Genesis 1:15 And Mark 1:4-11
The night of July 4th, 1985, was moonless, clear and balmy, a perfect night for fireworks. My son, Dan, and I took folding chairs down to the river bank to join others who had gathered there with chairs and blankets to watch the aerial display several miles down the river at Huntington Park. The fireworks began, and there was a chorus of appreciative ooohs and aaahs with each burst of colorful skyrockets. Invisible in the black sky a storm cloud had moved in, and right in the middle of the fireworks display and almost directly above them that sky was suddenly split by a towering streak of lightning and a fantastic clap of thunder which made those manmade aerial bombs sound like penny firecrackers. All of us who had been ooohing and aaahing let out a cheer and broke into applause. I could almost see God beaming with pride at what had been wrought with a flip of the wrist.
In the Bible, when something really important is happening, there is often some kind of aerial display which accompanies the event and calls attention to the fact that it is connected with certain other events.
Take the baptism of Jesus to start with. He goes down into the water of the Jordan. The heavens open up. The Spirit descends upon him, and he hears the voice of God from heaven confirming who he is and what he is. It is a very impressive ceremony.
Then we begin to realize that the water and the Spirit and the voice from heaven remind us of something else. Of course, the creation of the world as recounted in Genesis l! There was the dark water of chaos. Then, the Spirit hovered over it like a dove. Then God's voice from heaven said, "Let there be light!" And the whole sky—I mean the whole sky!—lit up. It's fascinating. The special effects at the baptism of Jesus have a striking similarity to those at the creation of the world. It is clear that there is a connection.
Then, our mind jumps ahead from creation and sees the liberated Israelites at the foot of Mt. Sinai, staring up with wide eyes at the top of the mountain which is shrouded in swirling clouds and is being bombarded by lightning. And Moses, standing up there with his arms stretched out like a human lightning rod, hears a voice from heaven outlining the moral law for human life in The Ten Commandments. It is another very impressive ceremony with a voice from heaven. Jesus' baptism seems to have a connection, not only with the creation of life, but with the law of life.
At the birth of the one who was later baptized by John, it was a star which stood out against the darkness, not a streak of lightning. But then the sky opens up again, and a chorus of angels the size of The Mormon Tabernacle Choir (or bigger) scares the wits out of surprised shepherds before one of the angels sees what they have done and hastens to comfort and reassure them. "Don't be afraid. We've just come to bring you some really good news."
The next display after Jesus' baptism is not a happy one. The manger child, the baptized man, the servant rabbi is crucified on Calvary in atonement for human sin. The sky turns black, and the earth quakes in memory of the time when there was no light. And the voice speaks loudly this time, not from heaven, but from a cross toward heaven: "Eli! Eli! Lama sabachthani?" "My God! My God! Why hast thou forsaken me?" And the partition between heaven and earth splits right down the middle, as the curtain of the Holy of Holies parts like a stage curtain. Sin is forgiven. Restoration and wholeness are offered. The baptism of Jesus, which has already been connected with the creation of life and with the law of life, is now connected with the salvation of life.
The body is taken from the cross and buried. Two days of deathly stillness pass. Then the earth begins to rumble with the power of this mighty spirit buried within it, and the great stone rolls away, and then, not long after, about forty days as a matter of fact, the same length of time it took the earth to be destroyed and restored in the days of Noah, the heavens open up again, and the baptized, crucified and resurrected one ascends to the right hand of the Father like some mighty Saturn rocket.
It is a truly breathtaking series of events, and they need to be seen in the mind's eye the way the biblical writers want us to see them, because what they believe and want us to accept and believe is that these sky opening events are the crucial events, the truly significant events, for all of human life and history.
For some of us, Miracle on 34th Street, It's a Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol are productions to which we return every year because they help us re-embrace what Christmas is all about. That is what the biblical witnesses want us to do with these life-giving, law-giving, birth-giving, salvation-giving, power-giving, sky opening events. They want us to do it because we so quickly forget them and so easily fall back into operating as though other events were of ultimate importance.
