The Heavens Split Open
Timothy L. Carson
I want to ask you two questions this morning. They are two distinct questions, and yet they are related to one another. They are questions about Jesus, and yet, when you attempt to answer them, you find that they are also questions about yourself. Whenever you ask or answer a question about God, you are also asking and answering questions about yourself, because God is not some unrelated piece of information. It is like my daughter, who unknowingly ties the two together as we have our father-daughter theological forums: "Dad, where can I see Jesus? And...can he see me?"
Can we see, and can we be seen. God and ourselves. Ask one question and the other is asked as well, if only by implication.
And so I ask you two questions, which are really two sides of the same question. The questions are asked by different authors in the New Testament - which is really a library of Christian authors witnessing to the faith.
The first question is asked by the author of the Gospel of Mark. And this is the question: When did Jesus become the Messiah?
Many Christians in the early church asked that very same question. It is a question they would answer in different ways.
In the earliest strand of the tradition, as in Paul the apostle, the answer is the resurrection. There Jesus is exalted as Lord and Savior, vindicated by God.
For others it would be the transfiguration, which we will celebrate later this month. For Matthew and Luke, it was the later tradition of the events surrounding Jesus' birth.
For the Gospel of John, Jesus was the pre-existent Logos, existing with God even before his appearance in history.
For Mark, however, the accent falls in a different place. For Mark, the earliest of the Gospels, it is the baptism of Jesus that stands as the definitive moment in which the messiahship of Jesus is clearly manifested. It is Mark who insists that the baptism of Jesus, this beginning point of his public ministry, is the beginning of a new age breaking into history. It is Mark who insists that at his baptism Jesus is declared Son of God in language reminiscent of a coronation and also that which describes a suffering servant. And it is Mark who insists that the baptism of Jesus serves as his commissioning service for ministry. This is the turning point, the launching pad, the declaration by God that Jesus is who Jesus is.
But there is a catch. In Mark's Gospel, this revelation is known only to Jesus. The heavens are split open only to him. Only he hears the voice. It is his mystical, ecstatic experience. As opposed to the later Gospels of Matthew and Luke, there is no public declaration about Jesus. The secret has been received only by himself. It is known only within Jesus' consciousness. And indeed, the rest of the Gospel of Mark toys with the idea of the "Messianic secret" in which Jesus seems reluctant to share this news prematurely (so unlike the Jesus portrayed in the Gospel of John).
Mark answers the question, "When did Jesus become Messiah?" in this way: In an ecstatic experience at his baptism, Jesus becomes aware of his unique sonship, that he is the anointed one...but no one else is privy to it.
And that leads us to question number two, which is that mirror reflection of question one. This question will not be asked by Mark, but rather by Matthew and Luke: When did Jesus become Messiah...for you? For in Matthew and Luke's Gospels, the accent is not so much on Jesus' consciousness, but on our response. Do we receive the declaration that Jesus is the designated Son, the anointed One, whose life initiates a new age?
And that's the same question, but it's different, too.
When did the heavens tear apart for you? When did you hear the voice speaking to your heart, saying, "This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased?"
Question number one is hard. Question number two is harder, but in a different way.
Do you remember George MacDonald's, The Princess and the Goblin? The hero, Curdie, can't really see what's there. He can't see the world or anything within it. He meets Princess Irene's great-great-great-grandmother, and what does Princess Irene see? A gorgeous room warmed by a fire. The grandmother is ancient and beautiful. All Curdie sees, though, is a pile of old hay in a musty and unused room because that is what Curdie was trained to see.
Or think of C.S. Lewis' The Last Battle, in which a small band of wicked dwarfs have entered heaven. And what do they see once they arrive? Just a filthy stable. They are offered the foods of heaven but see only a rotten turnip and dirty water.
When did Jesus become the Messiah for you? What do you see? Just a wet man in a river? Or God's son declared the anointed One, Messiah?
When did Jesus become Messiah? When did Jesus become Messiah for you?
In the ancient church, in some parts of the world, they answered these questions in this way:
Epiphany was the time of the year when converts and baptismal candidates were baptized. It was the occasion for a double celebration - for remembering the baptism of Jesus and the way in which his messiahship was manifested to him, and to witness the baptisms of those whose heavens had opened for them, seeing and knowing Jesus as God's son and Messiah. It's at that moment that you stand in the river beside Jesus, and the voice that is heard is heard by all: You are my special child, precious in my sight. I have work for you to do that can be done by no other!