Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany

Text: Mark 1:9b-10
Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan. As soon as Jesus came up out of the water, he saw heaven opening and the Spirit coming down on him like a dove.

The heavens opened

There is a word picture that I want to focus on today. It appears in the account of Jesus' baptism in Markís Gospel when we are told that heaven opened up. This picture is used on numerous occasions in the Old Testament. Ezekiel begins his book saying, "The heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God" (Ezekiel 1:1). The prophet Malachi records God's words, "I will open the windows of heaven and flood you with blessing after blessing" (3:10). Perhaps one of the most well known references to the Ďwindows of heavení is in the early chapters of Genesis (7:11) at the time of the Flood when we are told that "the windows of heaven were thrown open" (though some translators prefer "floodgates" instead of windows).

It seems that every time Ďthe windows of heavení are mentioned we get a glimpse of God and see something of who he is Ė one who blesses and gives generously or one who takes sin seriously. Even when people like Isaiah or Daniel or John in the Book of Revelation receive a vision of God and heaven, it is as if they are looking through a window into heaven and seeing what no one else has seen before.

When the windows of heaven open there are no barriers between earth and heaven. Human prayers freely ascend and divine blessings descend without hindrance. There is a connection between the divine and the human.

However, at the time of Jesus people believed the windows of heaven had been closed. Longingly they looked back to the stories of Abraham, Moses, Elijah, King David, Amos, Isaiah and Ezekiel when there was a good deal of communication between heaven and earth. God would come down and talk to people like Abraham and Moses, or he would rain down manna from the heavens, or open the windows of heaven during a time of drought, or give his messengers visions that would reveal to them the glory and majesty of their God. It seemed that the windows of heaven were always open in those blessed days.

But now it seemed that the heavens were closed. There were now no famous prophets, no new law givers, no singers of new psalms. No outpouring of the Spirit, no new word from God. There was nothing new coming from God and they deeply mourned the continued silence. This made the promise of the messiah even more important because surely then the windows of heaven would be open again and God would pour down new blessings on his people.

People gathered at the Jordan River wondering if John was the one who would once again open the windows of heaven for his people. Jesus was baptised by John. The gospel writer, Mark, states that immediately the heavens were opened and the Spirit came down like a dove on Jesus of Nazareth. Then a voice spoke from the heavens. It was the voice of God saying, "You are my own dear Son. I am pleased with you" (Mark 1:11)

For the early Christians who read the accounts of Jesus baptism recorded by the gospel writers this opening of the window of heaven, the dove and the voice of God were so exciting. The waiting, the longing and the grieving were over. The gates of heaven were now wide open; the Word was speaking, the Holy Spirit was active. It was now a time for celebration.

John records the testimony of John the Baptist about what happened that day. We read, "I saw the Spirit come down like a dove from heaven and stay on him. Ö I tell you that he is the Son of God" (John 1:32-34).

Letís step from that situation by the Jordan River to today.  Every so often in a casual conversation a comment like this is made when the topic of God comes up.
"Maybe there is some kind of a God. I believe there is some kind of a power that keeps the world going and maybe thatís God. But if that is the case, God must be so far away that the affairs of this world are of little importance to him. When I hear of children being blown to bits in a senseless bombing attack, or people dying of starvation or innocent people being murdered on the streets of our own cities, I see no sign of Godís presence; I hear no word from God. It is as if he doesnít exist. If he does surely he would do something about the mess our world is in."

I wonder if the people of Jesusí time felt something similar. They had been subjected to Roman rule which at times was quite harsh. Babies were massacred in Bethlehem by their own king. The temple had been corrupted as a place of worship Ė a place where you could find God if he was to be found anywhere Ė and yet God did nothing about it. It was as if the windows of heaven were closed and God couldnít even see what was going on.

I wonder if the disciples felt this when they saw Jesus nailed to a cross. They saw his agony, they heard his cries, they saw him give his last breath but the heavens were silent. Not a word from God. It was as if God had closed the window and let Jesus die at the hands of evil people.

Is it that many people donít believe in God because they donít see any evidence that God has anything to do with our world or is it because they donít recognise God's voice and what he does for them? Remember that John the Baptist saw the heavens open and believed but many to whom he told this didnít believe and he lost his head over it.

