Splitting Heaven - thrive UMC Official Blog

Splitting Heaven

Before we get to our scripture reading for today, I just wanted to ask you all a couple of quick questions. 

            My first question is this:

  1. How many of you have made any kinds of preparations for Christmas?
  2. For those of you who made Christmas preparations, how many of you were hoping that some kind of joy would come out of your labors?
  3. What did you do to prepare for an experience of joy this Christmas?

(There are no wrong answers here; we won’t judge you –much)

For a long time now, I have been just fascinated by all of the different things people do to invite joy into their world and lives, and especially in this season. People string up lights; they sing songs; they watch Christmas movies,they put up trees; they go shopping; they consume huge amounts of sugar; they dress up as Santa Claus, assemble in large numbers, and go on pub crawls to get hammered.  If you weren’t aware of the last one, it’s called “Santacon” and it’s featured in more than 70 cities across America. 

All of this –and so much more!-happens to invite or create a sense of Christmas joy.  So I want to encourage you this morning to think about how you prepare for your Christmas joy.  Think about what you do.  Picture what you hope will happen.  Imagine what the kind of joy you hope for feels like.

And today, we’re going to read what is probably the oldest surviving story we have of Christmas joy.  We’ll find it in the gospel of Mark, in the opening chapters. 

It says this:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son,happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:

Look, I am sending my messenger before you.
He will prepare your way,
a voice shouting in the wilderness:
        “Prepare the way for the Lord;
        make his paths straight.”[a]

John’s preaching

John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water,but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Jesus is baptized and tempted

About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. 10 While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit,like a dove, coming down on him. 11 And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”

            Of course most of us, when we think of the Christmas story in the Bible, we think of Mary and Joseph staring down, reverently, upon little infant Jesus, who’s cooing from the manger.  A little star sits above, while magi, shepherds, and an array of barnyard animals huddle around at an appropriate distance.  We don’t tend to think much of John the Baptist when it comes to Christmas.  But this is the depiction that the gospel of Mark gives us of the incarnation: the Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus as he’s being baptized by John in the Jordan River.  Only there, for the first time,do we see any kind of announcement that Jesus is God’s Son.”

            And this is what God says when the heavens split: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.” 

            Here, in other English translations, it talks of God being well-pleased, or delighted, with Jesus. 

            In other words, Jesus brings God joy. 

            There are a number of things about this single line from the Bible that beg for further reflection;but when I read this and take the time to pause over it, I find myself wondering: hey, is God not usually happy?  I mean, in the moment right before this one,how had God been feeling? 

After all, it’s kind of a weird thought, isn’t it –to think of God as something that feels emotions like we do?It brings up all kinds of questions. For instance, does God have a kind of default-setting for His mood, when it comes to all things human? And if so,what is it?  Does God generally feel pretty optimistic and cheerful about the happenings of earth –or is God angry a lot of the time? How could we know what God is feeling?   Like, how does all of that even work?

            But, on the other hand, if the scripture here is true –in that a.) God has emotions; and b.) things external to God can somehow give God the feels, then here’s the biggie: what kinds of things give God joy? Obviously Jesus does.  But why? 

            For just a moment, I want you to try and forget everything you think you know about Jesus from the other gospels, and just take what we have here from Mark.  In this story of Jesus’s life, there’s no immaculate birth, no tidings from angels, no logos existent from the dawn of time, no special miracles accompanying the person of Jesus yet.  For all we know so far, Jesus is just an ordinary guy from the nowhere town of Nazareth. And remember: the reason everyone is there getting baptized in the river is because they’re trying to change their hearts and lives, and they’re trying to get their sins forgiven. And Jesus is just one among the crowd –nobody special, except for what comes after.  But at the moment when John Baptizes him, and he rises from the water –then something happens. 

            Only then do we see anything special about Jesus. This is the very first glimpse we see of anything special about him.  When he is baptized heaven splits, and the spirit comes down, and the announcement is made–to Jesus.  And the way the text makes it sound, this is a private moment.  This is a revelation only for Jesus himself: “You are my Son,” says God. “I dearly love you. I’ve discovered happiness…in you.”

             Now, here’s the startling thing that makes reading the Gospel of Mark really unique: God says all of this to Jesus,privately, when there is absolutely nothing about him that sets him apart from everybody else.  The suggestion is –if you just take this story as it is, by itself- that Jesus came all the way down from Galilee to the wilderness outside of Jerusalem, because he felt a need to be washed and forgiven too.  And only after he was cleansed, and rose anew from the water, was he able to see how God truly feels about him.

            In that moment, it was all so clear to him that he could literally see it:

            He is God’s child.

            He is greatly, and powerfully, loved.

            He gives God joy.

            And we didn’t keep reading the next part, but once that all happens, and the heavens split, then Jesus can listen to, and follow, God’s spirit. And that spirit“immediately” leads him right from that spot out deeper into the wilderness.  To be tempted and tried.

