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
‘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
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
Today we read about another thin place - thirty years later at the river
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
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.