O.K., I will without abash tell you that I am big fan of the PBS series “Downtown Abbey.” If you didn’t happen to watch it last year, you missed a glimpse back into a different time and place, the orderly and polite society of Edwardian England.
It is a society that is strictly ordered and fastidiously maintained. The fabric of society is clear and precise, but much of the drama and intrigue of the series revolves around the “thin places” of that fabric. People stepping ever so slightly out of line, entertaining radical thoughts of changing the way things have “always been.” We observe these small, tentative, highly disapproved of steps out of the established order for the sake of finding new life.
But you know, our society is not so different. We too, as course as we have become, still have our sense of decorum, of what is out of bounds, what one just does not do.
You don’t go to a sporting event wearing the colors of your opponent.
You don’t use a Marine Corps Uniform as a fashion statement, wearing it because it looks cool.
One does not, as it turns out, try to take a jar of homemade jam or a muffin with a jelly like icing in a jar onto an airplane in the post 9/11 world; for it will not make it through TSA checkpoints, common sense notwithstanding.
In the church too, we have our strong desire to have things done politely and in good order. We cite our constitutions. We construct our committees and teams. We defer decisions to proper channels, and determine policies and procedure to do things in the proper way. We have our opinions about what is proper in worship, in groups, in the way to conduct business.
We talk about all of those things in terms of “fabric” don’t we, this interweaving of politeness and order? The Fabric of society is such that it should be maintained.
But in Mark’s Gospel, when God comes into this world, it is like this….. RIIIIIIIIPPPP……
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 And 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. 11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
This is what pleases God in the baptism of Jesus…things are torn apart and the polite and orderly as a value to be held above all else is cast aside. There is nothing polite or orderly about the ministry of Jesus as it unfolds. He spends time where he should not, with the sinners and tax collectors, and pays no heed to the Pharisees or the Temple.
He does not politely turn aside from beggars or the blind.
He does not keep a safe distance from the unclean, but allows them to touch him, and reaches out to touch them in return.
He makes heroes of villains, lifting up the virtues of the Samaritans and Gentiles, and attributing faith to them; while pressing and criticizing the Pharisees, the “good church folk” for their lack of compassion, or their insistence on ritual, or their love of detail, pointing out the specks in the eyes of others while ignoring the log in their own eye.
This is what God did in Jesus, and it begins at the Baptism in Mark’s Gospel. God rips open the fabric of the world. God has done this for a reason. Heaven has been torn open so that it cannot be mended.
The Spirit that descends upon Jesus will be a restless spirit, driving Jesus to the wilderness. Blowing where it wills, it is a Spirit that cannot be contained back behind the veils any longer. It will fall and alight upon whoever is open to it, whoever receives it. We make God out to be a God who likes orderliness, but how do we explain this? How do we understand a God who would choose to violently rip his own creation so that his Spirit can roam free?
And just in case you think I’m a bit off the mark here, look ahead in the story.
The curtain of heaven is torn when Jesus is baptized.
The curtain of the Temple will be torn from top to bottom when Jesus dies on the cross. There is violence at both ends of this story of Jesus. Tearing, rending of the things that are meant to hold back God, or designed to put God in God’s “proper” place… up in heaven, or locked within the Temple.
This is what baptism is about, both Jesus’ baptism and ours.
It is, in a sense, about a violence done to us, an irreparable change. It is the end of the polite separations we would like to make between God and ourselves.
It pleases God to rip into our world.
It pleases God to see his Son, the beloved, receiving this Spirit that drives him.
It pleases God, dare we say, to see us receive that same Spirit and to find ourselves driven as Jesus was.
It pleases God to see us driven by the Spirit to serve.
It pleases God to see us driven to question the polite boundaries of society, to reach out to the unclean, and to allow the unclean to touch us.
It pleases God to see us driven by our Baptism to act in unwise and incautious ways in order to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, to drive out the demons of this world, and to heal the sick and mend the brokenhearted.
“You are my beloved child, with you I am well pleased.” That is what God says to Jesus when the heavens are ripped open and the Spirit starts to drive him.
Dare we begin to believe, that God would have the same to say to us?
What are we to make of a God who does such violence to the beauty of his creation?
Such a nice heavens, and orderly creation, torn to shreds.
This is why God does violence to the creation in baptism. God tears away the things that separate him from us, and declares that WE are more beloved than all of that. More precious and glorious to God than the wonders of the heavens are you…he’ll rip through them to get to you.
More precious and glorious than the finery of the Temple and all its wonders are you… God will tear those linens from top to bottom to be loose in the world among his people.
The veil, the polite veil of good order and seeing to our own interests first has got to be torn for the Spirit to begin to move freely in our lives and in this world. Polite society is at an end. The Kingdom of God is at hand. Thanks be to God.