God on the Loose

Have you heard? God is on the loose. He broke out sometime when we weren’t looking and now he’s loose in the world and no one seems to be able to catch him. Have you seen him?

God’s great breakout may be the single most important theme in Mark’s gospel.

The story opens with John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness, preaching repentance, and baptizing all who come to see him. John tells his listeners that another prophet is coming who will baptize not with water, but with the Holy Spirit. Immediately, it seems, Jesus shows up, and without delay, John baptizes Jesus.

As Jesus comes up out of the water the Holy Spirit flies into him as the heavens tear open. That word “tear” is an important word, and it appears only one other time in Mark’s gospel. Immediately following Jesus’ crucifixion we hear that the curtain in the temple tears in half. The heavens tear open and the temple curtain tears in half. Why are these details important?

When we think of God, we often think of God as up in the heavens. Sometimes we even point to the sky when we talk about God. For most of human history we have believed that God lives somewhere up in the heavens, beyond the sky. To say that the heavens have torn open, then, is to say that the barrier between God and humanity has broken. Sure enough, we hear that as the heavens tear open God the Holy Spirit descends into Jesus.

The tearing of the temple curtain has a similar meaning. The curtain is what separated the Israelites from a region of the temple called the Holy of Holies. Virtually no one was allowed in the Holy of Holies because the Israelites believed that God lived in that space. The tearing of the temple curtain signifies that God is no longer hanging out in the Holy of Holies. The curtain has torn; the barrier is broken, and God has come out. God is now on the loose.

In C.S. Lewis’ acclaimed children’s story The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a family of children stumble into another world, full of magical creatures and an evil force. Upon their arrival, in this dangerous magical land, a talking beaver takes them into his care. The beaver pulls the children in close and whispers to them in hushed tones: “They say Aslan is on the move—perhaps has already landed.” The children do not know who Aslan is, but we can imagine that the beaver shares this news with a sense of awe and hope and also a little bit of fear.

In Lewis’ fantasy world, Aslan is a great and powerful lion who represents Christ. Early in the book, the beaver announces to the children that Aslan has arrived. He has come into the world and now he is loose. He is on the move and something big is about to happen, something that will challenge the evil that dominates the world.

I think this was what Mark was trying to convey when he wrote his gospel. He wanted to show people that God is loose in the world, challenging the forces of darkness. God isn’t sitting idly in a throne somewhere up in heaven. God is not hanging out behind a curtain in the temple like the Wizard of Oz. God is on the move. God is out in the world. God has work to do, a mission to fulfill, and nothing, not even death on a cross, will stand in God’s way.

One of the strange things about Mark’s gospel is that it feels unfinished. If you crack open your Bible to the last chapter of Mark, you might find something funny. After verse eight, your Bible might have a couple different headings saying, “The Shorter Ending of Mark” and “The Longer Ending of Mark.” It may be that your Bible doesn’t have either of those things, but just plows forward all the way to verse 20.

But the thing is, the Gospel of Mark originally ends at verse 8. The story ends with the women going to the tomb, finding it empty, and then running away terrified. That’s it. Unlike the other gospels, Jesus doesn’t make any resurrection appearances. An angel tells the women that he has been raised, but that’s all we get.

It seems as though some people were uncomfortable with this abrupt and perhaps incomplete ending, so they ripped some verses out of Matthew’s gospel and tacked them on the end of Mark to make the ending feel more “complete.”

But I think that was a mistake. I think Mark knew exactly what he was doing when he ended his gospel where he did. I think Mark left it open because God’s ministry is ongoing. Mark doesn’t finish his story because the story isn’t over. God is still loose in the world. God is still at work. God’s mission didn’t finish when Jesus was resurrected. God is still redeeming the whole world through the power of the Holy Spirit.

This past Sunday was Baptism of Our Lord Sunday. This is the day when we celebrate Jesus’ baptism, the moment the heavens tear open and God is set loose into the world. It is also a day when we take a moment to remember our own baptisms.

Part of the ELCA’s Baptismal liturgy goes like this:

“As you come to receive the gift of baptism, you are entrusted with responsibilities:
to live among God’s faithful people,
to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s supper,
to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed,
to serve all people, following the example of Jesus,
and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth.”

In our baptism we receive forgiveness of sins, it’s true. But in baptism we also make a commitment, a commitment to follow God out into the world. At Jesus’ baptism, God is set loose into the world; in our baptism, we are set loose into the world, too. In baptism we promise to follow God by coming to church for worship and communion, yes, but we all also promise to preach the good news, to love and serve our neighbors, to live as Jesus taught us to live, and to strive for justice in the world. In short, we promise to go out into the world, to seek after God who is loose and on-the-move, and to follow God where God leads us.

A little later in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, one of the children asks the beaver about Aslan. She has just found out that he is not a man, but a lion, and she asks: “Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “…Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

C.S. Lewis knew well what Mark was trying to convey in his gospel. God has been set loose in the world, and like a lion God is neither tame nor safe. But God is good. When God moves, things happen—important things, maybe even dangerous things, but ultimately good things.

In your baptism, you have promised to follow God wherever God leads you. As C.S. Lewis and Mark both remind us, following God is not safe; it may be quite dangerous; you might be called to places you never thought you’d go, you never wanted to go. But even so, it’s okay; because God may not be tame, but God is good. And nothing, not even death on a cross, can stop God from redeeming the world.

So keep a look out!—God is on the loose.