I am fascinated by the image of boundaries presented by the scriptures for this week. I suppose part of this is because of the debates about boundaries and walls in our political discourse today.
(BTW: I DO NOT want to get into discussions of particular political policies or politicians in this blog!!!)
There seems to be propensity in humans being to construct and maintain boundaries. Of course, other animals mark and defend territory as any dog or cat owner is well aware. But it is human beings who build physical boundaries.
God builds some boundaries at the beginning of creation. God marks a separation between light and darkness that God names day and night. A few verses later God constructs a literal dome to separate the water above the earth (sky- heavens) from the water below (sea) and the dry land is created. Those boundaries are necessary for life to be established and maintained.
God destroys that life through the flood and the way God does it is by removing the boundaries established by the dome. Life is restored when the boundaries are reestablished and the “windows” of the heavens and seas are closed.
But God repents of this kind of “ethnic cleansing” and promises never to do it again. Still, the boundary setting God is important throughout the Old Testament.
Drawing distinctions between things is a favorite pastime of the “priestly” writer in books like Leviticus. This is why a ban on homosexual conduct in chapter 20 is preceded in chapter 19 by bans on sowing two kinds of seed in one field or blending two different types of fabric.
One of the most important distinctions in the Old Testament is between Israel and the other nations. Israel is to be “holy” which essentially means separate/other in Hebrew. Israel is not to be like the oppressive and greedy Egypt they were deliver from. And they were not to be like the idolatrous Canaanites into whose land they were delivered to. Some OT writers thought the solution to this was to rebuild bigger walls (Nehemiah literally).
But some cracks begin to form in the idea of the boundary building God. Isaiah especially but others of the prophets question whether Israel’s purpose is to be separate from the world or rather to be different, that is, just and devout. Isaiah constantly points out that you cannot be a light to the world if your light is blocked by a wall of separation. A future teacher would say you must not hide your light under a bushel basket.
When Mark’s Gospel begins he begins with a nod to Isaiah. Isaiah approaches the end of his prophetic message with the plea, “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” (Isaiah 64:1). Isaiah calls on God to rip through the dome of creation once again but not to rain destruction again but to bridge the divide between God and God’s people. (“Mr. Yahweh, TEAR DOWN THIS WALL!”)
When John baptizes Jesus, Mark uses the same word as Isaiah (in the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Septuagint, skizdo, to tear). The heavens WERE torn apart and God came down, just as Isaiah plead. Like a dove the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus just as the Holy Spirit would descend and rest upon the disciples (men AND women) in the upper room at Pentecost. And this only happens because the boundary constructed by God is literally torn apart.
Throughout Mark’s Gospel Jesus will tear down the divides Israel has constructed, between Jews and Samaritans, men and women, “insiders” and “outsiders.” And it all begins with this, seemingly innocent, baptismal scene.
Baptisms do seem so “cute” and “innocent,” don’t they? Do we ever think of baptism as God ripping through the heavens and “possessing” the one being baptized? Perhaps if we thought of the Baptism of Jesus by the Jordan like God hitting the beach at Normandy (the Atlantic Sea Wall) it would be a little more powerful and transformative.
Something to think about.