Heaven Torn Open

By Ian McFadden

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At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove.  And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”  Mark 1:9-10

Tearing heaven open.  Now that’s a daring project.

Tearing heaven open, to me, conjures those delicious shafts of smoky sunlight that break through brooding clouds with some regularity in Tuscany or wherever painters hang out.  But that’s because my worldview–and yours, I’m guessing–is more heir to the enlightenment Deists than it is to Hebrew cosmology.  We live in a pretty disenchanted world.  Even if we do believe in a magnificent and powerful Creator, his presence and activity are associated with supernatural events – glitches in the matrix of normalcy that we can’t otherwise explain.  Our world, for the most part, is a natural one, suffering little interference from God.

But the Hebrews saw the world differently.  The natural and the supernatural were much closer together.  I’m not talking about animism or pantheism where all creatures are numinous, divine or even soulful.  I’m talking about a world where a good and wise Creator constantly interacted with and intervened in the natural world of his creation.  Supernatural events bore his fingerprints, but so did natural rhythms, normal phenomena and everyday occurrences.  As Creator rather than creature, he wasn’t of the same stuff or even, necessarily, of the same way of being as his creation.  He could be present constantly and always invisible.  Interacting and manipulating but never leaving marks.  At least not marks that you can find when your modes of inquiry are natural ones.

In the Hebrew mindset, the supernatural world (heaven) and the natural world (earth) were so closely bound up that they touched and, at points, whatever divided them was quite thin indeed.  The Holy of Holies in the tabernacle and temple was one such place.  That’s why there were guards and priests, blood and altars, washing bowls and thick curtains.  They were all there to mediate the touchpoint between two worlds.

In Heaven, the Creator’s wise, just, holy kingship was uncontested.  On earth it was contested in every heart.  And in some hearts, particularly those lodged in powerful people, the contest became not just spiritual but also structural.  Kings, priests, scholars, and governors built around themselves laws, armies and cultures that resisted the grain of God’s kingship.  They promoted injustice and avarice.  They demoted holiness and mercy.  They prized clout and coercion. They sold out the humble and the upright.

That’s why Isaiah pleaded that God would tear heaven open.  “If You would but tear open the heavens and come down, So that mountains would quake before You…” Is. 64:1.  He looked out over God’s people who were “like a people You never ruled,” at a Temple which lay in ruins, at “virtues like a filthy rag.”  He was looking at a devastated and overrun Jerusalem.  He was looking at earth.  More than anything, the scene Isaiah surveyed begged for the Creator’s kingship to rip through and be unleashed and uncontested on earth, just as in heaven.  But it didn’t.

At least not yet.

Until one day an unremarkable peasant from nowheresville up north stepped into the Jordan River to be baptized by a man named John.  The scene wasn’t that different than Isaiah’s.  A different emperor in power.  Different priests at the temple.  Different leaders making laws.  But the same contest against God’s kingship in every heart was being magnified in such similar ways that the date and the names didn’t really matter.  It was the same scene.  Except for the peasant from Nazareth.

When he came up out of the water, “he saw heaven being torn open” as the Spirit descended on him like a dove (Mark 1:10).  It was happening at last!  Isaiah’s gut-cry was being answered.  Heaven was being torn open and God’s reign was pouring in. God’s just, good kingship invading into earth just like it is in heaven.

It wasn’t happening because the peasant from Nazareth had prayed any harder than Isaiah had.  It was happening because he was God.  When he said “follow me” and two fishermen and then two more dropped their gear and charged after him, his kingship was being exerted, heeded, uncontested on earth just like in heaven.  When he said, “Be quiet! Come out of him,” and an evil spirit fled from within a man, it was happening.

It was happening–his reign was flooding in–when he healed a woman whose condition had isolated her.  It was happening when taught “blessed are the poor” and when he commanded “love your enemies.”  It was happening when he warned, “you cannot serve both God and money,” and “if you try to hang on to your life you will lose it.”  It was happening when he required a lifeless body to live again.  And it was happening when his own living body died.

