Tearing Heaven Open

Week of Sunday March 1 2008, the first Sunday in Lent
Reading: Mark 1:9-15

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.' And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.'

This Sunday will be the first Sunday in Lent. So we could look at the reading in Mark as a recapitulation of where we have been so far in Mark. It's a reconsideration, a taking stock, as we enter the sober period of reflection leading up to Easter.

I heard Jack Spong say one night, "When Jesus comes to be baptised, the heavens are torn apart." He noted Joshua parted the waters of the Jordan when the Israelites entered into the Promised Land. But when Jesus went down to the Jordan and was baptised, he did not part the waters; the heavens were parted. This second Jeshua / Joshua / Saviour is much greater than the first.

If we know our Mark we might also remember a reading from later in the book: And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. (15:38) There is a forcefulness and violence in this Gospel. Heaven is being wrenched open to allow people in. There is a new reality; John has been arrested, the new has begun. I like Bill Loader's comment: "Here is a meeting point of heaven and earth, a deliberate ripping aside of the barrier on the part of God."

The presence of the wild beasts and the angels in the wilderness says something about the basic, raw, existential nature of the temptations of Jesus. They are real temptations. They are not some head thing, but a very real struggle between answering the calling of God, and the desire to go another way. But the struggle is in endured in the presence of God; this is the message of the angels.

The "Satan" which opposes the call of God upon Jesus is also a real force. We may not choose to personalise the Satan in our time and world view, but there is a truth here. Satan means we are making real choices when we choose to answer or ignore the call. It's not a game. To repent and believe in the good news is not some mere head thing. It is not an idea to which we assent. It is action with consequences.

"Forty days" is shorthand for a long time. It was also forty years Israel spent in the wilderness until it was ready for the Promised Land, which John's baptism was recalling by being done in the Jordan; that is, John's baptism was a call to people to return to the Promised Land of life with God.

The story shows us that the call, the challenge, and even the blessing of God, can lead to a wilderness experience until we are ready to live out the calling. The message of the forty days for me, is that it takes time to answer the call. It is not easy to answer the call. And the call is a (life) long experience.

It is clear, the time is now: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.' Live it out. Now is the time.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!




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