First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
January 7, 2018
“Identity”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith

Genesis 1:1-5 (NRSV)

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.

3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. 5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Mark 1:4-11 (NRSV)

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And 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. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He 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. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

9In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10And 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. 11And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

(At the beginning of the service, each person was given a strip of cloth to be used as part of the sermon)

When I was about 13 years old… When I was starting to take seriously, not so much “what” I would be when I grew up but “who” I was going to be when I grew up….. when I still thought my parents were pretty cool people and worthy of imitating, (of course, we know that all changes by the time we’re 14 and then miraculously changes back sometime in our mid-twenties or we have teenagers of our own) when I was about 13 years old, my dad ran for the Utah State Senate. He ran as a Democrat. At the time, I had no idea what the Utah State Senate or a Democrat was. I just knew that my dad was in the paper a lot and we stayed up late one night to watch him loose the election – then life returned to normal. However, along the way, something got planted inside my head that said – Democrat – you’re a Democrat – even though I didn’t know what that meant – I knew I was a Democrat.

I became a Democrat because when I was 13 years old, my father identified himself as a one. Eventually, I started to pay attention to what the Democratic party was all about and, I liked what I saw so, when it came time to actually register to vote, I put an “X” in the Democratic Party box.

Eventually, my dad became a pretty staunch Republican and I asked him one day why he ran as a Democrat so long ago. He said that he simply didn’t know any better. But, by then, the damage was done and when he passed away a few years ago, just before the 2008 election, he left 4 daughters: 3 Democrats and one Republican. Sorry dad.

But I’ve often wondered, “what if my dad had run as a Republican?”

There’s something very powerful about those early moments of identity marking. They stick with us. We, often unknowingly formulate who we are from them – either by saying that’s what we are or the opposite – as in not wanting to be anything like that.

At the time of baptism, whether as an adult or as an infant, we are named and claimed as a child of God. It becomes our identity – one into which we can grow – or not. The water trickles over our brow and the preacher says, “You, are a child of God. You are loved, and beloved. The heavens are yours to wonder at. The earth is yours to enjoy and care for. The love that has claimed you is yours to embrace with and be embraced by. Live and grow into this identity. You are a child of God.”

And the one that gets this whole baptism thing rolling is none other than the one whose name we bear – Christ. Christ is the one who sets the stage for who we will be and what we will do, not just when we grow up but our whole lives long. The whole being named as a child of God thing got started with Jesus’ baptism. As he came up out of the river, before the water had finished flowing off his head, the heavens opened up and the naming began… “you are my son, the beloved.” And with that, he is whisked away into the wilderness for 40 days to figure out this new identity.

But to get the full impact of what is happening, we have to go back a bit, okay we have to go back a whole lot… to the poetry of how the Bible describes Day 1.

At the very beginning of the scriptures, Genesis, chapter 1, we read how God put creation into order. Where there was once chaos, there was now structure. The gobblelty-gook of the formless void was categorized, organized, and labeled: light and dark, water and land, male and female. There was a place for humans upon the earth and a place for God in the heavens. From time to time, the heavens would rumble and God would speak to some unsuspecting human who would be chosen, in spite of their objections, to be God’s agent in the world: Moses, Abraham, Sarah, Joshua, Esther, Deborah.

But all that changed when Jesus entered the picture. No more was there going to be this categorized, organized and labeled separation of the human and the divine. No longer was there going to be God’s place and people’s place. In the incarnation, in Jesus – God with us – a bit of creation was undone or, at least, re-created.

We probably don’t pick it up in the story of Jesus’ birth – the Christmas story because it’s subtle. But Mark doesn’t even bother telling of Jesus’ birth. This Gospel skips all that and goes right to his baptism. And in the beginning of the telling of the Good News, things are made clear, crystal clear, that Jesus brings a whole new order of things. And it begins by illustrating that that which you once thought separated you from God doesn’t. God’s spirit comes to earth, tearing the heavens apart as it does. Theologian Don Juel puts it, “God is on the loose.” Anything that once separated you from God is no longer.

Now, the only other time in Mark’s Gospel that the word for “tear” is used is at the time of Jesus’ death when the temple curtain is torn from top to bottom. There were two curtains in the temple. On one of them had embroidered on it the constellation of the stars – symbolizing the heavens. It separated the holy of holies from the rest of the temple. Behind the curtain is the place where the Ark of the Covenant rested. It was considered to represent the place where God resided. It’s possible that this was the curtain that was torn at the time of Jesus death. The word for torn is more like ripped – not a neat and tidy opening but an unmendable tear. When Jesus is baptized and named as God’s son, the Beloved and again at his death, that which separates humanity from God is torn apart. Ripped open in ways that are not mendable.

You should have each received a small piece of fabric when you came in this morning. On one edge of that fabric, there is a small cut – just to get things started. I’d like you to take out that fabric, grab ahold of each side and rip that curtain in two and let it be a reminder that there is nothing that can or will separate you from God.

(fabric tearing)

We can no longer keep God at arms length. That which once separated us is no longer. We cannot mend this tear. We cannot close what has been ripped open. We cannot weave it back together again. This God insists that God be involved in our lives, tears open the heavens and reaches out in the holy voice and says you… you are my child. There’s nothing, not even death that will keep God out of our lives.

For Christians, it’s the baptism of Jesus that points that out to us. In the baptism of Jesus, the heavens are torn open and the great connection between heaven and earth is revealed, never to be closed. And so too, at our baptism, we step into that identity and let it name us and claim us. We step into that identity and let it inform us, shape us into who we are and what we are. Step into that identity – child of God, Beloved.