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The Dive-Bombing Holy Spirit

A sermon on Mark 1:4-11

“And just as he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”

This week I did a google search of images for the phrase “Spirit descending on Jesus” and, thanks to the magic of the internet, my computer screen was instantly populated with diverse artistic renderings of this scene.

There was everything from classical art paintings, to stained glass, and from photo-realist images to children’s storybook bible cartoons. But there was one thing they all had in common: they were all intentionally beautiful. They featured soft lighting, and sparkling, clear water, and a pristine dove gentling descending on a reverent Christ figure.

All except one. (pictured above, and originally found here.)

In this unique painting the artist paints the Spirit emerging from a smoky shadow, colored in shades of dusky orange and black and purple and dark blue-grey as though back-lit by a cloud of smoke from a wildfire. And the bird itself is not a gentle dove, but more like a diving hawk, talons curled to catch its prey. And the prey in question – the Jesus figure – is barely recognizable as a human form. It is just an indistinct, bright-white silhouette with arms extended in a clear suggestion of the cross.

It’s a shocking painting. And I think it is the most faithful to the story Mark is telling in today’s gospel.

This is not the story of a pastoral scene, with Jesus in a white baptismal robe, stepping into a crystal-clear river to be baptized, and hearing a gentle voice from heaven proclaiming him beloved.

This scene is a paradigm-shifting moment of divine disruption.

In fact, in many ways, Mark is setting the scene for the entire gospel in this description of God literally tearing-open the sky – the symbolic boundary between heaven and earth – to anoint Jesus for the work of connecting God and humanity.

One of my favorite seminary professors, Rev. Dr. Brian Blount, describes it this way:

It is in this showcase moment of divine presence that God breaks through the barricade segregating human history from mythical reality and assigns Jesus the office of tearing down walls…. God, who lived beyond time and promised to lead humans toward salvation at the end of time, had suddenly broken God’s person and the promise that went with it directly into the present time.” (emphasis added).[1]

Mark is framing his telling of the Jesus story as a story of disruption.

The word Mark uses in verse 10 for the opening of the heavens is schizo. It means to tear, or rip, or rend. It is a violent, irreversable word. And it is the same word he uses only one other time, in chapter 15 (verse 38) when, immediately after Jesus’ death on the cross, the temple curtain that divided the divine Holy of Holies from the priestly court was torn from top to bottom – breaching the symbolic boundary between God and humanity.

As we learned last November, when many of us read through the entire of gospel of Mark as a unified narrative, this gospel uses a chiastic, or mirroring structure to match parallel scenes in the story, in order to bring out thematic elements.

This baptism scene mirrors Jesus’s death scene as two bookends to this story – telling us that from beginning to end, the good news of Jesus Christ is about God transgressing the boundary lines and showing up inside human history, and human lives.

Mark tells us in verse one of his narrative that this is gospel – this is good news… But I won’t blame you if you are a little skeptical that a story of the heavens being schizo, and of baptism pre-figuring crucifixion doesn’t exactly sound like “good news.”

Personally, I am feeling a little more need for the peaceful, mothering dove side of the Holy Spirit, gathering us like baby chicks under her wings.

One of the privileges of the pastoral role, is that I get to sit with you all in moments of pain, and hold your needs before God in my prayers. And I love this privilege of my work, but is makes me conscious of how many of you are going through so much. It makes me aware of how many of you have experienced your lives being disrupted, especially by traumatic medical crises. And how many others of you are torn up by the pain and fear of your siblings in the church facing these pains.

And it doesn’t feel like we really need a disruptive God right now.

I want to call us to remember our baptism as a source of hope, and healing, and comfort. A promise that we are claimed by God, and united to Christ in the hope of his resurrection. And I would really rather skip over the part about being united to Christ in his crucifixion as well. It feels like the world is giving us enough threat of death on its own, and we don’t need that from the Holy Spirit, who is supposed to be our Comforter through the pains and trials of this life.

But the thing is, God knows a little more about comfort, and about hope, than I do.

God understands that the promised comfort of the soft heavenly light, and the gently descending dove is not strong enough to address the reality of the pain, and fear, and confusion that are part of the human experience.

God understands that real comfort comes from a story that is honest about how broken the world is, and then offers us the hope of God breaking into that brokenness.

This gospel is a story about God disrupting the way we expect things to work, but that IS good news, because the way we expect things to work isn’t all that great.

The way we know the world to work, is that people get sick for no good reason, and beloved children get addicted to drugs, and homeless people die in the cold, and violence and distrust tear apart countries, and prophets of God’s kingdom get crucified.

And the way we also know the world to work is that we don’t have the power to fix any of it.

When we are honest, we know that we NEED God to break into the world, precisely BECAUSE that means we aren’t really the ones in control.

When things are going well, we may like to delude ourselves that we get the credit for our good fortune and that we are in control of the circumstances of our lives,

But in truth we know our deep need.

That’s why ALL of the people were flooding to John to be baptized. Because they knew they needed something. They were confessing their sin, their inability to do it all right and to make the world perfect, and they were repenting…

But if all this story gave us was the baptism of John, it wouldn’t really fix the problem.

Repentance alone leaves the burden on us. It requires us to turn around, and change our hearts, and do right in our own strength.

But with the in-breaking of God’s Spirit, God’s presence into the broken human world, the story is forever changed. We get more than a baptism of repentence. We get a baptism of forgiveness that unites us with both the death and the resurrection of Christ, because that is the true hope for the world.

With this foundational gospel scene, we know that God is getting personally involved in doing the boundary-breaking work, and we can begin to recognize that this work includes tearing through the walls that we set up to help us deal with the brokenness of the world.

The Spirit of God is not a passive, gentle dove. It is a dive-bombing hawk that grips us in its talons, and that is our Hope. The hope that the Spirit of God, which we received in our baptism, changes us – it disrupts our assumptions, and our sense of what we really need, and it conscripts us to the work of tearing down the boundaries we erect to feel safe and secure, because those boundaries tend to cut us off from the people we are supposed to love and the from cruciform work we are supposed to do.

Dr. Blount describes this scene as assigning Jesus “the office of tearing down walls

If we are Christ’s body, commissioned as Christ’s church to do his work in the world, then this is our office too.

I’m afraid there is no promise of ease in this commission, but there IS a promise of hope. Because this gospel shows us the true POWER of God’s Spirit. A power that rips apart the division between God and humanity, and anoints Christ to the work of world-changing.

And for us who are united with Christ in and through his death and his resurrection, that Spirit anoints us too.

And lest we be discouraged by this shocking vision of the Spirit we have received, let us remember that God’s Spirit was not alone in descending from the heavens. There was also a voice.

A voice that declared with power, and with hope, and with love:

You are my child, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Thanks be to God.

[1] Brian K, Blount, “And the Walls Come Tumblin’ Down (Mark 1:1-3:6), in Brian K. Blount and Gary W, Charles, Preaching Mark in Two Voices, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002, p. 20.

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