Tearing Heaven Apart
Photo by Simon Maisch on Unsplash
The First United Presbyterian Church of Loveland
“Tearing Heaven Apart”
Rev. Amy Morgan
January 10, 2021
4 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
6 Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey.
7 He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals.
8 I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."
9 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.
11 And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
I invite you to imagine yourself in a desert. It is hot and dry, and as far as you can see, there is nothing but sand and rocks, weeds and scrub and cactus. It is disorienting and endless and suffocating.
As you look around, shapes begin to rise out of the sand. They swirl and sting your eyes, blurring your vision. But then you see they begin to materialize into scenes – people and places. What you begin to see stings more than the sand in your eyes. Here is the figure of someone who has hurt you. There are scenes of bitter arguments and harsh judgments. Lonely and isolated people. Anger erupting into violence. The deserted landscaped becomes populated with all the brokenness of our humanity, with all the brokenness you feel.
Right in front of you, a figure arises…and you realize you are looking into a familiar face: your own. Your expression reflects hurt and pain, shame and guilt, anger and resentment. It may not reflect what you are feeling right at this moment, but all the brokenness you have ever felt is on display in the face before you. You are part of the landscape of humanity’s sin.
You take a step backward, hoping to run away from this place, and you are surprised to feel your feet splash into cold water. You turn around and see a river you had not noticed before, the water so clear you can see right down to the bottom. It flows around your ankles, soothing and refreshing. You wade in deeper, feeling the water flowing around your knees, then up to your waist, your chest. You place your hands in the water, then scoop it up and splash it over your face and head, rinsing your stinging eyes. You go deeper, until the water is up to your chin.
You turn around, looking back at the scenes and figures in the desert. They are still there. Still hurting. You can’t run from them. There is nowhere to go. Nothing around you for miles and miles. The only escape is this river.
And so, you surrender. You release your whole body into the current, allowing it to pull your head under the surface. As the water overtakes you, your feel it cooling and soothing your whole body, healing your eyes. You open your mouth, taking gulps of refreshment. Then you realize you are holding your breath. Your lungs begin to tighten. Your next breath will fill your lungs with water. You sink and wait for darkness.
But instead of dragging you to the bottom, the water suddenly swells and pushes you back up and out of the water. You gasp, filling your lungs with air. Disoriented, you rub the water from your eyes to find yourself standing in the same spot where you entered the river. The scenes and figures still swirl around the landscape, but the sky has changed.
Billowing silver clouds cast a purple light over the desert. The clouds shift and contort, bulge and contract. The clouds thin out, like a membrane, and with each bulge, tiny fissures begin to form. You notice the figures and scenes in the sand begin to flicker or freeze up as the membrane gets thinner, the fissures in the sky grow, and the contortions grow wilder.
Suddenly, something bursts out of sky, feathery and gleaming white, shooting toward you with great speed, like a hawk diving for its prey. Instinctively, you clench your eyes shut and cover your head, but before you know it the bird-like apparition slams into you.
It feels like the wind has been knocked into you. Your breath seems to swell beyond the capacity of your lungs. You feel the sensation of being caressed by loving hands as the bird swirls around and around you.
And then you hear a voice – not the kind of sound that comes through your ears or an imagined voice in your head. It seems to emanate from everywhere, inside and outside of you, vibrating across the desert and through your body. At first it is just unintelligible sound. But even then, it is as soothing as the water that continues flowing over your feet, as loving as the wind that continues swirling around you.
Slowly, you begin to distinguish the words. “Belong.” “Beloved.” “Delight.” “You belong to me,” says the voice. “You are beloved,” it continues. “I delight in you.”
The words saturate you, filling every fiber of your being, filling you will love, and hope, and purpose, holding and embracing you.
The voice dissipates to a low hum that you don’t so much hear as feel. You realize your eyes are still closed, and you slowly open them. The barrier of clouds is in shreds, like torn wrapping paper over a gift. Light floods the desert, and the scenes of tragedy and figures consumed with pain are frozen and dim. The bird, which you now see more closely resembles a dove, swoops out across the desert, winding in and through the apparitions of brokenness. As the dove passes them, they are transformed. Into lush, green plants and trees, or into children singing and playing. The desert becomes a garden as the bird swoops through it, populated with parents holding their children, friends sharing a meal, young people learning and exploring, older folks telling stories.
Your own face comes into focus once again. But it has completely transformed. You see light in your eyes, an expression of hope-filled purpose on your face. As you take in the garden and your own place in it, the dove returns to you, drawing your attention to the other side of the river. There is another desert. The dove is drawing you toward it. And though you’d much rather stay in the pleasant garden landscape, you know you have a purpose in the desert, a role to play in transforming it. You step toward and into the peace-filled figure of yourself, and then turn in the direction of the desert, wading into the water not as an escape but as a calling.