Sunday was a busy day in the life of the church – especially those that follow the liturgical calendar. In the United Methodist church we celebrate Holy Communion on the first Sunday of the month – so there was that. It was also Epiphany – the celebration of the three wise men visiting baby Jesus. Finally, it was Baptism of the Lord Sunday – remembering Jesus’ baptism as well as our own. It’s not usual that all three of these come together on the same day – there was a lot to fit in one service!
Out of the many topics that could be preached on during a worship service like this, the pastor of the church I attend chose to focus on Jesus’ baptism. He noted something I’d never really considered before (the hallmark of a good sermon, in my opinion!). When John was baptizing Jesus and Jesus came out of the water, I’ve often heard that the heavens opened and a dove came down. However, in many translations it’s more specific – “he saw the heavens torn apart” (NRSV).
When something opens, there is an implication that it will close again in the same way. You open a door then close it. You open a book then close it. The opening provides an opportunity for a closing.
In this case, however, the heavens didn’t just open – they were torn apart. Things that are torn apart aren’t easily put back together. In fact, most often something torn apart stays open – it never closes again.
I think it’s appropriate that God didn’t just open the heavens once, but chose to tear it open so that it would never close again. God wanted to be a different kind of god – not one who stands at a distance and watches, but one that is down in the mess of life with us, side-by-side. By tearing the heavens, there wasn’t an easy way to close it again.
This got me to thinking about life in general – I imagine we all have or will have those moments that tear into our lives. Those moments when the door is thrown off the hinges and the frame is ripped out of the wall and the wall comes tumbling down – those kind of “torn open” moments.
These moments create a before and after. I’ve been thinking about these a lot lately:
Before when my period was late I wondered, “could this be it?” and after I just take it as one more premenopausal sign.
Before I saved certain dresses or shirts that I thought might make good maternity clothes and after I give them away, getting them out of my house.
Before I thought about nursery themes and special quilts and after it will always be a sewing room.
Before I couldn’t wait to hear “mommy” or “daddy” and after “aunt” and “uncle” will do.
Before I looked at pregnant women and small babies with joy and after I chastise myself for lamenting over another person’s celebration.
Infertility ripped itself into my life leaving a trail of rubble behind it. It created a “before and after” in my life that I never wanted, that I never asked for. I suspect everyone has their own version of “before and after.” Even if the initiating incident is a good thing, it still creates a division – life was still torn open. Even when it’s positive, it’s can still be hard and challenging. We’ve all got our own stuff going on.
I wonder if that moment coming out of the water was a “before and after” place for Jesus. He was stepping into something he couldn’t turn back from – he knew where it would lead. He knew that by going against the government, against the norms of his religious group, against the culture in which he lived, would cause an uprising. He knew this wouldn’t end easily.
He came out of the water, the heavens were torn open, the Spirit descended and then… he heard a voice, “You are my child, my Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
This was a “torn open” moment. This was a “before and after” moment. And in the midst of this defining moment in his life he hears the words that will carry him forward, “You are my child, my Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” And he steps out of the water and his ministry begins. He moves forward in the “after” with confidence that no matter what happens, he is loved. At this point, he hadn’t done anything yet – he hadn’t accomplished any tasks or achieved any goals. He is loved and cherished just as he is. He is enough right here, right now, in this very moment. Anything that happens beyond this “torn open” moment is icing on the cake. Sure, we are born with a purpose, but if we never succeed in accomplishing that purpose, we are still loved, no questions asked.
My life was torn open while I was standing in a Joann’s store. Life was going on all around me when I heard the doctor tell me what I never wanted to hear. From that aisle I moved forward into the “after.” However, what was clear to me before and is ever more clear to me after – I am loved. Whether I move forward with grace or turn bitter and resentful, I will always be loved. How I choose to live in the “after” is huge, but it will never change the words I heard, just like Jesus: You are my child, my Beloved, with you I am well pleased.