Torn-Apart Heavens: A Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord, 2015

Today is an exciting day in the one hundred and seventy five year history of Grace Church. It is also a day tinged with just a little bit of sadness and regret. We are celebrating the success of our Giving Light Giving Hope capital campaign that has raised nearly a million dollars and laid the foundation for renovations to our spaces that will equip us to engage in mission and ministry in the coming decades of our rapidly changing world.

At the same time, we are saying good bye to our Hispanic ministry, which has been a part of our congregation for over a decade. We will also be saying good bye to beloved members of our parish with whom we have worshiped, laughed, and cried, as they begin a new chapter of their common life at Good Shepherd in Sun Prairie.

In the midst of those events in the life of our parish, we are also marking the liturgical year. Today, we remember Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan River, and as we often do on this day, we will be baptizing someone, bringing a new member into our community of faith, into the body of Christ. What makes this day special in that regard is that our baptismal candidate is an adult—Nathan Smith. Baptism is a joyous event, certainly when we baptize infants and share in the joy of a family welcoming a new member into its midst. It is even more joyous when the candidate is an adult, able to speak for himself and affirm his commitment to our baptismal vows. Each baptism is also an opportunity for us to reflect on our own baptisms, what they mean, and on the vows to which we recommit ourselves at every baptism.

So it’s a very busy day, with lots of excitement and emotion, and that’s quite apart from the fact that we’re in the middle of the NFL playoffs and the Packers kick off at 12:05. So for those few of you who care about that, we’ll try to get you out of here in time to get home and get in your recliners.

As I bless the water while pouring it into the font, I pray the following words,

“Over it the Holy Spirit moved in the beginning of creation. Through it you led the children of Israel out of their bondage in Egypt into the land of promise. In it your son Jesus received the baptism of John…”

The prayer of thanksgiving over the water reminds us of some of the ways in which water is significant in the life of God’s people and in the world. Our lessons today reinforce the connection between creation and the renewal of life in baptism. The first verses of Genesis bring us back to the beginning of God’s creative activity—the primordial chaos, the Holy Spirit hovering over the face of the deep. It’s important to note that in the biblical understanding, God did not create the universe out of nothing, ex nihilo, but rather God’s creative activity was bringing order out of chaos. So, God’s first act was to separate the light from the darkness; after that, God separated the waters that were above the firmament from those that were below it, and then separated the waters from the dry land.

All of this is reimagined in our gospel reading. When Jesus comes up out of the water, he sees the heavens torn asunder, and hears the voice of God saying, “You are my Son, the beloved.” At the moment of Jesus’ baptism, the act of creation is undone—the barrier between heaven and earth is destroyed and God becomes present among us.

Mark will use that powerful language of “tearing apart” only once more, at the end of his gospel, at the moment of Jesus’ death. “Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last. 38And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.” Now, the barrier that separated the people from the holy of holies, from the presence of God, is ripped apart, and God is or can be present to everyone, in the crucified and risen One.


Mark draws another parallel between Jesus’ baptism and his crucifixion. As he comes out of the water, a voice from heaven says to him, “You are my son, the Beloved.” At the moment of his death, the centurion makes a similar statement, “Truly this man was God’s Son.” There are a couple of important things to point out here. First, that the voice speaks directly to Jesus, “You are my son…”

While this may raise some questions for us, what’s crucial about the statement is that it’s an affirmation of God’s choosing Jesus, and whatever it says about Jesus’ self-understanding, it means that the reader of the gospel knows from this point on who Jesus is. But it may only be the reader, for until the centurion’s statement, no human has made a similar statement.

What happened in the baptism of Jesus happens still in each and every baptism. In baptism, we become members of the body of Christ. In baptism, we become God’s beloved children. The voice that told Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved” speaks the same words to us, “You are my beloved child.”

That word, that promise cannot be revoked. It cannot be taken away from us. Whatever happens to us, whatever our doubts or uncertainties, whatever our fears; when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, when like Jesus on the cross, we despair and cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” we can look to our baptisms, remember the water, the oil of chrism, the priest’s words, “You are marked as Christ’s own forever. We can remember the voice from heaven that said to Jesus, “you are my Son, the Beloved.” We can remember the voice of God that speaks to us, “You are a beloved child of God.” Those words, that promise, that assurance, cannot be taken from us.

But as God’s beloved children, we are also called to be transformed through the Holy Spirit into the new creations, the new beings God calls us to be. Our baptisms are only a beginning, not the end or the goal. Our baptisms are the beginning of our transformation as the Holy Spirit works in us and through us and we heed the call to become like Christ. And in our baptisms, through our baptisms, we are called, like Christ, to make God’s presence known in the world, to show God’s love in the world, to share in God’s redemptive work. I pray that in this new year as our physical spaces are renewed and recreated, that all of us experience God’s renewing presence and that we help to make God’s loving and creative presence shine in the world around us.










2 thoughts on “Torn-Apart Heavens: A Sermon for the Baptism of Our Lord, 2015

    • Yes, John 1 does incline that way and certainly the Christian theological tradition from a very early point articulated create ex nihilo (and it’s interesting to see how Augustine, for example, tries to make creation from nothing fit with Genesis 1 both in Confessions and in his Literal Commentary on Genesis). However, Genesis 1:1, especially in the Hebrew, suggests the presence at creation of primordial stuff.

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