That’s the second moment something gets torn in Mark’s gospel.  Mark doesn’t make it sound like anyone else saw heaven tearing when Jesus was baptized.  They missed that, they didn’t realize the gracious invasion had begun.  But none of them would have missed the ripping of the temple curtain when Jesus died (Mark 15:38). The fabric between heaven and earth was torn and would not be repaired.  The incontrovertible reign of God was rushing into the world of the everyday and he had brought it himself as a peasant from nowheresville.

The tear hasn’t been repaired. 

God’s heavenly kingship in Jesus is still invading earth.  Every time our hearts submit to his reign it’s happening.  Every time his people pursue holiness, every time his people press justice and mercy against systemic evil it’s happening.  Every time his name is proclaimed, his reign is renowned, his way is followed, his word is believed – it’s happening.  Heaven is torn open and God’s kingship is coming.

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The Power of His Promise

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God’s promises are like Earth’s gravity.  Whether you throw diamonds in the air or dog turds in the air, both will be pulled ground-ward by the the inexorable tug of gravity.  That’s my cheery Advent thought.

Long ago God promised a couple of infertile Semitic retirees that He’d bless the all families of the planet through their offspring.  And for hundreds of years after they laughed at God’s outlandish promise, it seemed they were right.  It was laughable.  Laughable for anyone who saw the cheaters, the backbiters, the flawed leaders, the exiled, occupied nation that slowly emerged from the son that couple eventually had.  A blessing to all the families of earth?  Seriously?

And then Jesus was born.  The one who calls himself the “Amen”,[1] the one of whom Paul says, “all the promises of God find their ‘yes’ in Him.”[2]  But the process of getting from the original promise to Abraham and Sarah to the final fulfillment in Jesus looks like alchemy.  Somehow, God worked the base materials of deceit, failure, rebellion, rejection, brokenness, barrenness, sin and seduction into the minted gold of salvation and the promise fulfilled.

Let me show you what I mean.  I think Matthew was gawping at this too.  When he gets just three verses into his story about the birth of Jesus, he mentions Tamar,[3] one of the people pouring genes into the gene stream flowing between Abraham and Jesus.  Remember her?[4]  She was married to a guy named Er, the great-great-grandson of Abraham.  So we’re only four generations removed from the original promise.  Er was evil, so God took his life.  (Yeah, that kinda made me pause too.) According to Israelite ethics, then, Er’s brother, Onan, should have married Tamar to provide her with a chance to have kids.  And this is exactly what Judah, the father of Er and Onan, suggested.  But Onan was worried that providing an heir for Tamar and his dead brother would cause competition for his own heirs, so he refused to help her make babies.  So God took him too.  Everyone knew that Judah, the father-in-law, and his family had a responsibility to provide financially for Tamar and to provide a legitimate husband so that she’d have a shot at kids.  Ducking his responsibilities but trying to save face, Judah sent Tamar back to live with her own family and promised her that once his younger son, Shelah, was old enough he’d marry Tamar.  That’s what Judah promised.  Unlike God, though, he had no intention of keeping the promise.

Cruel years passed by, Shelah grew up, and the promise was never kept.  Tamar, out of desperation, decided to take matters into her own hands.  She disguised herself as a prostitute and waited on the road that she knew Judah would be taking on the way to annual sheep shearing.  Evidently she judged him well, because he stopped and propositioned her, not realizing she was his daughter-in-law.  But, he didn’t have any cash on him to pay for the full-service massage, so he promised another delayed payment–a goat to be sent from his flock.  Not one to be fooled twice, Tamar insisted that he give her a security until the full payment could be made.  She asked him for his seal, his cord and his staff as a pledge.

Eventually, Judah did send a goat to the prostitute who had his security pledge.  The prostitute was nowhere to be seen.  About this time word came to Judah that his daughter-in-law had been playing a prostitute and consequently was pregnant.  To purge the shame from his family, he ordered that she be burned.  Before she could be executed, though, Tamar pulled out the seal, cord and staff and announced that they belonged to the john.  When Judah recognized his belongings, he relented and Tamar lived to give birth to twins, Perez and Zerah.

