in baptism but forget the vow. Some of us like to remember the warm fuzzy feelings and claim some sort of exceptionalism we think baptism gives us, while completely deserting our own responsibility to be decent human beings.
So let me say this. We’re an angry group of people right now. If you’re not angry about something, you’re probably not paying attention. But let me also say this: anger itself is not the enemy. Anger is an emotion God has given us to feel when we are breaking apart. And God knows we are breaking apart right now.
When we are baptized, God gives us a gift. God tears open the heavens to give us a gift. It’s not a ticket to heaven. It’s not a pass on life’s hard …stuff. It is the freedom and the power to channel our anger into a righteous resistance of that which is unjust and evil. But that gift just hangs there unclaimed when we let our anger imprison us in a cell of mutual self-destruction. Anger, unchecked, will come out in ways that do great harm. We’ve seen it at the Capitol. We’ve seen it in on Facebook. We’ve seen it in our church parking lots. We are better than this.
This morning I’m talking to you personally. I am desperately asking you, personally, to remember the baptismal vow you took. I’m not asking you lay down your anger. I’m not asking you to suddenly go from distrust and rage and to happiness and unity. It will take a lot of time to heal from the level of violence and rage and mistrust our country has committed against itself. What I’m asking each of you to do is to take personal responsibility for your own actions. Look closely. Look very closely. Are you personally resisting evil, injustice and oppression? Is your version of evil, injustice and oppression aligned with God’s? Do you weep when people are treated differently because of something they cannot control? Are you outraged when the poor get poorer and the sick get sicker? Are you giving your life for the cause of mutual flourishing for all people? Or are you in this only for yourself? Did you get baptized for your own salvation alone or did you sign on to God’s master plan? A plan in which God doesn’t rest until the last shall be first and first shall be last. God tore open the heavens to call God’s son Beloved. And God’s son gave his life to call you beloved—every last one of you—enemies and friends alike.
For God’s sake, take your baptism seriously.
Stop making excuses for yourself because you think what you’re doing is not as bad as what someone else is doing. We’re all complicit in the brokenness of this world. If a Christian is what you dare to call yourself; if baptism is where your journey began; then let your life, and your loyalties, and your actions stand on their own two feet in front of God as your judge. Take responsibility for what God has given you: your voice, your allegiances, your influence, your relationships, your choices, your wealth, your very life itself. Stop being complicit in a broken world.
“Made for Goodness”
by Desmond and Mpho Tutu
You are my child,
With you I am well pleased.
Stand beside me and see yourself.
Borrow my eyes so you can see perfectly.
When you look with my eyes then you will see
That the wrong you have done and the good left undone,
The words you have said that should not have been spoken,
The words you should have spoken but left unsaid,
The hurts you have caused,
The help you’ve not given
Are not the whole of the story of you.
You are not defined by what you did not achieve.
Your worth is not determined by success.
You were priceless before you drew your first breath,
Beautiful before dress or artifice,
Good at the core.
And now is time for unveiling
The goodness that is hidden behind the fear of failing.
You shut down your impulse to kindness in case it is shunned,
You suck in your smile,
You smother your laughter,
You hold back the hand that would help.
You crush your indignation
When you see people wronged or in pain,
In case all you can do is not enough,
In case you cannot fix the fault,
In case you cannot soothe the searing,
In case you cannot make it right.
What does it matter if you do not make it all right?
What does it matter if your efforts move no mountains?
It matters not at all.
It only matters that you live the truth of you.
It only matters that you push back the veil to let your goodness shine through.
It only matters that you live as I have made you.
It only matters that you are made for me,
Made like me,
Made for goodness.
This water might seem calm and clear, but if you take your baptism seriously, there’s grit in there, too. If you are baptized I expect you to remember that. When you agree to follow Jesus, you agree to fight for Jesus’ cause. To love the least and the lost. To work for our mutual flourishing. If you’re not baptized and you desperately want to be part of the healing of our broken world, God may be calling you to take this step. Pray about it and reach out to me. God is calling, will you follow?
Grace and Peace,