Division and Hope
A Sermon on Mark 1:4-11.
[an audio recording of this sermon is available here; Photo of quilt by Sibylle Schroeder, used by permission.]
On Wednesday afternoon, as news and images of the violent unrest in our nation’s Capital Building unfolded, I was grateful to a friend and fellow-pastor who started a text conversation with a small group of our close friends to process, grieve, and seek God’s solace together.
In the midst of our distress and our prayers, our friend Christa invoked the imagery from today’s gospel reading: reminding us that:
“the Spirit is faithful, especially in times like this. Tearing open the heavens to come down.”
Tearing open the heavens. Not parting the heavens. Not gently descending. Tearing open. The word Mark uses in the original Greek is σχίζω (schízō), meaning to cleave, rend, split, break, divide, or make a rent.
It might seem strange to find solace for the violence and rending division of this moment in history by turning to violent language of God literally dividing something as essential as the sky. It might feel more natural, more obviously comforting, to turn to the calming imagery of the Good Shepherd, who protects us from fear even in the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Or, to meditate on the prophecies of the Prince of Peace, and the one who will wipe every tear from our eyes. Those are true and faithful promises of God’s provision for us in times of trouble. Why not turn there? What comfort is there in a story of our familiar reality being torn apart so that God’s Spirit can dive bomb Jesus the moment he comes out of the baptismal waters, and immediately drive him into the desert for testing?
Well… the comfort is in the recognition that not all divisions are created equal.
The anger-fueled, reckless ideology of division the descended on our Capital this week was destructive and irresponsible. It was a division that set one group of God’s beloved children against others, feeding on racist and deceptive narratives, and fostering chaos. It was a type of division that thrives on suspicion and fear, and that – tragically – resulted in entirely preventable deaths.
But there are other forms of division, forms that God uses to overcome chaos and death.
We hear about one kind of division in our first reading today from Genesis 1.
Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. (Genesis 1:3-4)
God’s very first act of creation was to create a separation. God created light, where there had only been darkness before. But God didn’t eliminate the darkness, because darkness is important too. It offers rest and renewal. It gives us the rhythm of days and nights, in its partnership with light… as long as they are divided. As long as we recognize the goodness of the light to help us see clearly for our hours of work; and the goodness of the dark to let us pause and be restored. Dark and Light witness to our Creator’s plan of balance: in which we commit to both the work of the Light, which empowers us to see, and also the discipline of the Dark, in which we pause from action and have time to discern.
This division relates to another necessary division to which scripture speaks: the division of truth from lies.
In John’s gospel Jesus declares that he is the way, the truth, and the life. In Jesus there is no deception. Jesus is the enemy and the defeater of the Father of Lies, and as his followers we are explicitly called to put away lies (Ephesians 4:20-25).
Now, in an era when propaganda camouflages as news, and conspiracy theories are thick on the ground this can feel like an impossible task. We may be tempted, with Pilate, to ask “what is truth?”… to shrug our shoulders and say it’s impossible to know what to believe. But if Jesus is the truth, then truth matters. We cannot give up on seeking it without giving up on Jesus.
And if Jesus is the truth, then he is also our guide in seeking truth in our lives. Obviously, scripture cannot debunk specific conspiracy theories, but it can teach us what our lives will look like if we are following Christ … if we are following Truth.... It can teach us that being guided by truth will look like doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God (Micah 6:8).... It can teach us that perfect love casts out fear (1 John 4:18), and that love is not proud, or boastful, or resentful. It does not insist on its own way, but it is kind, patient, and full of hope (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).... It can teach us that when we are following the truth, our lives will look different than the lives of those who scramble for power and preach hate. They will look like Jesus’ care for and service of others. They will look like love.
But, of course, that requires one other division, a division that takes place inside our own hearts, and it is the most hopeful division I know of: the dividing of us from our sins.
In the rite of baptism there is an important part of the liturgy that calls for the renunciation of sin. At each baptism, the congregation as a whole renounces the devil and all the forces that defy God, the powers of this world that rebel against God, and the ways of sin that draw us from God. We cannot cling onto these things if we want the new life of Christ. We must renounce them. We must be separated from them.
This is an integral element of our baptism… and it is also an element of the gospel story we read today. Mark tells us that John was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin,” and when the people came to John, they “were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mark 1:4-5)
Confession is a deliberate act of division – not from others, but from the things in our own lives and souls that separate us from God and others. The waters of baptism call us to confession because that is what opens our hearts to the new life of Christ.
Confession teaches us to own our mistakes, to give up defensiveness, and finger-pointing, and every instinct that teaches us to lay blame at others’ door.
It teaches us instead to: see clearly, and to let go of comforting lies, and to say “I have sinned, by what I have done, and by what I have left undone.”
The American church today needs confession. We need to say that the Jesus flags carried alongside Nazi flags in the storming of the Capital are a sin that we renounce. We need to confess that neither nationalism nor white supremacy has any place in the worship of Jesus, and that the lust for power is a force that defies God. We need to say that it is not just “those people” who are the problem. Many of the rioters in Wednesday’s insurrection claimed to be perpetuating chaos and violence in the name of Jesus, and as Jesus’ church we need to confess that we have not done enough to reject such a perversion of his teachings. We need to confess because, in the words of another pastor friend, “we cannot remedy what we refuse to fully face.”
And that is why I WAS comforted when Pastor Christa reminded me that the Spirit is faithful, especially in times like this. Tearing open the heavens to come down. In the face of the chaos and lies that are splintering our country and perverting the witness of Christ’s church, what we need most is not a Good Shepherd who will protect us from the reality of the pain all around us… what we need most is a Holy Spirit who will tear-apart any barrier to get to us.
Because that means we have hope. That means we can confess our failures, and receive forgiveness, and be empowered for the work of changing this broken world.
God does divide – darkness from light, truth from lies, us from our sin. And God will rip through any barrier that keeps us apart from the work God wants to do in us and through us. We are in the middle of a crisis as a nation and as a church… but we are not alone. God’s Spirit is with us, empowering us as that same Spirit empowered Jesus for his ministry.
It will take vision and pondering;
It will take discerning between truth and lies;
It will take confession of our failures and of our need to change…
But after the confession, and the renunciation, and the drowning of all the holds us away from God… new life rises out of the baptismal waters. That is our hope.
Thanks be to God.
 https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G4977&t=KJV  https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/01/evangelicals-catholics-jericho-march-capitol/617591/  Rev. Jill Collict.