Even if you watch a lot of soaps, you’ve got to admit that is a pretty messed-up story.  A lying, cheating father-in-law who refuses to take care of his widowed daughter-in-law but eagerly takes advantage of women on the road.  A desperate, cunning woman who is willing to seduce the dad of her two dead husbands to get pregnant.  And these are Jesus’ gene pool.  These are the sort of lives and stories that stand between the promise and the fulfillment.  But under the gravitational pull of God’s promise, these are the sort of lives and stories that get melded into the fulfillment.  It doesn’t so much matter what God has to work with–diamonds or dog turds–he still is the alchemist who can bring a savior from a line of sinners.

That’s one of the things we’re going to attend to in Advent this year: the power of God’s promise to take our sinful, broken, sorry little stories and to give them dignity and redemption by writing them into the great story of His rescue and healing of the world through his son, Jesus.  Maybe it was a thought something like that which spilled out in Mary’s song, the Magnificat, saying, “For He took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed.”[5]  Maybe that’s what her cousin, Elizabeth, was thinking when she exclaimed, “How kind the Lord is.  He has taken away my disgrace.”[6]

But the power of God’s promise doesn’t extend only to those who happened to live between the times of Abraham and Jesus.  Jesus is the “yes” to God’s promise echoing in both directions through time.  That’s why Paul, writing to a group of suffering Christians in Corinth, years after Jesus was gone, reminds them that even in the midst of suffering they could stand firm in Christ, because they could know God would keep his promise to redeem them in Christ. How could they know?  How can we know?  It is as if Paul anticipated that very question.  He says they could stand firm in Christ, banking on God’s promise because, in the Holy Spirit, God had given them his seal and security pledge.  Sound familiar?  The other time ‘seal’ and ‘pledge’ occur side-by-side in the Bible is in the salacious vignette about Tamar and Judah.  Paul is evoking that story on purpose.  He is saying you can go to the bank on God’s promises.  If you have received His Holy Spirit, you can bet the farm He’s going to fulfill his promise of redeeming you.  The promise of redemption might seem distant and laughable right now–like the first promise did when Tamar was dressed as a hooker and taking her father-in-law’s seal as a pledge–but just as surely as that story became part of the greater story of the fulfillment of the promise of Christ, so too will our base, sinful, struggling stories be transformed by the Alchemist into one great story of the return and triumph of Christ.

So, this Advent as you feel the heavy need of Christ’s return in the cold reality of your sin and struggle, do so with confident hope.  Tamar’s tawdry tale became the prologue to a Gospel.  No matter how sorry your circumstances or how base your story, if you have received the pledge of the Spirit of Christ, your life will be rewritten into the story of Jesus’ triumph with all the certainty of gravity.


[1] Revelation 3:14

[2] 2 Corinthians 1:20

[3] Matthew 1:3

[4] Genesis 38

[5] Luke 1:48

[6] Luke 1:25

image by kevissimo

Letter to a Friend about Suffering and God

by Ian McFadden

April 30th, 2009

Debbie,

Thanks for your question about where to point people who are struggling to mentally and emotionally reconcile the existence of a good, powerful God with the presence of such evil and anguish in the world.   You should know that I feel your same queasiness about getting asked that question—not because I’m worried that God has left us alone or without any answers, but because the response that God gives us doesn’t come in the shape we expect and doesn’t remove all the question marks.   So answering that question well requires both that you try to discern what is motivating the question (is it an intellectual puzzle? Is it hurt they’re currently feeling? Or is it an attack on Christianity to avoid the challenge of the gospel?) and that you demonstrate in your relationship with the person that you are willing to enter their struggle with them regardless of having only partial answers.

More often than we should, we want to explode someone’s questions with such watertight answers that we forget how important it is that the Bible asks the very same question. The book of Job, the book of Lamentations, a large bulk of the Psalms, and the book of Habakkuk all raise this question.  So the Bible is intellectually honest enough to raise the question!   When we try to answer the question, though, we often overlook how the Bible tends to answer it when the question is submitted most explicitly.
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Pancakes, Puritans, and Penitence

by Ian McFadden

I know it’s hard to imagine, but when I was growing up in England, we never celebrated Mardi Gras.   Well, sort of.   We never called it Mardi Gras.  In England—and in much of the Anglican-influenced world for that matter, Fat Tuesday is called Shrove Tuesday or, more commonly, Pancake Day.  Why?  I guess ‘cause pancakes can make you fat…  Actually whatever name you use for it, the Tuesday before Lent (beginning on Ash Wednesday) has historically been a day of feasting and partying.   With 40 days of pared back eating and living looming, most people feel like having a last hurrah.  Thus beads and beer and parades.  Thus also pancakes.   All of which begs the question, “why give up certain things for Lent?”

