Sermon Preached at St. John's - Moultrie
Epiphany I - January 11, 2009
There is an interesting dimension to this mornings Gospel lesson from Mark that I have always found intriguing. I believe that one of the reasons I find it so intriguing is because it is found only in Mark. Mark’s Gospel is of course the shortest of the 4 Gospels and most Biblical scholars believe that it was the first written. Many believe that Matthew and Luke had copies of Mark’s Gospel in hand as they wrote their particular accounts of Jesus’ life, and that is why you almost always have a parallel passage from Mark when looking at an event in either Matthew or Luke. Mark contains what many Biblical commentators and scholars have called the “Messianic Secret.” Throughout the book one finds many instances where Jesus performs a miracle, or seems to be on the verge of revealing himself, and he slips away, the scene changes, or he admonishes someone not to tell people who he is, or what he had done. He constantly chides the demons he casts out to be silent, for they knew exactly who he was. Mark’s account is fast moving and the scenes are always shifting from one to another. However, in this morning’s account of Jesus’ baptism, we find a peculiarity unique to Mark alone.
All of the Gospels contain some account of John the Baptist, and Jesus’ subsequent baptism in the Jordan River. One cannot think of Jesus’ earthly ministry without first recalling his baptism by his cousin. All four provide a picture of God’s spirit descending upon Him in the form of a dove – one of the ancient symbols for the Holy Spirit. The Gospel writers also give record of a voice calling out from heaven. We are not sure who exactly heard this voice, whether it was just Jesus and John, or was it the crowds that were also gathered. In either case that voice proclaims the same statement that Jesus is a beloved son who has brought great pleasure to His Father.
In most instances, the particular nuance we find in Mark’s account usually goes unnoticed. Many English translations do not even convey what I believe Mark is trying to stress when he speaks about what happens to the heavens as Jesus comes up out of the water, as the spirit is descending upon him, and as God begins to speak.
As much as I dislike the NRSV translation of the Bible, here is one instance where they actually got it right and bring out the nuance. In both the RSV and King James, one would not notice any difference at all because all three say simply that the heavens were opened. However, Mark uses a different verb than Matthew and Luke when he speaks about what happens during this event. Mark uses the Greek work skidzo which literally means “to divide by force, split, divide, separate, tear apart, tear off” (BDAG, 981). This is the same word in Greek from which we derive the word schizophrenia. A combination of skidzo and fronasis – a tear or rending in one’s frame of mind. Literally speaking, Jesus has come to earth, and the very fabric which separates heaven and earth has now been rent in two, the future will never be the same. What makes this nuance even more significant is the other place within the Gospels when we find the word skidzo.
Mark uses this word at Jesus’ death when he took his last breath and gave up his spirit. He says that the veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom when Jesus died. Therefore, the same word used to speak of heaven at Jesus’ baptism is used again at his death. One could make the assertion that the rending of the heavens at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry was repeated by the rending of the gates of Hell at the culmination of His ministry.
This is of course significant when we speak of the link between the theology of baptism and the atonement. Jesus’ death marked the end of the repeated sacrificial system as the people knew it, therefore the curtain between the Holy of Holies and the people no longer needed to be veiled. There was no longer a barrier between God and Man. The God Man – Jesus performed the never-to-be-repeated, fully efficacious sacrifice to atone for the sins of the world. When we receive the waters of baptism in the name of the Holy and Blessed Trinity, we speak in terms of regeneration, being born again as Jesus told Nicodemus. We speak of the washing away the stain of Original Sin, and rebirth and new life in Jesus Christ. We speak of being a new creation and being baptized into Jesus’ death. This is a tearing and rending of our old self, and putting on the new.
Mark links baptism and death together with this one word. The heavens were rent apart at Jesus’ baptism when God declares that this is His beloved Son, who shunned not the Virgin’s womb, who for a time was made a little lower than the angels. He was made a little lower than the angels and was crowned with honor and glory because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for every one (cf. Hebrews 2.8,9). The space between heaven and earth come crashing together as they touched one another. Heaven does not actually envelop or absorb earth, but rather they intersect with one another, and that intersection occurs through the person of Jesus Christ.
The intersection of heaven and earth occurs again each week when we receive Christ’s precious body and blood in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Through the invocation of the Holy Spirit in the species of bread and wine, Jesus is again truly present. And, when we approach this altar in faith, having examined our conscience and come with an humble, lowly, obedient, and penitent heart, we receive him anew as our source of life. In just a few minutes, Christ bids us anew to draw near with faith, take this Holy Sacrament to our comfort, and take part of heaven and earth touching each other. Every hindrance to God has been rent apart and torn open, so that we might have full access to God the Father, through His Son Jesus Christ our Lord, by the never ending power of His Holy Spirit. To Him be ascribed all might, majesty, power, and dominion, both now, and evermore.