“The Heavens Being Torn Open” (Mark 1:4-11)
How many of you know when your baptismal birthday is? Mine is September 10. What’s yours? It’s good to take note of and remember the day of your baptism, that happy day when all your sins were washed away and you became a child of God. So if you don’t know your baptismal birthday, you might want to go ahead and find out when it is and then celebrate it.
But did you know there’s a baptismal birthday going on today? And that it’s one all of us can celebrate? Because today is the First Sunday after the Epiphany, the day in the church year when we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord. This is the day we remember that event when our Lord Jesus Christ was baptized in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. So today is, in effect, Jesus’ baptismal birthday.
The Baptism of Our Lord is an event recorded in all three of the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and also referred to in the Gospel of John. The accounts are very similar, except here and there one writer may include a detail that another leaves out, or one writer may use slightly different wording to describe the same event. So it is in our text today from the Gospel of Mark. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention that when Jesus was baptized the heavens were opened, but only Mark uses the exact word choice that we find today. He says: “And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opening.” “The heavens opening,” but more literally it says: “The Heavens Being Torn Open.”
“The heavens being torn open.” That’s an interesting way to put it, isn’t it? The word that’s used here in the Greek is the word, “schizo.” It’s the word from which we get our English words “scissors” and “schism,” etc. “Schizo” means to “split,” to “rend,” to “tear apart” or “rip open.” It has almost a violent connotation. So the heavens were being “split wide open,” “torn apart,” when Jesus was baptized.
What do you think of when you hear that the heavens were torn open? What do you expect to happen next? When the heavens open up, what should come down? Usually when God splits open the skies like this, you’d think it would be his judgment that comes crashing down, like lightning striking the earth. Think of the time of Noah, when God opened up the heavens and flooded the earth. The clouds burst open, and it rained for forty days and forty nights. Massive, total destruction. A worldwide catastrophe. God’s extreme judgment on a wicked and corrupt humanity. In that case, the heavens being torn open spelled doom and disaster. Or think of the time of Abraham and Lot. The heavens opened up at that time, too. And what came down? Fire and brimstone. God sent fire and brimstone down as a judgment upon the perverse and wicked cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.
So the idea of the heavens being torn open is not usually a very pleasant or desirable thing in biblical thinking. The prophet Isaiah cried out to the Lord, “Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down!” Isaiah wanted the judgment of God to descend upon the wicked nations of the earth. “Oh, that you would rend the heavens! Split them open, Lord! Tear them apart and wipe out all the evil on this earth! Come down in judgment on sinful mankind!”
This background, then, should shape our expectations when we read that at Jesus’ baptism the heavens were torn open. We would expect that God’s judgment should come crashing down. After all, look at the people who were being baptized. It says that all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to John, confessing their sins. So these were sinners who were coming to John for baptism. And if they were sinners, then they were ripe for judgment. For the wages of sin is death.
And that is true for us also, isn’t it? We too are sinners, ripe for judgment. You and I have broken God’s commandments. We have not loved God with our whole heart or listened to his word as we ought. We have not loved and helped our neighbor as we ought. We have thus earned God’s displeasure and wrath. His judgment should come crashing down on us. And the fact is, we all die. Is that it, then? Is that the eternal death sentence? And when the heavens are torn open on the Last Day, will that be the final judgment?
But back to our text. So here comes this man Jesus, coming to be baptized in the Jordan, just like all of those admitted sinners. Then, after he’s baptized, the heavens are torn open. And what comes down out of those heavens? Fire and brimstone? A wipe-’em-out flood? No, not fire and brimstone. Not a flood. But rather a voice and a dove. A voice and a dove? What kind of judgment is that?
Well, how does God judge and evaluate this man Jesus? The voice says, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” Yes, this is who Jesus is. He is God’s own Son! As amazing as it seems–and it’s the most amazing thing in the world–this man Jesus is the very Son of God. True God and true man. God incarnate, God come down out of heaven in the flesh. That’s who Jesus is.
