Right before Christmas, I preached a sermon with the exact same title as this morning’s sermon. The sermon was based on Isaiah 64:1-9, and I will read a snippet of that to you once again, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—2 as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil—to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence! 3 When you did awesome deeds that we did not expect, you came down, the mountains quaked at your presence. 4 From ages past no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who works for those who wait for him.”
There is a longing in this verse for God to reveal Himself to us. There is a longing for God to come and make things right–to convince those who do not believe–to convert those who scoff and commit injustice–to affirm those who have faith in Him. It’s a deeply moving cry on behalf of the believer.
Christians believe that God indeed tore open the heavens and came down in Jesus, and today’s Gospel lesson from the book of Mark shows this rather starkly at Jesus’ baptism. Please look at it once again beginning in verse 9, “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. 11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”
“Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down...”
“He saw the heavens torn apart, and the Spirit descending like a dove on Him.”
Do you see the connection being made here?
It’s an important one. A very important one. One that grows in importance as we wrestle with the reality of life and the reality of our relationships with each other. You may wonder how, but let me press onward.
Today, there will be many who will focus their attention on that last sentence uttered by God to Jesus. It will be changed in many congregations as pastors and priests tell congregation members, “You are God’s children, beloved by Him, with you He is well pleased.” And to an extent, these pastors and priests will be right. I mean, I have proclaimed this to you in my years here as your pastor. I have said this very thing to you, but I didn’t flesh it out completely. I didn’t proclaim this in its fullness.
What do I mean by that?
Well, let me ask you these questions: what would you be like if no one ever criticized you? What would you be like if all you heard throughout your life is that you were okay just the way you were? What would you be like if no one ever pointed out your wrongs and tried to steer you in a different direction? What would you be like if all you ever heard were positive comments? What sort of person would you be?
How many of you remember Hakeem Olajuwan? If you were a Houston Rockets basketball fan back in the 90's you remember him. He was a fantastic player–a dominant center who led the Rockets to back to back championships. He was originally from Nigeria, and his parents hadn’t seen him play in a game. I remember hearing a sports cast one night talk about how Hakeem had sent his parents many highlight videos. Of course, you know what is in a highlight video–all the good stuff. None of the bad. When Olajuwon’s parents finally saw him play a game, they were shocked that he didn’t make every basket. On the videos, he never missed! Perfection was an illusion brought about by selective editing.
The same thing tends to happen with people who never deal with criticism; who are constantly told they are special; who never have to deal with adversity or failure. They get big headed and think they are über-special. And what usually happens to this person’s character? How do they usually act toward other people?
Well, you know as well as I do, they tend to become very self-centered and arrogant. They tend to think they are always in the right, and they have very little regard for anyone else’s thought or stance. They tend to be uncompromising and have little or no compassion for anyone else. If someone is always told they are special, great, awesome, or what have you, without any corrective, they end up in a very dangerous place.
And yet, on the other hand, what happens to someone who never is affirmed? What happens to someone who is always criticized; who can never seem to get a positive thing said about what they say or do? What happens to someone who constantly runs into negative comments and actions over and over and over again?
Well, these folks generally become depressed and down trodden. They feel worthless and believe they have no ability to contribute to the world around them. They feel no sense of self-worth or achievement. They are totally ashamed of who they are and what they have done.
Now, most of us at this point would say that there needs to be a balance here. There needs to be just the right amount of criticism and just the right amount of praise to turn out well adjusted people. I would tend to agree, but is that what actually happens? If you look at the cultures of the world, does this actually get played out?
No. It does not. Cultures and societies tend to practice an either/or kind of discipline. Either they work diligently to build up a person’s ego and raise their self esteem, or they tend to shame them and make them feel worthless. We particularly see this in our educational system. Many, many years ago, there was more the shame approach. If someone wasn’t doing well, they were shamed and made to feel bad about themselves. Now, the opposite is the truth. If someone isn’t doing well, we try to affirm them and make them feel better about themselves thinking if they felt better about themselves, they would do better. The pendulum has swung. And it will keep swinging.
The question is: can anything stop the pendulum? Can we arrive at a happy medium where there is the balance of discipline and affirmation?
“Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down...”
“And He saw the heavens torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.”
These things might not seem to address the issue too much until you keep following the rabbit hole. For, there is one more scene we need to see. There is one more tearing we need to hear about. You see, Mark, in his Gospel, uses a very particular Greek word to talk about the heavens being torn open. It’s the word schizein. I know. I know. You didn’t come here this morning to get a lesson in ancient Greek, but bear with me a moment. Mark uses this word only twice in his Gospel, and I believe he is very, very intentional. Here is the rest of the story, from Mark chapter 15:
33 When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, ‘Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?’ which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ 35When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, ‘Listen, he is calling for Elijah.’ 36And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, ‘Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.’ 37Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38And the curtain of the temple was torn (schizein) in two, from top to bottom. 39Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, ‘Truly this man was God’s Son!’
The heavens are torn in two at Jesus’ baptism. The temple curtain is torn in two at Jesus’ crucifixion. Mark links these two events purposefully to show that they go together. Why do they go together?
Because of why Jesus had to die. Jesus died because we were not perfect. Jesus died because we were self centered. Jesus died because the world was broken. Jesus died because we were broken–and still are broken. We don’t like thinking about such matters today because we like to think we are okay. We like to think the one’s with the problem are those out there. That crime and stuff is out there in the cities. Yet, in our own community, Austin Berger was shot and killed. Those people out there get up in arms and angry about people getting hurt and killed. Well, people here have it happen too. Well, it’s just those people who are getting angry and upset, I’m not. But have you ever? Of course you have. If each and every one of us delves deeply enough, we will all have to face our own imperfections. We will have to face our own brokenness. We will have to face our own mortality. We cannot hold our heads too high despite those who want to tell us that we are fine just the way we are. Jesus had to die because of us–because of our broken, self-centered nature. We killed Jesus. It’s enough to depress you.
But we do not hold our heads down in a permanent state of depression. We do not focus completely on our brokenness because Jesus died for us so that we might become God’s beloved children. Jesus died so that we may know how much God really and truly loves us. Jesus died so that we are not overtaken by our brokenness and separated from our creator for eternity. You can’t hold your head down in shame forever when you know that God went to these sorts of lengths for you. You cannot wallow in misery when you know you were important enough for Jesus to die for you. You are God’s beloved child!
And so, you are broken but loved. You are sinful, but redeemed. You are cursed but forgiven. You are shamed, but accepted. You cannot be too haughty because you know you are broken. But you cannot be too depressed because you are bought with great price. The pendulum comes dead center–all because of the Gospel.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but so that the world may be saved through Him.
At your baptism, God redeemed your brokenness. God made you an accepted failure. The heavens have been torn open for you not because of what you have done but because of what Jesus did. And now, you have been made God’s beloved child. May you be as humbled by this as I am. Amen.