The heavens torn asunder

Baptism of Jesus – 2015

Mark 1:4-11 (Genesis 1:1-8)

Marian Free

May my spoken word, lead us through the written Word, to encounter the Living Word, even Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.

It is difficult to let go of the idea that heaven is above us and that hell – if such a place exists – is below. Even though modern science has revealed the vastness of the universe, and even though we know that the nearest star is light years away, most of us still think of heaven as somewhere above the sky. One reason for such a view is that our image of heaven is formed by our biblical texts that in turn are dependent on a view of the world that dominated in ancient times. In this period of time, it was believed that the earth sat on pillars above the waters below and that the sky was a vast dome that held back the waters above. The sun, moon and stars hung from this dome and the rain fell through holes in the dome.

In Hebrew the word for this dome is raqia. This is the same word that is used for God’s chariot or for the platform for God’s throne. It seems that in Hebrew thought the sky – what was for them the roof of the earth – was for God the floor of heaven. That is not to say that they understood God to be confined to heaven or that they thought that the dome was impermeable, preventing movement in either direction. After all, God had conversations with Abraham and Moses spoke to God face-to-face. It does seem however, that communication between God and humankind generally occurred through individuals such as the patriarchs or the prophets or through intermediaries such as angels. In any event, over time the communication between heaven and earth became ritualized and instead of communication being a two-way conversation, it was limited to an action that took place once a year – first of all in the tent of meeting and then in the Temple.

The design of these places of worship is important, in particular the separation of the sanctuary, which is the place of meeting. In Exodus God says to Moses: “And have them make me a sanctuary. There I will meet you and I will give you all my commands for the Israelites.” Moses used to meet God in the sanctuary on a regular basis but, according to the Book of Leviticus this place, which was separated by a curtain from the remainder of the tent of meeting, was considered so holy that it was only entered once and year and then only by the current High Priest. On the Day of Atonement, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies surrounded by a cloud of incense that would prevent him from seeing God. Inside the sanctuary he would sprinkle blood on and before the mercy seat. This was to cleanse the tent of the sins of the people and to make it possible for God to continue to dwell in their midst. It was not a conversation between the priest and God as it had been in Moses’ day. The Temple, when it was built, was built on the same design as the Tent of meeting. Again the sanctuary was separated from the inner court by a curtain and entered only once a year by the High Priest. The relationship between God and the people at this time was not personal but formal and dictated by ritual.

All of this background information is essential if we are to understand Mark’s account of Jesus’ baptism.

Mark tells us that as Jesus was coming out of the water, he saw the heavens torn asunder and hears the voice of God saying: “You are my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” It is true that in this account only Jesus sees the heavens torn and hears the voice of God, but Mark’s audience hear the words as if they too see and hear, and the implication of what is happening is not lost on them. The violent tearing of the heavens suggests to them that the barrier that existed between them and heaven has been broken irreparably. The dome is no longer intact. God has broken through into the world and nothing will ever be the same. From now on the way in which God communicates with the world will be radically different. God will be accessible to all people, not to just a few.

That this is Mark’s intended meaning is made clear at the conclusion of the gospel when another violent tearing destroys the curtain in the Temple – that which had separated the people from the sanctuary. Mark records that when Jesus took his last breath, the veil (curtain) in the Temple was torn from top to bottom making clear that no longer is communication with God limited to just one person just once a year. All people now have access to and can communicate directly with God.

Even though Mark does not record Jesus’ birth, in only a few verses he makes it obvious that in Jesus, God has radically entered the world. God’s heaven has been opened in a way that could not previously have been imagined and the violence of the opening suggests that it will not easily be closed again. The barriers (real or perceived) between earth and heaven have been destroyed. All of humanity is now able to speak directly to God without the need of an intermediary.

God has done everything possible to open channels of communication with us. It is up to us to make good use of them.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: