Frances writes on this weekend’s readings :- Matthew’s description of the baptism of Christ, (Matt 3:13-17), is presented as a moment of revelation, an unveiling of his purpose both to John and to us, but, more profoundly, as a moment of absolute clarity for Jesus. “The heavens opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming down upon him.” He knew he was one with the Father. It marked that decision and the actions which followed from it definitively as the moment when he finally understood his identity as Son, Beloved of the Father in a unique way, and one which would have enormous consequences for the rest of his earthly life. From now on, his life was set in a God-ward trajectory in which he would reveal to Israel what its true purpose and destiny would be.
We too will all have had such moments of revelation, when we know with absolute clarity that a particular path is the right one for us and that to reject that ‘divine’ offer and insight will prove fatal. It may be about a decision to marry a particular person or not, about a particular job or lifestyle or some other decision which frees us from other choices and ways of living, and where we know that to reject such a choice will leave us forever impoverished. This is not for a moment to suggest that the choice will always be easy or trouble free, on the contrary, like Jesus’ decision it can lead us into a very difficult and dangerous life, one in which our world may be turned upside-down.
This was certainly the experience of Peter in our reading from Acts (10:34-38). Peter had a dream in which he saw a great cloth coming down from heaven filled with all kinds of animals and from which he was told to eat, for nothing was unclean to God. We have to remember just how much the Jewish faith cut its devotees off from contact with foreigners, the ‘unclean’; even use of their coin was held contaminating and the temple issued its own ‘pure’ coinage. Judaism laid down strict rules for purification after every contact with pagans. Just as foods were divided between clean food and unclean, as we learn from the Book of Leviticus 11, so too it was with all kinds of human contacts, and the very idea that a devout Jew should enter the house of a pagan or ever eat with them was anathema. This applied even to God-fearers, those like Cornelius who were sympathetic to Judaism and would have followed its ways as far as they could. We can imagine Peter’s shock after the dream and even his horror when the message came from Cornelius that he was to come up from Joppa to the Imperial army base at Caesarea – right into the den of iniquity in fact! Yet Peter acted upon this summons and his divinely given dream which impelled him to act. From then on, according to Luke, the Christian community was to be an international body, knowing no boundaries of race, of religious purity or belonging, for all would be equal, all ‘one’ in Christ. It would be a revelation, an ‘opening of the heavens’ which would change Peter’s life, finally taking him to crucifixion in Rome and to becoming the foremost Christian leader of the Church.
Our reading from second Isaiah, the prophet of the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC, is one of a series of great Servant of the Lord songs in which the writer addresses either the nation, Israel or a particular individual. Christians of course refer them to Christ, and the best known of the servant songs is read on Good Friday, the Man of Sorrows song. They were, I suggest, originally written to give hope to the exiled, a sense of purpose and coherence amidst the chaos of the exile for the newly arrived in foreign lands. Isaiah writes of the ‘true justice’ and refusal to be crushed which is given to the exiles as an opportunity, not a punishment and disaster. Their new vocation is rather to bring God’s covenant, formerly the gift to the dwellers in the Promised Land, to others and he foresees that the role of the exiles will be to spread the faith of Israel to foreign parts. Indeed, when we come to understand the role of those early Jews in Babylon, which became a centre of Jewish learning for hundreds of years, we can appreciate just how significant their role and opportunity was. It would be to these people that Jewish learning would turn after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD.
When we study the scriptures we discover just how important this passage would be for Jesus as he articulated his identity to John the Baptist and his disciples, and through the work of this prophet would take the Christian faith out beyond Judaism and embrace the world. Clearly then, the ‘opening of the heavens’ can be both a window into the life of God himself and also a taking of humanity into the heavenly sphere as we discover what our life is really meant to be about. What we have to do is be alert for such moments and willing to respond to them.