Sermon preached at Shernhall Methodist Church this past Sunday:
Torn apart. We only need to turn on the news to see that countless places in our world are being torn apart. Thousands upon thousands of lives and families being torn apart by the Ebola virus. Lands, homes and millions of people’s hearts, minds and bodies being torn apart by war and natural disasters. The 162 passengers’ lives and the lives of their loved ones being torn apart by the AirAsia flight crash. And now the recent Paris attacks at the offices of Charlie Hebdo which killed 12 people.
What next, we may wonder? How much longer will suffering, injustice and cruelty continue to tear people’s lives apart? Our world seems to be going through a never-ending wilderness experience and the lack of peace and love spreading throughout our world can make us feel rather helpless. It makes me wonder whether our world will ever come to see the light in the midst of all this darkness.
Today’s Mark passage begins in the wilderness. In the wild, where there is a lack of life and order. A bit like in the Genesis passage where in the beginning there was only darkness, chaos and a formless void. John the Baptist appears in this wilderness paving the way for light and life that is to come. He comes forth introducing a possible new way of life, by proclaiming a baptism of repentance, a life-change that leads to a forgiveness of sins.
What I find extraordinary about verse 5 is that it says people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to John to be baptised in the River Jordan, and were confessing their sins! Whether they truly came seeking after this life-change that John spoke about, or whether it was the latest and greatest place to be and be seen at the time, we do not know.
But this certainly would have been a huge shock to the religious Jews of the day, because though baptism was not something new, the only time baptism was ever used was when a Gentile became a Jew. When an ‘outsider’ became a Jew. Now, what was new about this baptism that John was proclaiming was that it was for both Jews and Gentiles. For everyone. I imagine most of the people who flocked to John were the marginalised, outcasts and poorest of society. Those who were broken and torn and in need of comforting and a life-change.
John could easily have been seduced by his own temporary popularity, but we can learn so much from his honest humility. He makes it abundantly clear that he is merely preparing the way, laying down the red carpet so to speak, for someone who is more powerful and important than he. So much so that he is not even worthy to stoop down to this one who is to come.
He makes it perfectly clear that he can only baptise with water for an outward and symbolic washing, but the one who is to come will baptise with the water and the Spirit, to cleanse and renew hearts by the Spirit, whereby one will be changed from the inside out.
What is even more fascinating about this scene is that even after the grand introduction John gave about Jesus, when Jesus does arrive, he does not baptise anyone. Instead he too enters the river with all the others to be washed in a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus was sinless therefore did not need to be baptised, but why did he do this? What message was he trying to convey?
This is where Jesus would spend his earthly life, in the midst of sinners, eating with them, talking with them, healing them, and calling them. Jesus went under the waters of Jordan as the others had, under the waters his ancestors crossed after 40 years of wilderness wandering, under the same waters that Naaman washed to be healed of leprosy. The same waters. Jesus went down fully to their level, to walk with them and be beside them.
So too in our own baptism, Jesus has come down fully to our level, down into the chaos of our human nature where things are shapeless and murky in order to bring about a new beginning. Jesus saw his baptism as a sign to mark the beginning of his public ministry. His ministry was a new beginning for him and for the world.
When Jesus came up out of the water three significant things happened. The heavens were ‘torn apart’, the ‘Spirit descended on him like a dove’ and a ‘voice came from heaven’. Mark does not give us any indication that others witnessed this, only Jesus.
He saw the heavens being torn apart. The Greek word used for ‘torn apart’ is a form of the verb ‘schitzo’ as in ‘schism’ and does not have the same meaning as merely to ‘open’. It’s the same word used to describe the moment on Good Friday when the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The holy of holies no longer separated the sanctuary from the people. The curtain could never be repaired. No longer would there be separation between God and humankind.
The heavens being torn apart is symbolic of this too, for they would never close again. God tore apart the heavens and came down. God has committed the act of breaking and entering the world and Mark wants us to know this. From the day Jesus saw the heavens torn apart, God began tearing apart through Jesus the social fabric that separated rich from poor. Tearing through hardness of heart to bring forth compassion. Tearing through rituals that had grown rigid and routine. Tearing through chains that bound those captive to sin and death.
When we were baptised it too meant that God tore through the barrier and broke into our lives, to bring us freedom, release and life. For as Paul states in Romans 6:4, ‘Therefore, we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the father, so we too might walk in the newness of life’.
The torn place is where God comes through, and God comes to us in our torn places. Through Jesus’ baptism God made himself vulnerable, immersed himself into our sinfulness and torn places so that we might be raised to a new life with Christ.