According to history, James Whittaker saw the heavens open and believed. Who was James Whittaker? He was a member of the hand-picked crew that flew a Liberator bomber to where the war was being fought in the Pacific. On board was Eddie Rickenbacker who had been sent to meet with General MacArthur and see first hand what was happening. In October of 1942, Rickenbacker and the crew were reported lost at sea. Somewhere over the Pacific, the navigation equipment failed, the plane ran out of fuel and crashed into the ocean dangerously close to the enemy. The nine men, some injured during the crash, floated in 3 rafts. They battled the heat, the storms, and the water. Sharks Ė some 10 feet long Ė would ram their 9 foot rafts. After only 3 days their rations ran out. It would take a miracle to survive.

On the morning of the 8th day Rickenbacker leaned his head back against the raft and pulled his hat over his eyes. A seagull landed on his head. He peered out from under his hat. Every eye was on him. Rickenbacker caught it, and the crew ate it. The birdís intestines were used for bait to catch fish . . . and the crew survived 24 days at sea to tell the story. What a miracle!!

In 1985 at a reunion of the crew and their families, Mrs Whittaker spoke about another miracle. "The real miracle", she said, "was not a bird on the head of Eddie Rickenbacker Ė but a change in the heart of my husband. The greatest event of that day was not the rescue of a crew, but the rescue of a soul. You see, my husband was an unbeliever. The plane crash didnít change his unbelief. The days facing death in the life raft didnít cause him to reconsider his destiny. In fact, my husband grew irritated when one of the crew continually read his Bible privately and aloud. Ö It was right after one of those morning Bible readings that the seagull landed on Rickenbackerís hat. And at that moment, my husband became a believer." James Whittaker wrote a book about all this and concludes with these words, "During those blazing days out there I found my God". (You can read this book online http://www.ccel.us/angelssing.toc.html).

Perhaps it might have been better to say that during those blazing days out there on the sea in a raft, the heavens opened, God came down in the form of a seagull, and Whittaker saw God's hand in his rescue and believed. Some would say that the appearance of the seagull was fate or a coincidence.
Would God really go to so much effort to save 8 men while the rest of the world was locked in a deadly battle for freedom and thousands of people were dying in Europe and the Pacific?
Would the Maker of the universe really go to such lengths as to send a missionary seagull to give its life to save not only the lives of those men but also to reveal to them that God really does care? Would God really do this?

John the Baptist and James Whittaker would say, "Too right. Of course, he does!" The heavens opened and there was a connection between the divine and the human. They experienced God reaching down to them and showing them his love and grace as they realised that God had come down for them. Jesus is real. His love is real. He wants all people to know that their sins have been dealt with and that he has made it possible for God and humans to be connected. He came so that we can enjoy the presence of God in our lives as we battle the storms and dangers that come our way in the same way that Whittaker came to see that God had everything to do with the incredible rescue of those in the rafts.

Isnít that how it still is for us? The windows of heaven are opened. Jesusí life and death embody the opening of the heavens. Open! Absolutely open!  God with us! The heavens open and we get a glimpse of God through
Jesusí love for people, his teaching through the parables;
his healing of the sick, his touching of lepers, his table fellowship with sinners;
his embrace of those who were socially unacceptable;
his last supper with his friends, his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane;
his betrayal, arrest, abuse, torture, and his staggering to Golgotha;
his crucifixion and concern for a thief at his side,
his death and burial, and then the wonder of Easter Day and his living presence among his disciples.
Jesus opened the heavens and showed us the heart of God the Father while he was here on earth.  He still does this for us today.

No matter what our feelings are telling us at any particular moment, the heavens are definitely open, declares the Gospel. No matter what our mood, the heavens are open.

There may be times when we feel that the windows of heaven are shut. We may have grey times, when the feeling of Godís absence blots out any warmth that we might get from sun (son). We may feel that way but in truth the heavens are never closed. Never! In Christ and through Christ they are open! The negative feelings and moods that we may sometimes have donít determine the status of the windows of heaven or God's relationship with us. That has been determined by Christ Jesus. God's promises, the grace of Jesus Christ, the Spirit, our adoption by God as his children in baptism and every day, and the gift of Jesusí body and blood in the sacrament assure us that heavenís windows are never shut. God's loving heart is always available.

When Jesus was baptised the heavens opened and a dove came down on Jesus. Ever since, the heavens have been open and God's Spirit comes down on us to challenge us to deal with some aspect of our lives, to offer us support in our struggles, to give us comfort in our grief, to assure us of his grace and mercy, to challenge us to respond with faith and obedience.

In Jesus, the words of the prophet come true, "I will open the windows of heaven and flood you with blessing after blessing".

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
11th January 2009
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com

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