Sermon for the First Sunday after the Epiphany

As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. (NIV)

Tearing apart

When the wisemen came to visit the baby Jesus they brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh but as special as these gifts were they weren’t wrapped in colourful Christmas paper with Christmas trees or stars or Santas decorating each gift.  Neither were there ribbons and bows and gift cards at the first Christmas.   

But these days Christmas wrapping paper is part of our Christmas celebrations.  Those who spent Christmas with children will recall the excitement of opening presents on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.  Christmas paper flies in all directions as it is torn away to reveal what is hidden beneath it.  You see, the Christmas paper is in the way, it is a barrier between the excited child and whatever is in the present.  The paper needs to be torn away to see the new thing that is now theirs and is the fulfilment of their hopes and wishes.  There is excitement, anticipation, joy, drama and elation as the paper is torn away and cast aside and the new toy is revealed.

So what has all this got to do with John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus on this first Sunday after the Epiphany?  Unfortunately some of the translations of Mark’s version of the baptism of Jesus simply say that the heavens opened when Jesus came up out of the water.  More accurately Mark says, As Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove” (NIV). “Being torn open” – that’s a strange choice of words especially since the other gospel writers are far less dramatic and say simply that the heavens opened.  The words “being torn open” convey a sense of violence, energy, ripping apart, excitement, anticipation, joy, elation, casting aside what is in the way. When you think of it – much like a child ripping open a Christmas present. It’s almost as if God couldn’t wait another moment.  He is so excited and rips open heaven and sends down the Holy Spirit.  He has a gift for the world and can’t wait to rip it open.

I got to thinking about this whole idea about heaven needing to be torn open and wondered what is behind this kind of thinking.  It’s an idea found in the Old Testament.  In Isaiah 64 we read, “Rip the heavens apart! Come down, Lord; make the mountains tremble” (CEV).  The prophet is praying that God would come down and do some mighty things to change the hearts of his people but to be able to do this he must first tear the heavens apart. 

To understand this let’s imagine this scene.  You live in a tent and you are lying on your bed at night praying to God.  Above your tent the sky is full of stars, the moon is bright, heaven the home of God is truly magnificent but there is something that stands between you on your bed and God in the heavens.  Of course, the tent is forming a barrier between you and God. That’s how the ancients thought about the relationship between God and his creation.  There was a barrier, a fixed separation between heaven and earth created by sin and corruption that only God could tear open like ripping open the roof of a tent and come down and meet his creation.

There is one other occasion when this ripping apart is mentioned and Mark uses the same word.  Can you guess what that occasion is? 

In Mark 15:38 Jesus’ death is recorded and we are told, “The curtain in the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom”.  This is the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies – the dwelling place of God – from the rest of the temple.  The separating curtain between the holy God and his people in the temple was now gone. God had torn open the heavens for all to enter through the saving death of his Son on the cross.

When the gospel writer, Mark, describes what happened as Jesus was coming out of the water after his baptism, he uses words that link the day Jesus begins his ministry and identifies himself with sinful humanity as he is baptised in Jordan with the completion of his ministry when he again identifies with sinful humanity and dies for one and all on a cross.  On both occasions Mark says that God does some ripping and tearing as he opens the way to bring his kingdom to earth, sends his Holy Spirit, and with his own life brings forgiveness and newness to all his people.  You might say heaven has been torn open and is now spilling out on the earth.  

We celebrated this at Christmas – God tearing open heaven and coming to earth as a baby; walking on earth with us.  Heaven came to earth that night.  God came to us because we cannot go to him.

At our baptism God did some ripping and tearing as heaven spilled into our lives.  The curtain of sin and death is torn in two and no longer separates us from God – Jesus has made sure of that.  Heaven has been torn open and the Holy Spirit descended on us and filled us with faith, hope and love and the peace that comes from knowing that nothing stands between God and his love for us and nothing can ever stop God loving us.  At our baptism God has torn in two the power of sin and death over us and made us holy by the blood of Jesus so that we can enter the Holy of Holies of God's presence without any fear or hesitation. 

Baptism is an everyday thing and every day God tears open the heavens and sends us his Spirit again and again reminding us that we are his dearly loved children, that we are forgiven even though we offend him and one another so grievously, that he is our loving shepherd who gladly tears away all that is heavy, wearisome and worrying and all the trash that litters our lives.  In its place he brings us his grace and peace and love.

Sometimes, perhaps more times than we care to admit, we find ourselves in a spiritual rut.  What I mean by a ‘spiritual rut’ is that something or someone other than God is ruling our lives and we can’t move on. 
Maybe we are caught up in bitterness, resentment or anger and we can’t let go of it. 
Maybe we are caught up in a relationship that is destructive and leading us away from God's ways. 
Maybe we have let something in ourselves or something someone else has done come between us and the people of God with whom we share the one faith, one baptism, the one Spirit and one Lord and Saviour, and we can’t get over it. 
Maybe we have let something come between God and us – a barrier of materialism, laziness, indifference, unbelief, guilt, and pleasure-loving. We are stuck in a rut and we can’t get out of it.

We put up the curtain between God and us and God tears it open and brings us back to our baptismal relationship with him.
He tears open our lies and pretences that everything is all right when actually everything is all wrong.
He tears apart our over inflated egos that believe that we are the centre of the universe and everyone else’s lives rotate around us.
He tears a hole in our cosy godless and selfish lives and lets in the light and shows us the distressing truth about ourselves on the one hand, and on the other hand, the wonderful truth about himself – that he is ready to tear down the curtain of separation and make a new beginning for us. In church-talk this is repentance and renewal – both an act of God and both call for a response from us.

God tears open heaven for us – he sent his Son for us at Christmas;
he identified with us sinners at his baptism;
he died on a cross taking on himself our sin;
he rose again from the dead opening the way for us to enter eternal life.

Each time we come to Holy Communion he tears open heaven for us and he reaches down and gives to each of us personally the body and blood of his Son, Jesus, right here in our hands to eat and drink. 
He tears open heaven and is present in very ordinary bread and wine which is also at the same time the same body and blood that was given on the cross. 
He tears open heaven and sends us his Holy Spirit and renews us as his sons and daughters and reminds us that he has made a solemn covenant with us at our baptism to always be our heavenly Father. That tearing open of heaven is a sign of how deep God's love is for each of us and when the day comes he will usher us from here into heaven because he has first of all made the way open by tearing apart sin and death and Satan that would block the way.

When we see a child tearing away wrapping paper that separates him or her from the gift inside, let’s remember how God tore open heaven to give us the greatest gift of all – his Son.  As we recall our baptism or come to Holy Communion let’s remember how God tore open heaven and let his own heart be torn in two as nails were driven through his flesh because of our sin. 

The prayer of the prophet in Isaiah 64, “Rip the heavens apart! Come down, Lord!” has been fulfilled in God's Son who loved us to death and then back to life again. 

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
8th January 2012
E-mail: gerhardy65@hotmail.com

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