SCRIPTURE Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” [Matthew 3:13-17]
MESSAGE “Heavens Opened” Rev. James Renfrew
I prepare for preaching by reading over the Bible story multiple times. It’s always the starting point. What does it mean? What have I said about it before? What have I missed? What is God trying to tell us? I love the preparation almost as much as the preaching itself.
As I was reading this story about Jesus’ baptism I became very distracted because in my mind I kept connecting the story to this weekend’s zero degree weather and wondering how to do baptism if the River Jordan was frozen rock solid, and who would even walk many miles to the river in cold weather and heavy snow like we’ve been having. One time I fell through the ice while playing pond hockey, and immediate immersion in cold water was not only very unpleasant but very frightening and dangerous. I couldn’t resolve that question of baptism in ice-cold weather easily, so I thought I better find a different approach to this story.
But I can tell you this, in case you are worried, that when Charlotte was baptized in November I asked Jordan to fill the bowl with warm water. Jordan did a great job of that and Charlotte had no reason to complain on a cold day.
So instead of thinking about the water of baptism, I’m thinking about how the story ends, with the heavens opening and the Spirit of God descending.
Well, we’ve been seeing plenty of results from the heavens opening in the last week, and there’s a foot and a half of it that I’ve had to remove from our driveway. As much as I like the snow, daily snow throwing gets old quickly, especially when I have to put on three layers of clothing before stepping out into the cold, and I’m running out of places to throw the snow.
But here I’m obviously getting it very wrong. Of all the things the story could be about it’s not about snow! Let’s dig into this story some more, to see what it might be telling us today. Oops, did I say dig? Sorry!
Matthew’s version of this story doesn’t give a lot of detail about what heavens opened even looks like. All it says it that “suddenly the heavens were opened”. I tried to imagine it with the picture on the bulletin cover, something like sunlight breaking through dark clouds. That certainly fits with the main theme of the season of Epiphany. It’s a season about the light of Jesus Christ spreading and growing in all directions. The star over Bethlehem is just the beginning of it. Light to bring us hope in darkness, light to find us when we’re lost, light to show a new way forward.
My simple bulletin cover barely gets to the heart of it. And maybe it’s something that we cannot depict in a photograph, in a drawing or a painting, though many have tried. I could have come in with a series of power point paintings showing this moment of heavens opening, and what most of them show is very simple, not so much the heavens ripped open and heavenly stuff pouring down, but the simplicity of a dove descending out of the sky to alight on Jesus, the dove representing the Spirit of God alive and growing in him as he begins to spread the light in everything that he says or does.
In the end it’s not what heavens opened looks like, except to say that when it happens I think you’ll know it. The heavens opened is not a weather observation, or a pattern of clouds in the sky, it’s a profoundly spiritual moment, one of those moments that I like to describe as an intersection, an intersection between the human and the divine, an intersection between earth and heaven, an intersection involving God and you.
Have you had a moment when you experienced that kind of intersection?
Mabel Colburn looked out her window one night in Rochester and she set her sight on one particular star up in the sky, and seeing that star resolved her grief about the death of her husband. She felt certain for the rest of her life that Charles was in the arms of her loving God in heaven. I might have seen that star and gone right past it, just another star in the sky, but for Mabel the heavens had opened, and God’s promises to her were more real than anything.
Myrtle Grace was a ninety year old member in a church I served in Rochester. If there were saints in that church Myrtle was one of them. One day in her 90th year she taught Sunday School, and one of the kids laid into her with one of the most foul-mouthed tirades imaginable. Myrtle was stunned, shocked, and she resolved to never teach Sunday School again. But she prayed about it that night and concluded that the problem was not the mouthy girl, but herself needing more patience and love towards troubled children. The next morning she called me to say that she would be back in Sunday School the following week.
To resolve this challenging moment, Myrtle had returned to a moment of intersection from a much earlier time in her life. She often returned to that moment to find her bearings whenever something seemed to be going wrong. It was a moment of intersection that she often told me about, when she realized that there was more to God than she had previously imagined. She said it happened during a sermon in the 1930’s when the preacher described three kinds of Christians: workers, shirkers and, the worst of all, jerkers. Myrtle heard it as a heavenly revelation that went right to her heart. In the kingdom of God, she realized, she wasn’t a worker, she wasn’t even a shirker, but she was very much a jerker. She never explained to me exactly what a jerker was, but I think it meant admitting that she had been fooling herself, and also trying to fool God, into thinking that she was a faithful, loyal Christian, when she was much less than that. It opened up a whole new world to her, when the honest truth of her life intersected with the powerful love of God, almost like the heavens opening in our Gospel story.
One time, after a day-long hike in the Adirondacks my friend George and I took a rest break sitting on a huge rock overlooking a beautiful lake. No one else was there, except for us, and we watched clouds roll by and enjoyed the breeze on a hot day as we enjoyed our lunch. At one point we saw some commotion in a distant corner of the lake, with some very strange sounds. George immediately said “loons”, and if you’ve ever heard a loon they make an unmistakable, haunting sound. It was like we were overhearing a conversation between God and the whole world, and no one but us was hearing it but the two of us. George said, gesturing at the entire panoramic view, “this is my church, Jimmy”. And I knew what he meant, the lake was beautiful, peaceful, and far from the distractions of our lives, and spending time enjoying it was filling our souls with something rare and pure. As I read the Gospel story for today I still remember that moment, when the heavens opened, this time not with a dove descending, but with a loon swimming! George, by the way is one of the three people allowed to call me Jimmy, so don’t get any ideas!
One thing about these three stories of intersection is that not one of those who were there saw the moment coming, when the Spirit of God touched their lives like that dove descending from the opened heavens.
There was nothing to study, nothing to pack, no maps or guide books. It just happened, the people there knew it, and I believe they were ready for it.
I believe that as we begin to live into this season of Epiphany one thing we can bring to bear is our readiness, and a conviction that God is ready too. Mary, Joseph, Shepherds, Wise Men all saw it up close. They were ready. All it took was the whisper of an angel, a glimpse of a star, or a hint of new music in the air. And they were ready!