We aspire to be a polite society. It is valued, or at least it was.
I was taught growing up to make sure that I said “Please” and “thank-you” as a common courtesy and an expectation which was rewarded. Things that are done in a proper and orderly fashion will be rewarded with action. Withhold common courtesies or manners and the rewards are withdrawn.
“No cookie unless you say ‘please.’”
That’s a part of what is perplexing about society today. It appears that the rewards system, the orderliness of things is thrown out of kilter.
Course, rough speech is hailed as “speaking your mind” or “telling it like it is.”
Those who acquiesce when caught in an indiscretion are called “weak.”
Lying is heralding now as being “shrewd” or “tough” and is excused because it gets results.
It is disorienting when what is expected is thrown into disarray.
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, do things in the proper way…..
We even talk about it in terms of a “fabric” don’t we, this interweaving of politeness and order.
The Fabric of society is such that it should be maintained.
The warp and weave of etiquette, the good order of things done properly, should be upheld at all times. It is not unlike this fine shirt, lovely design, well crafted. Infinitely useful because of its very construction, the way it is put together.
Well, all of that goes out the window today.
Because you see, today we are told that when God comes into this world, it is like this….. RIIIIPPPP……(Tear the shirt in half.)
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 being torn apart and ripped asunder.
The polite and orderly way of doing things that the Pharisees had help to construct, protect and value is cast aside.
There is nothing particularly polite or orderly about the ministry of Jesus as it unfolds. Jesus spends time where most folks think he should not, with the sinners and tax collectors, He pays little heed to the rules adhered to by the Pharisees, and little regard for Jerusalem and the Temple.
Jesus also does not observe the polite niceties society prefers when it comes to those whom he encounters in his ministry.
He does not turn aside from beggars or the blind, but gets his hands dirty and heals them.
He does not keep a safe distance from the unclean, but allows them to touch him, and reaches out to touch them in return.
Jesus finds a way to make 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 observing rules, 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.
You and I, we look at this and would begin to make plans of how to repair it, how we might put it back together again, how to make it look like nothing ever happened to it.
But 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 one, driving Jesus to the wilderness.
The Spirit that descends in the ripping of the heavens blows where it wills. It is a Spirit that cannot be contained or held back behind the veils any longer. It will fall and alight upon whoever is open to it, whoever receives it.
Beloved, I want you to see this.
We make God out to be a God who likes orderliness, but then 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 here, look ahead in Mark’s story.
The bookmarks of Jesus’ life are here. The curtain of heaven is torn when he 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 Holy of Holies in 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 will drive him in life, a restless, relentless Messiah who goes immediately, urgently about his ministry.
So then dare we say that it must also please God to see us receive that same Spirit and to see us 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, an orderly creation, torn to shreds.
Such a nice shirt, infinitely useful as a covering for the body.
What is it good for now?
Well, now, it can be used as rags to clean up the messes we find.
Now it can be used as bindings for the wounded, and support for the weak, the tender, the young plantings that cannot hold themselves up to bear their fruit.
Now what is torn can be fashioned into something new. Perhaps a piece of a quilt to warm a cold child.
This is why God does violence to the creation in baptism.
God tears away the things that would 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.
It’s time to do some violence.
It’s time to have some ripping done.
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