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The Baptism of Christ

I don’t often post sermons on here but I wrote this one much more like a blog post so here it is.

~ ~ ~

The Baptism of Christ

I

The road from the village of Llangynog slowly winds its way up the valley.
The trees grow denser as the track gets higher then fade away as it drops back down to the valley floor.
A mile or so along, the footpath leaves the deserted road behind and begins to trace the contours across the fields.
No-one knows when pilgrims began taking this route, but all who follow in their footsteps understand why they did.

The trail, more a shadow than a path now, drops down to the valley floor once more, joining the two streams just as they begin to work together.
The hills rise majestically above, providing both protection and perspective to weary travellers.
And then, in the distance, a glimpse of a slate grey spire brings eyes back downwards.
As it draws nearer the sense that this is a holy place grows ever stronger.
The shrine lies in the centre of a circle of Yew trees, some said to be nearly 2,000 years old. How many pilgrims have sheltered under their boughs and breathed their air?

The shrine itself is a mere 800 years old, a relative newcomer to this ancient space.
It marks the place where Melangell, a young woman in the 7th century, established a small monastic community.

Is this place sacred because she settled here?
Or did she settle here because it was a sacred place?

 

II

For the Ancient Israelites the land was covered with sacred places. Some marked by altars, some by cairns, some simply remembered.
These were, for the most part, places where God had met with his people.
Places where the curtain between Heaven and Earth had, for a time, broken down.
And so pilgrims went to those places to meet with God once again.

Among the plethora of Holy sites in the Holy land, the river Jordan held a particularly prominent place in the hearts and minds of the Jews.
This fertile river basin was where Abraham and Lot settled in response to God’s call.
On the banks of this River Jacob wrestled with God and was given the name Israel.
After 40 years wandering in the wilderness, Joshua finally led the people through this river and into the promised land.
For the Jews the river Jordan was a holy river, a sign of hope, the place where God would do new things.

So it’s no surprise that when John the Baptist pitched his camp on the banks of the Jordan and began to speak about the coming messiah, the people flocked to see.
Perhaps celebrity culture isn’t so unique to our society after all.
But John didn’t simply use the river as a backdrop, effective as that may have been, he took this ancient, holy place and gave it new significance, new meaning.

The practice of baptism wasn’t completely new. The circumcision of baby boys as a sign of joining God’s covenant people was often followed by a symbolic washing, a cleansing of their former self.
But John’s revolutionary step was to suggest that simply being a Jew was not enough to guarantee a relationship with God.
Instead what was needed was a genuine desire to repent
The Greek word used here, metanoia, means ‘to turn around’.
And so, in figuratively and literally passing through the sacred waters of the river Jordan, John’s followers were turning back to God.

The crowds flocked out to see John, to encounter God, and Jesus, still a young man, joined them.
It was not a baptism of repentance that he was seeking, but it was a turning point nonetheless.
A turning away from his life as the son of a carpenter, and a turning towards all that was in store as he began to reveal his identity as the son of God.
And in that moment of turning, in that holy river, the curtain between Heaven and Earth was torn apart and a voice cried out, “You are my son, the beloved, with you I am well pleased”

 

III

The river Jordan, like the Shrine of St Melangell, remains a place of pilgrimage today. And yet for almost all of its 65 mile journey from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea it is little more than a dirty polluted trickle.
The pressures of agriculture, conflict, and the ever increasing burden of refugee camps, means that were John the Baptist to camp out there today he would find far fewer people willing to be plunged under its scummy surface, and they certainly wouldn’t come out feeling cleansed.

The glory of that holy place has been dulled by centuries of violence and greed. And yet what began there has spread out into every corner of the globe.
In rivers and lakes, in fonts and pools, in churches and chapels and all manner of sacred sites, Christians the world over pass through the waters of the Jordan as they are baptised in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
And for each and every one of us, old or young, who passes through those waters, the curtain between Heaven and Earth is torn and God cries out “you are my son, you are my daughter, you are my beloved child: with you I am well pleased”

 

IV

Our land is covered with sacred places, places where the curtain between Heaven and Earth is worn away. Some, like this place, are marked with churches or shrines, some with cairns or signs, some are simply remembered.
And when you find yourself in these places, when you are brought to a halt by the presence of God, Ask yourself this:

Did I meet God here because this place is sacred,
or is this place sacred because I met God here?

And whatever answers you find, you can journey on, a child of God, knowing that the curtain between Heaven and Earth has been worn that little bit thinner by your passing.

[Collect for the Baptism of Christ]
Heavenly Father,
at the Jordan you revealed Jesus as your Son:
May we recognise him as our Lord
and know ourselves to be your beloved children;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour.
Amen

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