Lent is the 46 days (if you count Sundays) leading up to Easter.  In the past, the church around the globe has used these 40 days (not counting Sundays now—hang with me)  as a mini desert experience.  The people group called Israel wandered in a wilderness for 40 years prior to God fulfilling his promise to them by leading them into a Promised Land.  This wilderness motif became a useful one for Israelite prophets and teachers to describe harsh circumstances—whether exile or enslavement or occupation by external regimes—which God used to draw his people back to himself before bringing them some sort of deliverance.   Of course the ultimate deliverance God offered was through His Son, Jesus Messiah, who died to free us from the condemnation of our sinfulness and rose, freeing us from the lasting bonds of death.  When Christians celebrate this deliverance in Easter, therefore, it is appropriate to spend a few weeks in a mini desert beforehand, drawing close to God and feeling our need for rescue.

That’s one of the biggest problems for me:  feeling my need for rescue.  That is, I don’t, often. Continue reading

Mountaineering [1], The Enlightenment [2], and the Advent Child [3]

By Ian McFadden

I’m not a mountaineer. But in my head I am.  I’ve climbed enough small mountains and read enough books and watched enough documentaries about expeditions on bigger ones that I feel I know at least something of the culture of the climbing world.  It isn’t exactly what you’d expect.  I would have expected a world of driven egomaniacs, people convinced that if they’d clambered to the top of the world physically, that they’d achieved the same conquest more universally as well.  I’ll concede that such monuments to some Jurassic machismo do exist; but they’re not the norm like I thought they would be among world-class climbers.

Instead I’ve come across (in print, in celluloid or in person) mountaineer after mountaineer who climbs because it makes him feel small.  When they talk about what they’ve achieved in the world’s tallest peaks, words like “conquer,” “defeat,” and “prevail” hardly crop up.  They’ll talk about “sneaking” through a brief gap in the weather, they’ll talk about “surviving this time,” and regularly use words like “humility,” “accept,” and “patience.”  My point isn’t that these climbers are necessarily a lovely bunch of role models  (though some are, to be sure).  What I’m saying is that I think serious mountaineers see in the world’s most difficult peaks a view of reality that rings more true than the prevailing western, post-Enlightenment “can-do” attitude.  It is a strange line of argument, I realize.  It seems counter-intuitive that people who are ostensibly all about achieving a difficult goal would find solace and a clearer vantage-point on truth in being defeated.
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Singleness and the Sufficiency of Christ

by Ian McFadden


I’m not usually a big statistics guy, but some just make you sit up and think.  According to the US Census Bureau, the percentage of the American population that is married has fallen from over two-thirds in 1960 to under 55% in 2009.[1] That’s a pretty dramatic shift and it makes me think about a paradox I’ve noticed in TV shows.  People seem to be perpetually single.  Most TV characters are on a quest for some sort of long-term relationship, but if one ever crops up, the credits roll or the show goes off the air.  Of course, I’m hyperbolizing, but I think the basic point stands.  Marriage’s place in American culture is bending.  Its desirability and significance are relativized in mainstream media like never before.  And in evangelical sub-culture and a couple of narrow genres of movies and fiction (usually targeting people who still ride a school bus and have only recently stopped wearing silly bandz) marriage is being peddled with the wild-eyed zeal of Pampered Chef proselytes.

