Text: Luke 3:21: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened...”
Not long ago in the New York Times the novelist George Saunders recalled to an interviewer the experience of flying from Chicago back to Syracuse, where he lives. At least, that was the plan. As it turns out, the plane he was on didn’t land in Syracuse. His own words are just so good that I’ll just read them to you, with slight edits to take the interviewer out of the story:
“We were flying along, and I’ve got a guilty pleasure — I’m reading Vanity Fair — and I’m on my way home. And suddenly there’s this crazy sound, like a minivan hit the side of the plane. And I thought, Uh, oh, I’m not even gonna look up. If I don’t look up from the magazine, it’s not happening. And then it happened again.
“Everyone starts screaming, the plane is making terrible metal-in-distress sounds. Black smoke — black like in a Batman movie— starts streaming out of the fresh-air nozzles overhead. We turn back toward O’Hare, and there’s that grid of Chicago, and I’m seeing it coming up really fast. The lights flicker, and the pilot comes on and tells everyone, with panic in his voice, to stay buckled. And there’s this little 14-year-old boy next to me. He turns to me and says, ‘Sir, is this supposed to be happening?’
“And I remember thinking, No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Just that one syllable, over and over.... And the strongest thing was the sense of that seat right there in front of me. I thought, Oh, yeah, this body. I’ve had it all this time, and that’s what’s going to do it. That right there.
“I had assumed that if I was ever faced with death, I would handle it with aplomb, I would be present in the moment, I would make peace in the time he had left. But I couldn’t even remember my own name. I was so completely not present. I was just the word no.
“Eventually I managed to turn to the kid next to me and say that it was going to be O.K., though I didn’t think so. And there was a woman across the aisle. And finally — it was like coming out of a deep freeze — I could just reach over, and I took her hand.
“That’s how we remained for the next several minutes, waiting to die.”
In the end, they didn’t crash into the Chicago streets or plunge into the freezing lake but made it safely to the runway, where all the emergency-response equipment was in place but not needed. It turned out, in a detail that could have been lifted from a George Saunders story, they all nearly died because the plane had flown into a flock of geese.
And here is what Saunders says about the experience:
“For three or four days after that, it was the most beautiful world. To have gotten back in it, you know? And I thought, If you could walk around like that all the time, to really have that awareness that it’s actually going to end. That’s the trick.”
• • •
I wonder whether you’ve ever had an experience like that. I can tell you that I absolutely have, and when I think back on it I remember exactly that feeling that Saunders is describing, that feeling of near-complete elation at the simple fact of being alive, being in the world and aware of it.
A life of faith resembles this more than a little, I think. For the most part it is mundane and quotidian and routine and nothing particularly remarkable. But then there are moments that come along in our lives in which our faith seems vivid and alive, when the wall that usually separates us from a sense of God’s presence in our lives becomes more like a thin veil.
Those moments take a lot of different forms. It can be when you get married, or when your children are born. It can be when you witness some amazing act of grace in another person, or when you see an example of a kind of spiritual heroism that is both completely authentic and completely admirable.
It can be when you get confirmed. It can be when you get ordained. It can be when you take a hike in the mountains and suddenly see a vista opening out before you. It can take a lot of different forms, as many as there are people, I suppose.
Most of us get baptized too young to remember the experience; but I suppose ideally that would be our experience of what our baptism was like. It would be this heightened sense of our awareness of God’s presence, God’s activity in our lives.
It seems to be the experience Jesus had. In Luke’s account he is baptized along with a number of other people by John in the Jordan River, and then there is this moment when the text says “... the heavens opened.” And we know what happens next; there’s what I learned in seminary to call a theophany, a moment in which the presence of God breaks into human existence in remarkable and distinct ways. The burning bush is a theophany. The pillar of fire that leads the Israelites is a theophany. And the descending dove and the voice are theophanies.
But something else is sort of striking about these words to me. It’s the lead up phrase, the place where I deliberately cut off my little reference to the text. Jesus gets baptized in the Jordan River; so water is involved. The symbolism is about repenting, about being cleansed. And then what happens? The heavens opened.
And what is usually happening when you hear those words? The heavens opened... usually means, a torrent of rain. A lot of water. An overflow, a surplus, an excess of water.
It seems almost as though we are hearing in this the same idea Saunders has about the superabundance of life, the incredible, prodigious, profligate presence of God. It isn’t just a little water to get wet in. It’s that when we come toward God in the waters of baptism, God completely showers us with blessing and possibility and presence.
Wouldn’t it be great to keep that alive, as Saunders says? Isn’t the real trick to stay in that place, whatever it was for you, and to keep it alive somehow?
I once had the privilege of baptizing someone in a river. It wasn’t the Jordan River; it was the Concord River, just by the Old North Bridge. I had a seminarian in those days who hadn’t been baptized, and well into his twenties had decided the time had come. He had resisted for a long time, and we had that conversation about whether getting baptized was the mark of some kind of achievement or rather a new kind of beginning.
He held out for the first idea, I held out for the second; finally he came of his own volition to ask me to baptize him, but the condition was he wanted none of the frilly fussy font. He wanted a full blown, let’s go down to the river and pray kind of baptism.
So, on Easter Day, out to Concord we went; Ben, me, and small gathering of well-wishers. It was one of those years that Easter came early. Mind you, Concord is not at all in the same latitude as Israel. It’s way, way farther north. And it was March; early April at the latest.
Long story short; it is a vivid memory for me. The presence of God that day was not a warm presence. But it was real; it was profound; and it was certainly vivid. Coming back up out of that river, everything in the world seemed sweeter and colorful and more alive—and certainly warmer.
It is good to be reminded of those moments in our lives, because somehow simply bringing them back into our conscious awareness brings back as well that memory, that sense of the presence of God. In some churches you get helped in that remembering by means of the priest showering you with a sprinkle of water—a reminder of your baptism, yes, but also a reminder of the possibility of God’s presence in our lives, at every moment, in every place.
So the invitation of Epiphany is to look for the places where the heavens open. It’s to look for those experiences in which our coming toward God is received and returned with a dramatic, profound response in kind—if we will just listen, if we will just look, if we will just be still and let the heavens open and rain down on us. Amen.