“A Thin Place”; Psalm 29: 1-4, 10-11 and Matthew 3:13-17; January 12, 2020; Boeuff Presbyterian Church

“A Thin Place”
Psalm 29: 1-4, 10-11 and Matthew 3:13-17
January 12, 2020, Boeuff Presbyterian Church

Growing up in Northwest Ohio, there wasn’t much of a horizon. When you tried to look for where the sky touched the earth it was mostly just buildings or trees in the way. But I’ve been some places where the sky and the earth meet in some pretty spectacular ways. Once, I was part of a crew filming a kid’s program in Alaska and watched the sunrise over a bay as dolphins leaped and eagles soared.

For our honeymoon, David and I went to the Grand Canyon and were delighted to watch the sunset over the canyon. And the sunsets I’ve experienced on my drives in for our Lenten worship services have been quite incredible in their own right. It is these meetings of the sun and the earth that come to mind when I imagine our text today, “suddenly the heavens were opened to him.”

One of the words I have heard used to describe God’s incarnation in Christ is “condescension.” Since this primarily carries a negative connotation I initially balked at that word being used, but then I just couldn’t get it out of my head. And one of the ways the Holy Spirit shows up in my life is in those little earworms of phrases that echo through my consciousness as I seek to connect with scripture. In Christ, God is condescending to us. The divine descends to dwell in the ordinariness of human skin. The heavens touch the earth in the person of Christ..

There is a term used in Celtic spirituality and throughout the history of Irish tradition called a “thin place.” It describes “a place in time where the space between heaven and earth grows thin and the Sacred and the secular seem to meet.”

There are places around the world that are distinctly referred to as thin places, where many others have identified feeling God’s presence. There’s even a travel company called “Thin Places Mystical Tours,” that will take you to various locations in Ireland and Scotland. Iona in Scotland is one such place, and certainly the wailing wall in Jerusalem and the mosque in Mecca. I’ve heard people refer to their beloved childhood summer camp in this way. Maybe for you it’s been a family vacation spot or beloved treehouse growing up where you did all your best thinking.

Thin places can be used to describe both a physical space and a particular date and time. In Greek, the word “kairos” is used for this sort of time, God’s time, the fullness of time, that often has little to do with clocks or calendars.

If ever there were a thin place, Jesus’ birth and baptism stand out as prime examples. In the liturgical calendar we’ve just left the thin place that is the nativity with a newborn Jesus of Nazareth swaddled, being kept warm by a host of earthly animals and attended by a host of heavenly angels. Divinity made incarnate in humanity.

This week our text takes us to the waters of the Jordan, and that baby has grown into a man. In the waters of baptism, Christ condescends to John, insisting that it is right that John be the one to baptize Jesus. Humanity extends it’s blessing in John, while the Holy Spirit descends upon him like a dove and “alights” on him.

When I hear the part about “ the Spirit of God… alighting on [Jesus]” I think of a line in It’s a Wonderful Life, when George Bailey is telling Mary that he’ll lasso the moon for her and that she “can swallow it… and the moonbeams would shoot out of [her] fingers and your toes and the ends of [her] hair.” I wonder if this is how Jesus looked, light radiating out in beams.

To me, Jesus’ baptism scene strikes me as an invitation, not to any place or time in particular, but an invitation to seek out divine incarnation. To look for the places that God “alights.” To see if that thinness the Celts speak about is closer than you may have previously thought possible.

New York Times Travel Journalist, Eric Weiner wrote about his search for “thin places” in a piece entitled, “Where Heaven and Earth Come Closer.” He frames his search saying, “The question, of course, is which places? And how do we get there? You don’t plan a trip to a thin place; you stumble upon one. But there are steps you can take to increase the odds of an encounter with thinness. For starters, have no expectations. Nothing gets in the way of a genuine experience more than expectations, which explains why so many ‘spiritual journeys’ disappoint. And don’t count on guidebooks — or even friends — to pinpoint your thin places. To some extent, thinness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Or, to put it another way: One person’s thin place is another’s thick one.”

Episcopal Pastor and Christian Educator, Debie Thomas writes of how difficult it can be to find that thin-ness, even and especially where others have said they have experienced God in space, but also in action through the sacraments of baptism and communion..

She writes, “How much nicer it would be if the font were self-evidently holy.  But no — the font is just tap water, river water, chlorine. The thin place is a neighborhood, a forest, a hilltop.  The voice that might be God might also be wind, thunder, indigestion, or delusion. Is the baby divine? Or have we misread the star?  Is this the body and blood of God’s Son? Or is it a mere hunk of bread? A jug of wine?  

What I mean to say is that there is no magic — we practice Epiphany.  The challenge is always before us. Look again. Look harder. See freshly.  Stand in the place that might possibly be thin, and regardless of how jaded you feel, cling to the possibility of surprise.  Epiphany is deep water — you can’t stand on the shore and dip your toes in. You must take a breath and plunge.”

On this day of celebration Jesus’s baptism, may we ever be on the lookout for how heaven  is meeting the earth. Even with us, even right here, even right now. Thanks be to God. Amen.