Listen. What is happening today in the Middle East and South Africa and the Balkans and Russia is important, and it is important that you and I be personally concerned with those events, bearing witness to what we believe the principles of justice and righteousness require. I think that the Bible makes it abundantly clear that when one is baptized into the community of God's people, that person is called to care about God's world and about what is going on in it.
But what we really need to keep before us are those events which remind us that the world belongs to God the Creator and that the world is being reclaimed by God the Redeemer and that the world is being supported by God the Sustainer.
I am not cynical, as some people seem to be, about the words and perspectives of Bill Clinton, Ted Koppel, George Will, Time Magazine, The Washington Post or other commentators on current events which you could name. I think they say things that are worth paying attention to. I also think that they sometimes think they are talking about events of ultimate significance.
If I thought they were, I would feel a heaviness beyond endurance. I do not feel that way, however, because I believe that the events of ultimate significance are the sky openers celebrated in Scripture. What I believe was stated this way by Maltbie Babcock in 1901:
"This is my Father's world: Oh, let me ne'er forget That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the Ruler yet. This is my Father's world: The battle is not done: Jesus who died shall be satisfied, And earth and heaven be one."
Bring it down to yourself. What's going on in your life right now is important. What's happening in your work is important. If you have taken a beating in the stock market, that's important. If your body has developed fuel consumption or transmission problems, or worse, that is important. If you've done some things that you are ashamed of and that can't be undone, that's important. If somebody you love seems to have gone haywire, that's important.
But if any of those things is of ultimate importance to you, you are in deep trouble. Any one of them has the capability of undermining your health, your happiness and your hope. Put a few of them together at the same time, and they have the capacity for destroying you.
When Jesus was baptized, what he knew in his heart was that he was in the hands of the One who created life, that he belonged to One who would always hover over him in loving care, that he would be sustained by One who would see him through even a baptism of pain and death.
You need continually to remember that in your own baptism you were connected up with Christ and through Christ are plugged into the love and power of the creating, guiding, forgiving, restoring, strengthening God of all. You need to remember that your relationship with God in Christ and his relationship with you and with those you love is the ultimate reality of your life. You need to remember the penultimate character of those immediate circumstances which threaten to undo you. Your baptism, which you may tend to view as an event of less than sky opening importance is, in fact, the most profoundly important event of your life.
A group of theological students got together regularly for late afternoon basketball games in the seminary gym. The gymnasium janitor would often remain beyond his working hours to close up when they left. While he waited, he would sit in the bleachers reading his Bible. One day the students were surprised to find that he was reading the book of Revelation, one of the most formidable of all of the books of the Bible.
"Do you understand what that book is saying?" one of the students asked.
"Sure do," the janitor replied confidently; "It means that Jesus wins."
It also means that those who belong to Jesus are winners, too.
Jim Folsom of Alabama was a big man in a lot of ways. He had a big body. He had a big heart. And he had a big voice. While he was Alabama's governor, he came to a governors' conference at Williamsburg. During that conference, the Navy took the governors as a group out to one of its aircraft
Captain said proudly, "You gentlemen are about to witness one of the most impressive shows you will ever see." He went on for a few moments and then gave the command, "Let the show begin!" The idling engine on the poised jet was throttled up to a deafening roar, and then the steam catapult fired the plane off the bow. It had just begun to climb when the voice of the pilot come over the PA system, "I'm on fire!"
Sure enough, the plane suddenly trailed smoke and fire. The pilot climbed high enough to eject, whereupon he floated down into the ocean as the jet spiraled down into the sea with a mighty splash. Instantly, a rescue helicopter lifted off, sped to the pilot at the place of his watery baptism, lowered a line, hoisted him into the air and in a matter of moments deposited him safe, sound and dripping wet on the carrier deck. The stunned silence on the observation deck was suddenly broken by the voice of Big Jim Folsom, who blurted out like an awestruck schoolboy, "Man, was that ever a show!"
The fireworks at Huntington Park were great. The fireworks from a cloud above them made them pale by comparison. The immediate events and circumstances of the world's life and of your life are important and sometimes deeply threatening. They are not of ultimate importance, however. The events of ultimate importance are those sky openers celebrated in scripture, events in which your life can be rooted and grounded.
Harold McKeithen Newport News, VA