            But here’s the thing that will blow your mind.  If your attention has drifted off for any reason before this point, come back now!  You don’t want to miss this.  This could change your life.  Are you ready for it?  Because here it is: if God, on that day, told Jesus that he is a child of God, and that he’s loved, and that he gives God joy–what do you think God had to say to everybody else? 

               I mean, come on: it says “everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem” was out there getting baptized! Do you really think God had just stayed silent for everybody else, or maybe told a few in the crowds that they were particular dog-turds, and saved all the joy for Jesus? 

            I leave that an open question for today.  Sit with that for a while wondering: did God have anything to say or show all the others who were being baptized alongside Jesus?

            In any case, the way the gospel of Mark seems to have it, the whole story starts with the revelation that Jesus is God’s beloved child, and gives God joy, and everything special about Jesus follows from that.  Jesus received the revelation, and it changed his life.  And the more he lived into its truth, the more and more true it became. In the gospel of Mark, it was God’s love for, and joy in, him that changed Jesus and set him apart.  Not the other way around. 

            Before we move on to the call to action for today, I want to point out one more very strong theme in this passage from the gospel of Mark: and that is the contrast between what is ‘civilized’ and what is ‘wild.’

            It says in our reading that the call of John the Baptist was “to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins.” 

            Now, in case you didn’t know this, if you were a Jewish person back then, and you wanted your sins forgiven, you were supposed to go to the temple in Jerusalem and have a Levitical priest offer a sacrifice on your behalf.  It was in giving the gift of the animal–offering up “a pleasing odor” to the LORD- that would restore your relationship with God.  However, before you could enter God’s presence, you first had to be clean, which –among other things- meant that you had to wash –usually your face and your hands.  And there were a number of ornate washbasins, pools, and lavers, scattered all around the temple designed just for that purpose. Just try not to think about how many people have washed their own dirt off in those stagnant pools before you got there.

            But, in stark contrast to all of this, some twenty miles east of Jerusalem –a full day’s journey by foot- John the Baptist is out in the Jordan River calling people to enter all the way into its flowing stream.  In contrast to the bright and elaborate attire of the temple priests, John is wearing camel hair and leather belt(which is a reference, by the way, to the Prophet Elijah).  While the priests are richly fed on their portions of the sacrifices offered, John eats only locusts and wild honey–things he finds for himself.  And therein the wilderness, he’s proclaiming a different way to rediscover peace with God: just immerse yourselves in these natural, living waters so that you might have your hearts and lives changed. So that you can be released from your failures.  Here the verb in Greek is“metanoias” which has often been translated as “repent;” but the word literally means “know again.”  It doesn’t imply that you’re guilty or gross or unworthy in God’s eyes.  It just means that you need to take a second look at the way things are.  In other words, don’t be satisfied with just getting your hands and face wet –go all the way in!  Wash the crud from your eyes and ears, and the whole surface of your skin, so you can rise and know how you really stand before God.

            And don’t forget: this is the Jordan River we’re talking about.  This is the river they ancient Israelites crossed,in the book of Joshua, to enter the Promised Land.  This river is the threshold of their home.  But look what happens when there aren’t any priests there!  In Joshua,when the priests carrying the covenant came to the water’s edge, the river stopped.  The waters piled up, and nobody got wet.  Nobody got clean, and what followed was so much war and bloodshed. Some many people had to die in that vein effort to keep the people pure.

            But when the crowd gets the invitation to enter the river without those priests, everyone is free to live. Without the priests, the river doesn’t have to stop being a river. No wars have to be fought so that people have a place to call home.  No animals have to be burned up to give a smell that brings God pleasure. Instead, what one man discovered –and maybe he was the only one out of the crowd, I don’t know- but what one man discovered is that when he came up from the waters of the Jordan heaven itself split so that he could know: what makes God happy –what brings God joy is: him

             He didn’t need the priests to tell him this.  He didn’t need a gift, or a big,impressive temple to buy it.  He didn’t need to feel guilty or to do anything to earn God’s favor.  He just needed to leave the civilized world for a little bit to see how things really were.  He needed to get away from the priests, for whom nothing is ever quite good enough. He just needed to get outside the tall walls of the city that stood as constant reminders that they needed guarding –that something or someone was always out to get them.  He just needed to walk a day through the hot, dry plains to know what he really needed for life and joy: just a little water, and the God who gives it.

            But God gave more than just a little water.  There was water enough to cover him: a wild, rushing picture of God’s overflowing grace.  And after he was fully immersed in it, as he rose again to receive the life-giving gift of air in his lungs: and as he breathed in deeply, he was able to see what had likely been true all along: he is God’s child.  He is loved,dearly.  God finds joy in him.

            I started off this morning inviting all of you to share how you were preparing for joy in this season.  Here we are, working our little tails off to get ready for the joy-season.  We’re getting ready to celebrate God’s grand miracle of Incarnation, making sure we have all the right songs, and decorations and gifts. But in this Christmas story from Mark, we see an entirely different picture of joy. Instead of always needing to do, and give, and be more –maybe you are already enough.   

Let’s turn to God in prayer.