A sermon presented by the Rev. Dr. Eugene C. Buie on January 8, 2006
Readings: Genesis 1:1-8 and Mark 1:9-15
With the coming of a New Year, we mark the arrival of Epiphany, the church's season of new beginnings. This morning, we hear the story of creation from Genesis, and from Mark's gospel we hear the story of Jesus' baptism by John and the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. But there is something else as well. John's baptism with water was a baptism of repentance. It was something like a new year's resolution to do better, to turn one's life around, to confess one's errors and resolve to change one's life. John knew there was a tentative quality to his work. He proclaimed that there would be another who came after him, one who would baptize with something greater than water. Mark writes, [read Mark 1:9-11].
We usually don't pay much attention to the strange phenomenon described in these verses. Perhaps we think it is easier to ignore the things in scripture that we can't explain. Perhaps we're just too lazy to search it out. Perhaps we didn't even notice, or we have become accustomed to reading over it quickly…so we didn't notice. Well, here it is again.
"He (Jesus) saw the heavens being torn open
and the Spirit descending on him like a dove."
Mark uses the verb, "skizomenous," that is, "being torn open." This word also may be found in the Septuagint's translation of Isaiah 64:1, when the prophet cries out to God, "Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down." There is passionate action requested here. Isaiah calls out for God to tear open the heavens, the barrier between the human and the divine, and come down to earth to be a presence among humankind. Mark, with these words, proclaims that Jesus is the Son of God who has come down to both reveal and embody the acts of God….acts which have not been seen or heard of before in human history.
This must not be treated as casual reading, particularly when it is read in conjunction with Genesis 1:1-8. We have become far too careless with our reading of the Bible. Our modern English translations must be read with a "measure of suspicion" and a curiosity to learn more than what appears on the surface. Too often, our translators simplify through the use of the vernacular, which may lead to misunderstanding and error. For example, let me read this same text from the Greek Septuagint, the third century BC translation of the Hebrew Scriptures by seventy Jewish scholars. [Read Genesis 1:1-8]
Two things stand out to me in this reading, when compared with our English translation. First, the Septuagint reads, "And God divided between the light and the darkness," as compared with the vernacular NIV, "And God separated the light from the darkness." The difference is subtle but significant1. Second, and more to the point of today's focus, the Septuagint reads, "And God called the firmament Heaven," as compared with the vernacular NIV, "And God called the expanse 'sky.'" The imagery is very different in these phrases, and this difference may lead to the confusion we experience when we read of the "heaven being torn open" as Jesus emerged from the baptismal water. The vernacular "expanse or sky" does not lend itself to being "torn open," as does the firmament barrier called Heaven. Remember, the creation story was an ancient oral tradition passed on from generation to generation, long before it was written down in Hebrew in about the sixth century BC.
The ancients had a very different understanding of the universe than we do today. The earth was envisioned as flat, supported by huge columns, and the sun, moon, and stars revolved around the earth within a dome-like "firmament" called Heaven that divided the physical universe from the unknown and presumed spiritual realm. This view of the world is now considered primitive. Our knowledge and understanding of the universe, and our place in it, has been expanded far beyond what can be observed by the unaided human eye. Yet, there are some today who wish to insist that God 'dictated' the Scriptures, or 'inspired' the writing of the Scriptures without "error"; therefore, the Scripture's description of the creation process must be taken literally.
If we are honest with ourselves, however, we must acknowledge that such an argument is not a matter of "how God created the universe," but rather it is an argument for the "inerrancy" of the Scriptures, which can be the topic of another sermon. Nevertheless, from our own point of view, we must acknowledge that, in this modern age of vastly more scientific and technological knowledge, we still have only a slightly broader perception of the real universe. Even now, scientists realize our knowledge is still fragmentary, though much more informed than the ancients.
So, if we are just beginning to perceive the real grandeur of the universe in which we live, through such technology as the Hubble telescope and satellite probes into space, how could the ancients even begin to grasp the realities of their world? Whether the authors of the books of the Bible, starting with Genesis, were inspired by their experiences with God or, as some believe, God dictated the Scriptures and people acted as scribes, it makes no sense that either God or a human author would choose to use the terms of modern technology and science that no one could understand two millennia ago. Rather, it seems that the author would reveal creation in terms the people of that age could grasp. The narratives of the ancients, by necessity, had to be expressed and structured by their own understanding, and not by ours. It is up to us, I think, to make the necessary adjustments as our own knowledge of such things has increased, rather than brush aside the ancient understandings as simply primitive.
