Saturday, January 07, 2006

Baptism of our Lord

This sermon incorporates and relies heavily upon a reflection on the feast of the Epiphany written by Rev’d Marnie Barrell, of Christchurch, New Zealand, whose work I wish to acknowledge:


In the movie ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou’ – more than loosely based on Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’ – three bumbling convicts break loose from a jail in the deep South of the USA and try to find the treasure that the brightest one claims to have hidden.  As they gradually learn the time-honoured truth that you often have to travel a long way to find out where home is, they encounter a series of strange characters – including a Ku Klux Klan lynch mob, a one-eyed Cyclops bank robber much annoyed by the nickname ‘Babyface’, a seductive band of sirens, and a blind prophet who warns them that ‘the treasure you seek will not be the one you find’.  In one of the most memorable scenes the escapees follow the sound of singing down to the banks of the Mississippi, where a Preacher is baptising hundreds of silent, white-robed believers.  Delmar, the dumbest of the three, breaks into a run and dives headlong into the river, coming up spluttering next to the Preacher who promptly dunks him under again, three times.  Delmar comes back to his friends convinced that nothing can ever be the same again –

‘Well that's it, boys’ says Delmar – ‘I've been redeemed. The preacher's done warshed away all my sins and transgressions. It's the straight and narrow from here on out, and heaven everlasting's my reward. The preacher says all my sins is warshed away … Neither God nor man's got nothin' on me now. C'mon in boys, the water is fine.’  Ulysses Everett McGill, the brains of the outfit, remains unconvinced about he benefits of baptism – ‘that’s not the issue, Delmar’, he explains, ‘Even if that did put you square with the Lord, the State of Mississippi's a little more hard-nosed’. Yet Delmar remains in a state of beatific and blissful forgiveness, at least until the boys commit their next crime.

So, what’s it all about?

This week, we’ve begun the church season of Epiphany – it’s a word that in everyday use has come to mean one of those moments when the lights go on – the sudden and serendipitous revelation – literally it means ‘what God reveals’.  Today's story caps off the Christmas theme of God’s self-revelation, God making Godself known to us in the person of Jesus the beloved Son, the story that we’ve followed from Luke’s nativity account of shepherds and angels to the Epiphany story in St Matthew’s Gospel of the Wise Men recognizing and coming to worship Jesus as the light of all nations.  That event we celebrated in our Eucharist on Friday; today we continue to follow the same theme – echoes of the same good news that God has come near in Jesus Christ, but this time we hear it in Mark’s account of Jesus’ own baptism.

Maybe the very word, ‘Epiphany’, should tip us off that there are two sides to what’s going on here - not just from the top down, with God revealing Jesus to an unsuspecting world, but also on our side, from below, with human readiness to receive and willingness to experience what God is revealing.  I wonder how many of us have got memories of a special time or a particular place when right in the middle of the ordinariness of life we somehow sensed the truth and beauty and nearness of God, even if we could hardly describe it in words.  I’ve got the feeling that experiences like that happen all the time, but too often we’re not paying attention.  Like Mary, who treasures her experiences in her heart and ponders them, we need our epiphanies as personal proof that God is real.

In the magical folklore of Ireland there are stories about what they call ‘thin places’ - places where the human world and the spirit world come dangerously close, where the fog seems to lift a bit and God's presence is somehow easier to experience.  I guess the Irish would say that Bethlehem, during the reign of King Herod, was one of those thin places.  The fog lifted and those with eyes to see were drawn to the child and knew who he was - God with us, in all the dirt and noise, in all the general unsatisfactoriness of things with not enough room or time or money and too much to worry about.  A place where - just for a moment - rough labourers hear angels singing, where wealthy foreign dignitaries get their knees dirty offering splendid gifts to a peasant child in an obscure village.  God has drawn them all together - some as they went about their ordinary work, some because of the hassle of an Emperor's decree, and some by following mysterious signs.  It all comes together and – just for a moment - God's presence is seen up close.  Then the fog rolls back in and the troubles and injustices of life crowd in again - the wise men are rightly suspicious of King Herod and avoid him, the shepherds go back to work, the family make themselves scarce to avoid Herod’s retribution.

Today we read about another thin place - thirty years later at the river Jordan.  Dramatic, charismatic John the Baptist, almost certainly a little mad, touched with the holy fire to call Israel to repentance and readiness, calling out the new Israel from the tired, corrupt old system.  Stand up and come forward if you're ready to be part of what God is doing!  Be washed and purified!  Come on in, the water’s fine!  Maybe John came up with this idea by himself – splashing around in the water - that ancient universal human sign of encounter with the Spirit.  Who knows what reasons the common folk may have had for coming to him.  But they did come, with whatever dreams they had, to that thin place where God's presence was shining through the ordinariness.  And amongst all the hullabaloo, the splashing and the shouting, there’s one man, grown up from the small child the wise men recognised as the light of nations.  Maybe you or I wouldn't pick him out of the crowd, but John knew who he was, and God knew who he was.  And on that day, Jesus finds out for sure who he is.  He hears God's voice.  "This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased". 

And Jesus responds to this voice by going out into the desert to pray and prepare himself for what God is asking of him.

The thin place is where God's readiness to reveal meets human readiness to perceive.  Of course God is present all the time, but we're usually too self-preoccupied and busy to notice it.  But it happens at the Jordan for Jesus, and it happens sooner or later for each one of us, when the right combination of circumstances and place and readiness come together.  If we’re paying attention at that moment we’ll be transformed by it, and that single moment will have far-reaching consequences for our lives.  Life’s going to go on the same as ever, but the meaning and purpose are different.  Our values and perceptions are turned upside down.  We cling to that moment of truth, and we try to get the knack of being ready for it when it comes again - to see and hear more clearly, to know the sort of thing God has done in the past and still is.  We try to put ourselves in the way of those thin places and sacred moments, and little by little we find that God, far from being elusive, is ready whenever we are, ready to tell us as often as we need to hear: "You are my beloved child, I am well pleased with you."

Today Jamin’s family has brought him along to be baptised.  And what a wonderful occasion for it, on the feast of our Lord's Baptism.  We don’t expect, like Delmar obviously did, that he’s going to come up miraculously changed, waterproof.  But we pray that this, for Jamin, is going to be the first of a lifetimes-worth of encounters with the God who loves him, the beginning of a lifetimes-worth of being shaped and led by the Spirit in the thin places.  An encounter that, in years to come, he might look back on as a moment in which God spoke to him and told him who he most truly is, a beloved child of God in whom God delights.