Where in our lives do we find torn places? Is there a torn place in your life, if any? Is it in your relationships with others? In your health? Is it somewhere deep down in your heart, mind and soul? Are you finding it difficult to put the pieces back together?
When the Spirit descended on Jesus as a dove, it was as though God after tearing apart the heavenly divide reached out and touched his Son. Our baptism in Jesus Christ is a daily reminder that God does the same to us. He desires to break through into our torn places, our hurts and wounds and to reach out and touch us with his Spirit, if we are open and sensitive to his touch.
After the Spirit descends on Jesus as a dove, comes a voice from heaven saying, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’ These are personal and powerful words, and wrapped in these words of affirmation and acceptance are blessings of identity, worth and unwavering regard. These are words Jesus needed to hear as he began his ministry, words that would help him make it through the tough times ahead.
As humans we have a crucial need for affirmation in what we do, but most of all acceptance. I can already see this in my 3 and half-year-old daughter, Reyna who constantly seeks affirmation and acceptance in all she does and is. Acceptance is simply being accepted and valued for who we are, just as we are, and it is a necessary and important factor to a healthy, productive life. Jesus needed it, so do we. We so often put ourselves down, we tell ourselves we are not good enough, talented enough, intelligent enough etc.
God has already come to us in our baptism and proclaimed that we are his sons and daughters, his beloved and that he is well pleased with us. For, let us remember that God saw his creation as ‘good’.
As we come up out of the waters of baptism with Jesus, let us hear those words that Jesus heard being said to us as well.
As our baptism offers us affirmation and acceptance, it empowers us to affirm and accept others in return. Let us have a think about how we can use our words and voices, as God used his voice to create and build up, rather than to hurt or destroy.
And how can we be more sensitive to God’s voice in our daily lives? In the midst of the many voices competing for our attention in our world, how can we recognise God’s still, soft, small voice? How can we silence all the other voices and just hear out for God’s voice? It is a challenge, especially in the midst of the hustle and bustle we may face each day. But maybe we need time to leave our noisy and busy lives behind for a moment, away from our controlled and ordered lives to allow God to speak to us freely through the Spirit.
Brothers and sisters, I could be wrong, but most of us do not think about the day we were baptised or what it means for us on a daily basis. I certainly do not wake up each day thinking about my baptism. Most of us may not remember because we were baptised as children. Am I right? However, let us try to ponder on it today, and throughout this season of Epiphany.
Our baptism reminds us that God through Jesus immersed himself into our world, stooped down and came down into our depth in order to be among us and to give us a new beginning in Christ.
It reminds us that God tore apart the heavens in order to enter into our darkness and brokenness.
It reminds us that wherever we go and whatever we may do or have done, God calls us his ‘beloved’ and accepts us.
It is a reminder that the Holy Spirit is upon and within us, leading, shaping, guiding and empowering us for life and ministry.
We can never mend all the torn places of our world, but our baptism challenges and calls us as baptised people to at times go down with Jesus into the chaos and neediness of humanity, to break into the torn places with a gentle touch or to whisper a kind word to an individual in need.
I would like to leave you with these words that the Church of Scotland uses. These are words that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby uses when he baptises any adult or child, and were words he said he would like to say to Prince George before his christening in a video interview:
For you Jesus Christ came into the world.
For you he lived and showed God’s love.
For you he suffered the darkness of Calvary and
cried at the last ‘it is accomplished’.
For you he triumphed over death and rose to new life.
For you he reigns at God’ right hand.
All this he did for you.
May all glory be to God most high!
I was so anxious and nervous about this service, but all came together through the help of the Holy Spirit and I definitely felt the Spirit’s hand upon me as I preached. As I came to the last bit of my sermon when I was saying the words from the Church of Scotland I looked at the congregation and felt an outpouring of love and compassion for them. It made me tearful. I felt so overwhelmed by all that Jesus sacrificed for us, it was too much to bear. I would have liked to have let the tears come, but I composed myself. What Jesus did and is doing for us is really so overwhelming. Writing this sermon gave a great opportunity to think about my own baptism again, and what that means.
Thank you God.
I was going to use this Frozen music video for the Children’s Address, but alas it didn’t work so I went with plan B. Good thing I had a plan B! It was obviously for the best and maybe God wanted me to go with plan B in the end.
However, there is so much in this song about new life, life-change and leaving the old and living in the new. About freedom, accepting ourselves for who God has created us to be and being free from the things that bind us. It speaks multitudes to me about the heart of baptism.