February 21st, 2021: Marilu Thomas, “The Least Expected Way”

Mark 1:9-15

In Native American circles, February is known as ‘difficult month.’ No disagreement there It’s not a surprise- even though it would be easy to blame it on 2021 as a continuation of the blah-ness of 2020. It also means that winter has again come to Virginia as well as the rest of the world. Have you noticed how cloudy it has been for the last few weeks? A blanket of clouds that makes the world seem grayer and the light at the end of the tunnel even farther away. 

But there is light at the end of the tunnel—and the middle too–in the text in Mark for Jesus’ baptism on this first Sunday of Lent. 

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 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.

Mark’s gospel witness has an urgency not seen in the other gospels. God doesn’t just part the clouds—He rips the clouds, tears the clouds, ruptures the clouds, so that the dove can descend on Christ. (It does make you wonder what sound clouds make when they are torn?) The only other place where the same Greek word for ‘tear’ is used is in Mark 15, as Christ cries out and the veil in the temple is torn. God, through Jesus Christ, rips open the world so that there is no separation between us and God. Jesus is the rip. 

As I read this scripture this week, I want God to rip a hole in the clouds over my house, literally. But the way God rips into our lives is much more unpredictable and unexpected, coming in the least likely way, from the least likely source at the least likely moment according to our expectations and standards. Divine power is not, as we suppose, a super-boosted form of human power- like Iron Man on steroids. God’s power is hidden in weakness, like a dove ripping clouds. It is upside-down from the way we think of power. 

This is not the Deist, clockmaker God of Thomas Jefferson, who creates the world and went away, not interfering in your life and without miracles. This is not the God or reason of Immanuel Kant, who does not break natural boundaries. This is the God of our salvation, who breaks into the powerless world, taking on flesh in the ultimate ripping open of the boundaries, to deliver us from the separation that kills us. 

In the movie, News of the World, Tom Hanks is Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, a Civil War veteran in 1870 Texas as it was voting whether to rejoin the Union or be a Lone Star country—lawless, rebellious and untamed. Capt. Kidd makes money by traveling from town-to-town reading newspapers aloud for 10 cents a person. No one touches Capt. Kidd. He is as dispassionate about the news as he is dispassionate about the hearers of the news. Traveling to the next town, he encounters a burned-out wagon and a young girl in native American clothing. The patrolling Union troops task him with returning her to her family from whom she was stolen years ago by a Kiowa. This is the last thing in the world he wants to do. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but this fierce young girl rips open his cloudy world, and he sees what he has been avoiding for years. The revealed truth is the way of repentance and resurrection. 

Ethan Richardson referenced a story in Adult Ed last week that I think has bearing here. Auburn Sandstrom tells the story on The Moth Radio Hour of reaching out in her abject degradation to call a Christian therapist in the middle of the night. Turns out that the man who answered the phone, and listened to her for hours, was not a therapist. He was a wrong number, but he generously listened. Auburn makes an observation that is key to us understanding of God into our lives. She said, “All it takes is a pinhole of light and all of grace can come in.”

“All it takes is a pinhole of light and all of grace can come in.” Think for a moment of times in your life when this has been true for you. The job you felt gave you status and a reason for living that ended, but you you lived through it and found another that didn’t consume your waking moments. The failed relationship that forced you to lean on others for help and find true friends. The drinking that you enjoyed, until you didn’t, which made you call people who knew how to stop and didn’t judge you. The friend who betrayed you, opening your eyes the truth of trust.

I am not in any way suggesting that God would cause these things, but I do know that God works all things for Good and provides a pinhole in order for grace to come into your life. Jesus Christ is here but we are blind to see. It’s hard to hear clouds ripping. Grace is hidden in the thing you don’t want, the person you avoid, the situation you would never be in—this is the pinhole for grace. Circumstances bring us to our knees and then we know the grace of God. 

The people in Christ’s time knew that Isaiah said God would send a servant who would know our loneliness, experience the violence of the world and thus deeply know our hearts and souls. Isaiah 53 says, “Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?… We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost. We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way. And God has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong, on him, on him.” The servant that God sent was God’s self, incarnated as Jesus Christ to be with us, to know us and save us. Jesus is God with skin on—God that humans have seen so that we will know He cares for us to show us the width and breadth of the Kingdom of God. We ask what we can do to save ourselves and Christ responds, “Be with me—trust me- be in relationship with me. Let me love you and lead you.”

We’re all like Capt. Jefferson Kyle Kidd, coming out of our own Civil War of the soul and reading the News of the World, too hurt to even want love or forgiveness. But love and forgiveness find their way into your life through whatever pinhole God makes. Your salvation comes to us not in the ways we would like or where we are looking, but in the way of the cross and the parting of soft clouds. On this first Sunday of Lent, six weeks stretch before us where we will be confronted with ourselves and you will turn us toward you. We will once more be reminded that in the middle of our protestations of self-sufficiency and protest against the God we think has abandoned us, God sent a little child who has already saved our souls in an upside-down way of the cross, the least expected way for Jesus to show his love. What you’re not looking for has already found you.