Singles in churches are left in a weird place.  Singleness is more and more the norm in America and yet sometimes it feels less and less normal, less acceptable in the church.  Historically, the issue of singleness and marriage is one the Western families of the church have polarized on.  The Roman Church, I think, has in the past placed an unhelpful premium upon the single life.  She was certainly helped, if not launched, on this trajectory by some of the giants of the patristic church.  More saturated in Greek culture than in the creation-affirming loam of the Bible, some of the Western Church’s most influential theologians had rather derogatory things to say about marriage.  The Protestant Church, as if the main concern were to differentiate herself from Rome, has rushed to the other pole affirming married family life with such fervor that undue expectations for fulfillment and significance are placed on our spouses and families and Christ-exalting singleness is virtually ignored as a viable, let alone desirable, path of discipleship.   It is high time for some balance.  High time to listen again, a little more carefully perhaps, to what the Bible actually says.

This morning I read Barry Danylak’s new book, “Redeeming Singleness:  How the Storyline of Scripture Affirms the Single Life.”  It’s a good book.  Note, I didn’t say a good read.  Continue reading

Caring for the Needy

by Ian McFadden

In our sermon yesterday on Acts 4:32-5:11, we explored briefly how the trajectory of God’s redemptive work among his people arcs toward greater economic parity and communal responsibility to care for the needy.  Today, I thought I’d take a few paragraphs to scrape that surface a little more deeply.

Deuteronomy 14 indicates an ideal of a triennial (every three year) tithe of produce to be stored up for use by the various landless (and thus economically needy) groups including widows, sojourners, Levites and orphans.   In addition to this, every seventh year was to be called a “sabbatical year to the Lord,” because “the Lord’s release has been proclaimed.”  During the sabbatical year (Deut. 15) debts were to be forgiven so that those who had needed to borrow money to stay afloat could be freed from their debt service to start afresh.  The sabbatical was not merely humanitarian, but also ecological and during this year crop fields were allowed to “rest” and lie fallow to replenish themselves.  Of course, the fields continued to produce some adventitious crops during the sabbatical season and these crops, fittingly, were protected for harvest by the poor (Ex. 23:10-11).   Combined, the triennial tithe for the poor, the sabbatical year release and the annual right of the poor to glean from the profit margin of the fields, orchards and vineyards (Deut. 24: 19-21), amounted to a sustainable safeguard against ever-widening economic disparity.

Perhaps our American evangelical ears need to be shocked further.  Deuteronomy focuses the spotlight on this sort of stewardship and generosity towards the poor by making it what Chris Wright calls the “litmus test of covenant obedience to the whole of the rest of the law.”  This is what Deuteronomy 26:12-15 seems to be saying.  It is only once the worshiper has paid his third year tithe to the storehouse for the poor that he can breathe a sigh of relief and say to God, “I have not transgressed any of your commandments, nor have I forgotten them.”

All of a sudden, Jesus’ interaction with the rich yuppie in Luke 18 makes so much more sense.  Jesus quotes a few of the ten commandments, making a verbal nod to the entirety of the Old Testament law and the self-confidant young chap declares that he’s kept them all from his childhood.  “Oh really?” Jesus seems to say.  “What about the poor; how is it that you are so comfortable and some of your brothers can’t sleep because of hunger pangs and shivers?”  In Jesus’ mind, it seems, one couldn’t claim to be maintaining God’s standards while ignoring the poor and sitting on a fat wallet.

This is hard for us to hear (author included).  We Americans pride ourselves on being the biggest donors behind global charities.  For many of us these gifts come out of huge margins—we give high dollar amounts but we never feel the pinch of sharing.  For others of us we run our accounts with such slim or negative margins that we can’t afford to share—even though our annual income is many times that of Christians in the majority world and some in our own neighborhood.  That’s why I’m glad we have the example of David, who refuses to make offerings that cost him nothing (2 Sam 24:24).  That’s why I’m glad we have the example of the penurious widow in Luke 21 who gave despite her circumstances.  That’s why I’m glad we have the rest of the global church who helps us to recognize that our evangelism cannot be divorced from social and economic responsibility (Lausanne Covenant, article 5).

If you’re interested in reading more, a good place to start—given our series in Acts—might be with Lukan passages dealing with economics.  Here are some options:

Luke: 4:12, 7:41-43, 10:29-37, 12:16-21, 16:1-8, 18:18-23, 19:11-27

Acts:  2:42-47, 4:32-37, 5:1-11, 6:1-5