Psalm 29, Genesis 1:1-5, Acts 19: 1-7, Mark 1: 4-11
There are times when human savagery seems unrelenting, and our basic inability to understand each other is never improved. Murder and mayhem in the name of religion is as long-standing as the hills, from the early days when every tribe had their own god, through to the emergence of nation-transcending creeds, right down to our current experience of countless faith systems vying for influence amid competing claims for truth and respect. Humanity deals with difference in three ways: welcome, ignore and hostility. It is our job as the children of God to take people from hostility to welcome, and from indifference to joy.
How? Well, on a day like today, we have a picture of God which is utterly extraordinary, and can truly turn things on their head. Firstly, we read about the God who can create universes and microbes just by speaking, then we read about a God who indwells human beings, and then we read about a God who tears apart his creation so that we may all hear his creating voice and share in his eternal presence.
As Jesus is baptised, identifying himself with our human condition, so God tells us all that this is his son, his beloved, his very self, living as part of his own creation. In terms of epiphanies, this is huge. Last week we had the three kings coming to the baby Jesus – the Son of God revealed to the Gentiles – but this week God rips apart the fabric of creation to demonstrate his loving commitment to humanity.
There is no longer any separation between heaven and earth. In terms of classical cosmology, there were three solid sections to the world – heaven, earth, and the underworld. We, the created order, are perched on a thin crust of solid ground, with God above and chaos & darkness below. We pass from the earth to heaven or hell on our death. When Mark uses the term “torn apart” of the heavens, he means that the physical barrier that used to separate us from the divine realm no longer exists, and God is available to everyone, and heaven is open to all.
There will be one more dramatic tearing in the Gospel story, which occurs when Jesus dies. The curtain of the Temple is torn in two, from top to bottom. At the moment when the impossible happens, God dies, the humanly constructed barrier between God and his worshipping people is destroyed, and all have access to the divine, by the death of his son.
That is this week’s epiphany, but what are we going to do with it? We were included in the love of God last week by the gifts of the Gentile sages. We are confirmed in that this week, but we want more, surely.
Of course we do, and we want to see love, love in all its glory, all its divinity, at work in our world. And we can.
It is there in the Malian shopworker in Paris, hiding frightened people, including a baby, from the hostage taker, keeping them safe and delivering them to freedom. His spiritual heritage? Muslim.
It is there in the translator breaking down in tears as the brother of a murdered (Algerian) policeman boldly calls for no escalation of the violence. The spiritual heritage of that translator? We will never know.
It is there in the tens of thousands who retweeted controversial images, who stood in solidarity in the cold and wet, who took up the slogan, “Je suis Charlie”. Most of them will have had little religious experience, such is the secular nature of France today, but they can find solidarity in adversity, solidarity in the face of extreme provocation, the solidarity of divine love that tears the skies open and joins earth with heaven.
There is a great work of education to be done on all sides, a huge amount of welcome and understanding to be gone through, by everyone, but we must do it with divine love, with divine generosity, with divine hope. But if we are faithful, and if the love we share is genuine, then, and only then, can we truly say, “Je suis Charlie”
Rev Peter Hart