Just give me an open heaven then everything will be resolved, no more battles, onward and upwards. Or not… Here is Mark’s account of Jesus baptism, the open heaven and what follows:
At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”
At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him. (Mark 1:9-13).
The Spirit comes from the Father to the Son with the voice of divine approval. The result is life in the sweet place ever after? No, for we read that the days following were
- in the wilderness
- tempted by Satan
- with the wild animals
- angels attending to him
The first result was the wilderness. The dry place, the place where in Jewish mythology we might describe as the headquarters of evil. This is why I have never understood the (in my opinion) senseless prophecies that sow fear and disengagement: ‘Such and such a place is an evil place avoid at all costs’. The result is Christians avoid it and ever so surprisingly it gets even darker. It has nothing to do with the fulfilment of prophecy. By all means let us exercise wisdom, but let us ask the question as to what we have faith and grace for rather than listen to the voice of fear. To set one’s boundaries by fear does not place us in a safe environment, but when the boundaries are set by faith – even if they are the same boundaries as we would have set by fear – we are provided with protection.
If we wish an open heaven then either we need to look for it with the willingness and openness to moving from our comfort zone, or when we find ourselves in the wilderness we should understand it is not likely to be a sign we have missed it but we are right on target. Exodus 16:10 is both a challenge and an encouragement:
While Aaron was speaking to the whole Israelite community, they looked toward the desert, and there was the glory of the Lord appearing in the cloud.
Look toward the desert, there the glory was appearing. In the desert. How will the presence of God ever come without someone carrying that presence, seeing the desert differently (‘if anyone is in Christ…’)? There is no redemptive purpose in prophesying the evils of (e.g.) Europe. If there are prophetic words about the future they need to be shaped from a passion for ‘your kingdom to come, your will to be done on earth as in heaven’. The fruit of the doom and gloom kind of prophecy is evident – disengagement, back to the safe zone and, from there, continue to pray for an open heaven. About time for many of us to make a 180° turn.
The wilderness is where we get the context for the focus for the temptations and confrontation with the ‘prince’ of the wilderness. Just as Israel had succumbed to temptations over 40 years so Jesus lived the narrative out over 40 days. The impact of one person in days shifted the events of years by a corporate people. What is here today might be the result of yesterday, but today’s location can undo those effects and set up something new. We are not the people of today but the people of tomorrow, compelling us to prepare today for tomorrow as we pull the present from the captivity of the past.
An open heaven is not to lead us to a nice, successful life that can be written up in a book and read by the ever-so-eager people gagging for one more read. It is to set us up for confrontations, and some of that is not for our sake but to shift what is here now. (And I think ‘set us up’ might just be a good phrase to use.)
Mark, although he writes succinctly at many points when Matthew and Luke spin the stories out, has got a great eye to add details that are easily missed. Here is one such detail – ‘with the wild animals‘. Nature was being impacted from this open heaven and re-positioning into the wilderness. The sign of an eschatological time shift was visible: the wolf will lie with the lamb (future hope) was taking place in that present moment. The result of an open heaven is not witnessed to by my experience but by the shift external to me.
And of course we love the angels coming and ministering, but it is added last. The context of their ministry was at the end of the list that included the repositioning, being met by the ‘actor’ named Satan, and the visible shift in the external world. Angels really want to show up, but they like the liminal places, the edges, not the centres. They also respond to wherever there is true hospitality, and learning to give hospitality in the wilderness ensures that the hospitality given is genuine.
Bring on the open heaven… and what follows on from it.