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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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