"The heavens torn apart"-Sermon for Epiphany 1, Mark 1:4-11
I recall hearing a lecture once, in which, the speaker, a highly regarded author, sociologist and preacher, among evangelicals in particular, was talking about his son’s faith. A great faith really…perhaps a faith that only a child can possess. He said that when his child was young, but old enough to be intentional about his nightly prayers, he would on occasion, before going to bed, come into his parent’s bedroom…stand at the foot of the bed…and say, “I am going to bed…but first I will be saying my prayers…so does anyone need anything?” I just think that is awesome. Of course, children, and perhaps all of us, learn best through observation and imitation, and this child had likely heard his parents and pastors and other adults offer prayers to God in which they asked for all sorts of things. The fancy church words for these sorts of prayers are petitions and intercessions. Petitions are prayers in which we call on God for a need that exists in our own life…like healing…or forgiveness…or clarity…or a new job…or whatever we might really need. And intercessions are prayers that we offer to God on behalf of others…like healing…or forgiveness…or clarity…or a new job…or whatever they have requested or really need. Our own parish prayer list, that we offer to God faithfully each Sunday right here in church, are, indeed, intercessions offered by this family of faith for those we love and care for, or sometimes just hear about, those who are suffering or in transition and in need of God’s wisdom, divine intervention…even supernatural assistance.
And I for one believe these prayers matter…all of them…our own individual prayers and our collective petitions and intercessions. And I believe they matter in all sorts of ways…some describable and some, quite frankly, indescribable. Those who study such things, I’m talking about competent academicians and research scientist, have shown that there is a statistical connection between prayer and healing. And, perhaps more down to earth, I also know that when people are being prayed for they say they can feel it, and they say that it matters and makes a difference in their lives…and I believe them…as this has been my experience as well. And another blessing and profound gift that comes with being prayed for and praying for others, is that it draws us closer, deepens our bonds of affection, among those who pray for us and those who we pray for…and, perhaps, most importantly…it draws us closer to God…into God’s very divine presence…zero degrees of separation.
In prayer, as our deep spirit converses with God’s deep spirit, with or without words, we are with God…just as surely as we are with one another in this room even now. In our so very sweet conversations with God, we are drawn deeper into God’s divine life…we fall more in love with God. And it is in this crucible of prayer that we are formed more and more into the people God has called us uniquely to be…and there is no other Christian discipline, action or practice that accomplishes this transformation more perfectly. I would argue that all theological reflection and the very life of a Christian finds its alpha and omega, its beginning and end, in prayer. For nothing else connects us more entirely, more completely to God than being in an intimate conversation with the one we love. As I am sure you recall, one of the three parts of our vision statement at St. Julian’s reads…that, our life together, is intended to help each and every one of us to “seek intimacy with Christ.” And intimacy begins, simply said, by being in one another’s presence, and prayer is all about being in God in Christ’s presence.
Now, no guilt here, if your own prayer life is not exactly where you would like it to be presently. My own prayer life has ebbed and flowed, waxed and waned, been abundant and been scarce, over a lifetime (and ordination has not magically resolved that for me)...but it’s so worth working on. For I do believe that if daily intentional prayer, that includes things like confessing our sins, offering our petitions and intercessions, moments of quiet contemplation, expressions of praise and adoration and thanksgiving…and all directed toward God…if we all, each and every one of us, did something like this each and every day…we would blow the doors off this place. I mean there would be no end to the power and potential we, together, with God and one another, could have for transforming the world around us for good and for God…beginning with our own lives…and then moving on to our neighbors…and look out world cause here we come.