And this is God’s judgment on him: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” God loves this man Jesus. And he loves what Jesus is doing, standing there at the Jordan, taking his place among sinners. The Father knows what his Son is going to do for them all, starting here at the Jordan. And God just loves that. Notice what he says: “With you I am well pleased.” God was well pleased to choose Jesus for this mission he is about to undertake. God is well pleased that Jesus voluntarily takes it up and enters into this mission. He’s well pleased that Jesus gets down into the water with sinners like you and me. God is very well pleased, in every respect, with this man Jesus.
But where is the judgment? Where is the displeasure and wrath? There is none. Just divine approval. Because Jesus has no sins of his own to confess. He is without sin. He is holy and righteous–always, constantly, consistently, doing God’s will. Yet he takes his stand with sinners. He identifies with us. And here at the Jordan he undertakes his saving mission to rescue us from the death and judgment we all deserve.
So where and when will the judgment fall? Where is God’s displeasure and wrath? Not here. Not yet. But it will come. At the cross the righteous judgment of God will come crashing down like a ton of bricks. And it will land on the head of this man Jesus, like lightning hitting a lightning rod. The lightning rod takes the hit, and those all around are spared. That’s Jesus, and that’s us. For the holy Son of God will take on himself the sin and the guilt of all mankind. At the cross, Jesus bore our sins in his body. He suffered the judgment we deserve, and in so doing, he took that judgment away from us. On that Good Friday, the heavens were not torn open, but rather they were shut closed and became as brass. The heavens were sealed shut to Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The beloved Son, the one in whom God was well pleased, takes the ultimate rejection and alienation from God once and for all. And he does it for you, that you would no longer come under that judgment.
And it all starts in full now, here at the Jordan in Jesus’ baptism. That’s what’s going on here. That’s what Jesus is saying yes to when he steps into the water. And it pleases the Father to no end that his Son takes our place, to give us life that has no end.
So here comes the voice of the Father, pronouncing his approval on his beloved Son and his saving mission. And here comes a dove, descending out of the skies. Think of the dove that brought word to Noah that it was safe to come out, that the flood and the judgment were over. There the dove became a symbol of peace. God was at peace with mankind. So it is here. In the person of the man Jesus, God was making peace with rebellious mankind. Jesus would establish that peace by his death on the cross. So here at the Jordan a dove descends.
But this is no ordinary dove. This is the Holy Spirit taking the form of a dove. The Holy Spirit, the Third Person of the Trinity–the Spirit likewise gives his approval to Jesus as he embarks upon his mission. And the Spirit empowers this man Jesus for his mission. God here is anointing Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. God puts his Spirit upon his chosen servant to empower him for his task.
So here at Christ’s baptism, the heavens are torn open. But instead of fire and brimstone there’s a voice and a dove, the voice of the Father and the Holy Spirit like a dove. Divine approval and divine empowerment. Approval of Christ’s person and empowerment for his work.
Because Jesus carried out and completed his work, what happens at your baptism, your baptism into Christ? At your baptism, all your sins are washed away in those Christ-filled waters. And God says the same thing about you that he said about Jesus: “You–yes, you–are my beloved child. I am well pleased with you for Jesus’ sake.” And the Spirit descends upon you, making you a new creation in Christ and empowering you for a life of service in God’s kingdom.
So today we celebrate the greatest baptismal birthday of them all, the Baptism of Our Lord. It is his baptism that gives life and vitality to your baptism. Brothers and sisters in Christ, celebrate your baptism. Rejoice in it. Give thanks to God that you are baptized. Not just on your baptismal birthday, but every day. Remember what God did in your baptism, and continues to do: He joined you to Jesus forever, he made you his own dear child, and he gave you the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Dear friends, by his baptism in the Jordan, by his death on the cross, and by his glorious resurrection from the dead, Christ our Lord has opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. Because of what Jesus began at his baptism and then carried to completion, now heaven truly is open. It stands wide open for you!