Still, when we get the texts right and use our knowledge of the ancient world, it is amazing how close the Bible descriptions are to our modern understanding. In the ancient world, water was a metaphor for chaos, formless disorder, and darkness. God said, "Let there be light," and with that light came order. God divided creation between light and darkness, between order and disorder, between that which was of God and that which was not of God. We really are only grasping for understanding at this point. Thus, the ancients wrote that God divided the waters, and did so with something called a "firmament," a barrier, called Heaven, and under the overarching heaven God created an ordered universe. It is a curious thing to me that modern quantum physicists now describe the universe in terms of the orderly enfolding and unfolding of matter and energy, two components of our existence that Einstein related to light in his theory of relativity. Also, astrophysicists describe a radiation barrier that exists at the far reaches of the universe's perimeter, a "firmament," if you will.
But let us return to our text. It is this heaven, this firmament, this barrier between the physical and the spiritual, that was "torn apart" when the Holy Spirit came down to earth. In other words, this was a cosmic event. The very fragment of creation was ripped open by the epiphany of the Holy Spirit's descent to earth to rest on Jesus. This was the "second baptism," the baptism of the Spirit introduced into our world by the Christ. It is important for us to get a grasp on the magnitude of this event, especially as related to Genesis 1, because this is not only a matter of belief (as some would so limit it) but, more specifically, it is a matter of revelation and, therefore, a matter of knowledge made available to us through revelation. It is particular knowledge, that is, theology, about who God is and who Jesus Christ is. But for some reason, in this enlightened age of ours, we no longer treat matters of theology as knowledge. What is even more disturbing, we no longer treat the Bible as a source of knowledge.
The public has been so misled by the claims of a secular modernism that religion, and Christianity in particular, are generally considered nothing more than personal (meaning, private) or superstitious (meaning, uneducated and unreasonable) beliefs, such that we have allowed religion to be abandoned in the public square of open debate. In short, we have bought into the wrong-headed idea that theology is not based on knowledge but on individual fantasizing and, therefore, there is no need to take it seriously. Theology is, however, discourse or reasoning about God, and, because it has virtually disappeared from our institutions of higher education, it has all but disappeared from our society. It has been systematically removed from university curriculums over the last fifty years with consequences that have largely gone unnoticed…until recently.
James Stoner, Professor of Political Science at Louisiana State University, recently observed, "…the neglect or marginalization of theology in modern university curriculum has contributed to stripping the public square of religion and remains a source of public hostility to religion today." It is stunning that such an observation comes not from theologians but from a professor of political science. He continues, "Without a recovery of theological truth as knowledge, not merely faith, the 'naked public square' will not be decently or securely clothed." We all are conscious of the political pressure to develop a public life in America devoid of religious influence….pressure that insists a pluralist democracy is possible only when religious opinions are rigorously excluded from public debate. The newspapers are full of instances where Christian discourse is being brutally excluded from university campuses.
When people are persuaded, one way or another, that religion is always a matter of personal faith and never of public reason and knowledge, the adversaries of God have ensured that religion will enter the public forum as frustrated opinion and outrage, rather than as rational and spirited discussion. We have seen this occur repeatedly in the last three decades, and people on the political left wonder why there is so much noise from the so-called fundamentalists of the political right. Maybe it's because outrage is all that remains for those on the right when theology is no longer accepted as reasonable discourse and the Bible is no longer accepted as a source of knowledge. Consequently, higher education treats religion as a curiously marginal social phenomenon rather than as a source of serious, communally shared knowledge. Religion appears in the news media as a problem, not as a source of knowledge for making decisions about how to shape our lives together.
My dear friends, if you have accepted the deception that the Christian faith is nothing more than your personal beliefs and opinions, then indeed we are in serious trouble. It is as if we are saying, "God doesn't matter" or "God doesn't exist, except in my imagination." But God does exist, not only as a separate reality but as the basis of all reality, and has made God's self known to us through divine revelation. The revelation of God, the knowledge that God has given to us in this book we call the Bible, extends back to the beginning of time when heaven and earth were created. The Bible gives to us knowledge about who God is, how God works in the world, and what God expects of us. This knowledge is for us and for our children.
It is worthy of study and learning, if we are to know how to live in God's universe. Within these sacred books, we learn that God created and gave life and light to us. We learn that through God's Son, Jesus Christ, the barrier between the spiritual and the physical was torn apart, and that God indeed did come down to dwell with us and redeem us from sin, death, and the grave. These things and many other things are revealed to us, not merely as things we may chose to believe, but as knowledge of the real context of our existence. These things are part of the deep knowledge of life, and must be taught and learned if we wish to preserve and extend our lives together in a universe of God's making. Amen.
1 In God’s act of creation, nothing was separated into two parts. Light and darkness here are not part of one whole, as is suggested by the terms "day and night" that are the two parts of a single day. There was darkness, and God brought forth light that God made distinct from the darkness, and, as we find later in scripture, the darkness could not overcome it.