That Holy Spirit Glow, Matthew 3:15–17, 1 Corinthians 2:1–12 [13–16], January 8, 2017, FPC Holt

That Holy Spirit Glow
Matthew 3:15–17, 1 Corinthians 2:1–16
January 8, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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2017-1-8-slide-1-trintiyMany people, even those who are lifelong Christians, are surprised to hear that the trinity is not in scripture. We have it in our creeds, our confessions, our catechisms, look out in the Narthex and you’ll see it represented on the stained glass depictions on the confessional banners, but at no point do Jesus, Paul, or any other apostles stop amidst their theological teachings and lay out the spiritual math equation of 1 Creator + 1 Savior Jesus + 1 Holy Spirit = 1 God. Christian teaching is one of very few places you will be taught that 3 = 1.

2017-1-8-slide-2-jc-baptismI know I’ve struggled with this understanding, especially in the Old Testament when there is so much language simply referring to God as “Lord.” For much of the Bible you only have one aspect referred to at any given time. It’s always struck me like one of those movie tropes where you only realize people are twins once you get them in the same room. But here, in this story we have the big three all together in one place: Parent, Child, Spirit; Father Son, Holy Ghost; or my favorite, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.

Here also we we have the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. This is perhaps one of those most common ways that the Holy Spirit is depicted. If you look out in the Narthex, both the 2017-1-8-slide-3-confession-panels Nicene Creed and the Brief Statement of Faith banners feature a dove as a depiction of the Holy Spirit. The imagery of the Holy Spirit as dove is so foundational to our specific tradition that we feature it prominently in the Presbyterian cross.

2017-1-8-slide-4-consider-the-birdsIf you’re as intrigued by the symbols of the Bible as I am, “Consider the Birds,” by Debbie Blue is a really interesting read. The book highlights the role various birds play in the Biblical narratives as well as other layers of historical secular meanings. One of the ways that the dove as Holy Spirit is described is as the creative catalyst, the initiator. Blue writes, “In the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, the spirit of God hovers over Mary. The Spirit hovered over the deep in Genesis and made it pregnant so that the deep birthed creation; now it hovers over Mary and makes her pregnant. Christian art throughout the centuries has depicted this hovering presence…as a dove… Once we get to the baptism of Jesus the text is explicit. Here the spirit of God shows up, and this time each of the Gospel writers is clear: LIKE A DOVE. The heavens open and the spirit of God comes down, alighting on Jesus’ shoulder and a voice from heaven says, ‘This is my Son… with whom I am well pleased.’ “

2017-1-8-slide-5-dove This often used symbol of the Holy Spirit as a dove, is nowhere nearly as common in scripture, this symbol of the Holy Spirit explicitly as a dove  is only actually present in our particular text today, in verse 16: “When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.”

2017-1-8-slide-6-fire-doveNow I have a bit of a linguistic confession to make. Without being hyperbolic, I think I can honestly say I’ve read this passage at least 100 times. And every time previous to very recently I read “alighting” as some derivation of the word “lighting.” Now, being that we’ve been focusing on being “held by the promised light” all throughout Advent, it really comes as no big surprise that light is on my mind. But this word carries two meanings, one, the one I had originally thought, is a poetic way of going about saying something was set aflame. This is how I pictured the dovelike presence, not with the soft politeness one might typically see from a dove, but coming down to earth in a blaze of Pentecostal glory.

2017-1-8-slide-7-butterflyTurns out, when you dig around a bit in other translations and in the Greek, the real definition of “alighting” here is, “to descend and settle.” This evokes images of a crisp tree in autumn falling on green grass, a butterfly on a flower, or a pigeon on a park statue.  Not quite as intense as I thought.

Still, there is power in this alighting. At  Jesus’ baptism we have the convergence of God the Parent, Child, and Holy Spirit. In this moment Jesus is named as God’s beloved child and Jesus’ ministry begins.

2017-1-8-slide-8-jesusAnd where does he go from here? Does he have an internship at the office of a minor deity or perhaps an apprenticeship so he can learn the family trade of divinity? No, there’s no easy resting for him, once these words come to him he goes out into the wilderness,

2017-1-8-slide-9-wilderness automatically thrown into the most difficult of tests. And if being in the wilderness isn’t hard enough he is forced into a battle of wits and temptation with the devil. From there, from the wilderness place, he goes out to perform miracles, challenge the status quo, and teach a new way of living. The beginning of his career serving as a preview of the way his life on earth would end: death, hell, and then resurrection. He goes through the worst the devil has to offer, bearing the brunt of sin for us.

2017-1-8-slide-10-baptismDebbie Blue writes of the symbolic significance: “Jesus starts out his ministry by being baptized. Baptism is a symbol of death and renewed life. It’s a bold statement to begin with. God’s don’t generally die. – nor would they stoop to be baptized in the river with the masses of the ordinary. To be alive involves a lot: suffering and taste buds and sweetness and muck. The spirit of God is not apart from this. It hovered over the deep and called out life. “

In baptism we acknowledge the grace through which God claims us as God’s beloved. We acknowledge our inclusion in the family of God, function as the body of Christ, and enlivenment by the Holy Spirit. In baptism the spirit of God calls out new life from the muck of our sin. Thanks be to God. Amen.