The Baptism of Christ 20 January 2019
Revd Caroline Vogt
Heavenly Father, may your Word be our rule, your Spirit our teacher and your glory our chief concern. AMEN.
I wonder have you ever experienced a ‘thin place?’ A thin place is one where the veil between heaven and earth is almost invisible. It is that time when things become clear, even if just for a fleeting moment; it is a place where people experience God’s presence very close to them. Thin places can’t be sought out. In my experience, they tend to catch you unaware.
But there are places which seem ‘thin’ all the time like Iona and Taize. Last year I was fortunate enough to go to the Holy Land and, surprisingly, it was often the places I expected to be moving that weren’t. And yet standing in places like the source of the River Jordan was an amazingly meaningful experience.
One of the places I mentioned earlier was Taize, an ecumenical monastic community in the Burgundy region of France. It welcomes people to enjoy a week stepping back from the rush of life and reconnecting to the well-spring of life. Within the community there is a small forest, in which people are asked to keep silence, so that everyone may enjoy the benefits of tranquillity. For me, and I think for many, Taize has offered many experiences of God drawing near.But you don’t have to go away to experience a thin place. Lovely as it is to travel to another part of the world or country, we can and do experience thin places in ordinary and everyday situations.
Epiphany is a season when we focus on thin places. Epiphany means to reveal - and it is the time when we hear stories of people recognising that Jesus was not ‘merely’ a human baby but was in fact God here on earth. These stories of revelation illuminate times where heaven touches earth.
Actually, today when we remember the Baptism of Christ, it seems as though the barrier between heaven and earth disappears altogether. The Baptism is one of only a handful of ‘thin place’ stories in the Bible. The most striking moment is when the sky opens and the Spirit of God descends as a dove, and the voice of God says “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Not only are heaven and earth meeting in this place, but God the Trinity is revealed to us in full. How rare it is to have all three members of the Trinity so explicitly present in one Bible story- God the Father speaks, God the Holy Spirit descends from the heavens just as God the Son ascends from the depths of the water.
When he is baptized, Jesus is not just Jesus, the carpenter's son from Galilee but also Jesus, God’s son, sent to earth to dwell among us. Theologians across the centuries have tied themselves up in knots trying to explain, to rationalise, how Jesus could be both God and man all that the same time. Churches divided over this issue; people were declared heretics; the creed we say each week was formulated to address this very point among others. But when we listen to this story, it seems to me that we don’t need to make it complicated. Jesus brings together the earthly and the heavenly. We don’t know how; I’m not even sure we need to know how.
On Wednesday, we celebrated the life of our dear friend Revd Bob Vogt. He had taken great care to put together his funeral service and the three readings he chose spoke volumes about his understanding and experience of God. One of the readings addresses this last point. It said, “At the end of a long lecture in 1979, Philip Toynbee said: “God is not to be analysed. Love is beyond dispute: after so many inadequate words, the Christian’s last word is simply YES. Yes, to love of God and men and women through Jesus, in this place and in this time.”
Jesus’ ministry among us begins with this yes. He is our prime example of all that full humanity can offer. At his baptism and throughout his life he continues to show us thin places, places where the presence of God can be found and felt. It is perhaps at the fulfilment of his earthly life - at his death on the Cross- when we most clearly witness Jesus breaking the biggest barrier between people and God. He overcomes sin and death to bring us once more into God’s presence.
And each week as we remember his offering of himself made once for all, through the elements of bread and wine, we can be brought into a thin place. Here in this Church, here on this table, heaven and earth meet and we are drawn into communion with God and with each other.
In this season of Epiphany, I hope that we are each able to recognise anew the gracious work of the Holy Trinity in our lives. May we open our hearts afresh to Christ who wants to draw us ever nearer to God. May we seek the inspiration of the Holy Spirit to guide us day by day. And may we hear the voice of the Father as He claims us as His own - I have called you by name, you are mine.