How do you open a Christmas present?
Do you slit the tape neatly and lift the wrapping paper away in one complete piece, so undamaged that if you wanted to you could re-use it? Or do you rip into it, tearing the paper apart? You know who opens presents like that? Kids.
Children, because they can’t wait to see what’s inside. And when you tear the wrapping paper off a present like that, you can’t exactly put the paper back together again.
When something is torn apart, it is changed forever.
Today’s readings point us toward that simple and life-altering truth. We find ourselves in this new year at the very beginning. The first words of the first chapter of the first book in the Bible.
The moment of creation, and the first action that God takes is to separate light from darkness. Science has determined that the moment of creation was akin to an explosion, what is called the Big Bang. It was, in fact, a tearing apart.
And our Gospel lesson brings us to another beginning, and another tearing apart.
Matthew and Luke both say that at the moment of Jesus’ baptism, the heavens were opened. In translation, they both chose the Greek word anoixe, meaning “to open.” The action they describe is like opening a window or door.
When you do that, you can close it again and return it to the original position, as if nothing ever happened. Nothing has changed. You can re-use that wrapping paper.
But Mark, who certainly had the word anoixe at his disposal, chose a very different word. The word for “torn apart” in Greek is schizo, as in schizophrenia. Mark wants to make sure that we understand what happens in a tearing apart.
There are two main points I think we are being invited to consider about the heavens being torn apart at the moment of Jesus’ baptism. The first is reinforced in the reading from Genesis.
We often speak of this account of creation as making order out of chaos. We aim for the order. We dwell on the order. We like the order. Because we’d rather not put our attention on the chaos. Chaos is dark. It’s ugly. It’s messy. It’s best forgotten.
And it is in chaos that life begins.
That’s true in the skies, in the tumultuous birth of planets and stars. That’s true here on Earth, where the miracle of a newborn child joining the party is usually difficult and messy. And it’s true in baptism. In baptism, something is born, and nothing is ever the same.
Over and over again in the Gospels, Jesus will tell us that the only way to birth and new life is through a disruptive and irrevocable ending. “Unless a seed falls to the earth and dies, it will not bear fruit, but if it falls to the earth and dies, it will bear much fruit.” Something has to die for something new to be born.
And when that something new is born, nothing is ever the same. And that’s the second truth being offered here. That’s the second reason that Mark has chosen “torn apart” instead of “opened.”
Once Christ has come into our lives, we should not be able to pick up the pieces of our old lives and put them back together again as though nothing has changed, when in truth, everything has changed. God has ripped open the very heavens to give us the great gift, the gift of Christ in our lives. And nothing will ever be the same.
Preached at Saint Michael Lutheran, High Point, by The Rev. Beth Woodard.