Which takes me, in a very roundabout way, to our Gospel lesson. This first Sunday of the season of Epiphany always begins us, more or less begins our year, with the story of Jesus’ baptism…this year from the Gospel of Mark. Jesus, as you recall, comes to the River Jordan, and to his cousin John, to be baptized. And this moment in time and space is in many ways a beginning…for Jesus and for each of us. For this sacramental moment is the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Jesus’ own coming out party. The lights go up and the curtain is pulled back, for God in flesh is among his beloved people. The beginning of a three-year ministry of teaching and healing that demonstrates for us, in ways that we can observe and imitate, the sort of people God is calling us to be…the sort of love-life, that is whole and healthy and fully alive and outwardly focused, that God desires for each and every one of us. For we are to be, like Jesus, in the lives we live. We too are to be teachers and healers whose love and care for one another brings heaven to earth and earth to heaven...such that love alone orders the life we live…and love alone orders the ways we live with one another and care for one another and serve one another…that we all might become the fully alive, God oriented people, we are each uniquely made to be. As we hear and learn and mark and inwardly digest the scriptures together in church between now and Easter, in the seasons of Epiphany and Lent, we will hopefully be inspired by the many stories of healing and wise teaching that make up Jesus’ earthly ministry…think about them together…incarnate them in our own lives…allow them to wash over us and fill us up…allow them to be the very foundation for the choices we make, the relationships we live in, the ways we organize our calendars and spend our money and care for ourselves and others hearts, bodies and minds. I so look forward to continuing the journey of being and becoming, as, in this new year, we delve more and more deeply into the life of Jesus…the one we seek to follow and be like…as we observe him and imitate him in the lives we really live.
But before I get too far ahead of myself…I want to return to the place where this all begins…to today’s gospel lesson…to Jesus’ own baptism. To the beginning of Jesus’ own journey, if you will. Perhaps you recall that lovely moment when Jesus comes up out of the waters of his own baptism…and just then Mark tell us the heavens are torn apart…ripped apart and shredded…and then the Spirit descends on Jesus like a dove. Though all three other Gospel writers, Matthew, Luke and John, record some version of Jesus’ baptism, Mark uniquely uses the term “torn open” to describe God’s own Spirit inhabiting Jesus’ own life. And I think this is worth paying attention to and, further, a description very intentionally chosen by Mark. The heavens are torn wide open…the gates of heaven are thrown wide open…that which separates God from humans is utterly destroyed…completely set aside…the glass ceiling is shattered into a million pieces…such that in Jesus…in his baptism…in his ministry…in his living and dying and living again…there is nothing left…zero degrees of separation…nothing left standing that separates us from the love of God…the very presence of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
You see that well-regarded preacher and sociologist, whose story I began with…he described his own son’s moment of taking prayer requests at the foot of his bed, as something like treating God like a transcendent Santa Claus…to whom we lift our needs, and maybe wants, and they are often not the same thing, to some sort of faraway God in the north pole, or cosmos, or another dimension…who then magically delivers, under our proverbial Christmas trees, gifts in the form of answered prayers. Further, he suggests, and I agree, that this is not what our relationship with God is like, or intended to be. For God is not a faraway God delivering gifts magically to only those on the nice list. Instead, Jesus’ physical presence those many years ago among humans…and now his ongoing presence…his Holy Spirit…inhabits our lives, even now, zero degrees of separation, such that we are left, right now, standing in the midst of glory itself, God’s light perpetual, the everlasting arms of love…like a dove, God’s Spirit, descends upon each of us…all the time…in each moment…with every single breath we take.
And this is why today, as we come to a new year, I am intentionally focusing on prayer…for in Jesus…the heavens have indeed been torn open…and thus when we pray…we indeed sit entirely in the divine presence of God with and among us…zero degrees of separation…us…our own selves, souls and bodies in a sweet, intimate conversation with God, the lover of our souls. For this Jesus was baptized, taught and healed, died and lived again, for zero degrees of separation…not so that we can get everything we want…but so that we have, already, everything we need…a life-long relationship of intimacy, with a God who loves us and is entirely with us, and all nurtured in prayer.
For prayer, for me, is always first and foremost about the intentional choice to root ourselves in the very presence of God…and in doing so we find the very one we are made for…our perfect partner…our first and forever lover…already right here with us…for the heavens have been torn open…zero degrees of separation. Just as we are shaped and formed by the relationships we have with one another, when we choose to fall more and more in love with God, through the love language that is prayer, we too are shaped and formed into the very people God has made each of us to uniquely be…fully alive…together…in a love-life that indeed has the power to blow the doors off of this place. If prayer becomes the very air we breathe, I mean there would be no end to the power and potential we, together, with God and one another, could have for transforming the world around us for good and for God…beginning with our own lives…and then moving on to our neighbors…and look out world cause here we come. Amen.