Today’s gospel from Luke picks up on the text that we read two weeks ago, Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism. You’ll recall that after Jesus was baptized, the heavens were opened and a voice came from heaven and said “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” I like to think of this as a moment when heaven and earth meet, a place where we humans experience the divine. Borrowing from the Celtic tradition, we might call this a thin place, a place where the veil that separates the human and the divine, the material and the spiritual, is withdrawn and becomes transparent, if only for a moment.
Are you familiar with that expression? Have you ever experienced a thin place?
Jesus’ baptism is the story of a thin place. But there are many thin places, places and moments, where we can be deeply aware of the presence of God in our ordinary, daily lives.
For me one of the thin places that I recall most vividly was on the corner of Division and Princess Street in Kingston, in the fall of 1981. I was in my second year at Queen’s University and I was riding my bike to class as I did pretty much every morning. On that particular morning, there was a red light when I got to Princess Street and so I stopped. And in that moment, as I sat on my bike with one foot on the ground for balance, the sun seemed to turn golden, and I had a wonderful sensation of warmth, and an overwhelming feeling that God was with me and for that moment, which may have lasted a second but seemed to last much longer, I knew, I just knew that all was well.
Where are your thin places? When were the moments, where are the places in your life where heaven and earth touch?
Take a moment to think about your thin places. If you’re with someone else at home, tell them where and when it was. Or you can jot something down in the chat or in the comments.
Now, hold on to these thoughts about your thin places, we’ll come back to them. We are, after all, in the season of Epiphany, the time of the year when we pay attention to the ways that God shows up and reveals herself to us.
One of the things that you’ll notice when you read the Bible, or even when you pay attention to your own experience, is that when God does show up, it’s not just some kind of awesome party trick. When you experience God in one of these thin places we’ve been talking about, it’s not just a cool experience. No, there seems to be something more. And that something more, I think it’s all about two simple questions:
“Who am I?” The question of identity
and, “What am I for?” The question of purpose or mission.
Let’s go back to Jesus’ baptism experience. Awesome as that experience was for Jesus, it wasn’t just an awesome experience. Clearly, in this case, the identity question, “Who am I?” is front and centre.
“And when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove and a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”
There it is. There’s no question that Jesus’ baptism experience was about identity. The ‘who am I’ question is answered in no uncertain terms.
But it seems to me that it is in our very nature as humans to move almost immediately from the ‘who am I’ question to the ‘what am I for’ question. Questions of meaning, purpose and mission flow naturally for us out of the question of identity.
And that’s what happens to Jesus. Immediately after hearing the voice from heaven, immediately after receiving his identity as God’s Son, Jesus is led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where he stays on his own for forty days, fasting, praying, being tempted, but surely also reflecting and meditating on what all this means and what is he to do next.
Because it’s not always easy to figure out what you’re supposed to do with your life, is it? It’s not immediately obvious. Even for Jesus, it took forty days. For some of us, it can take a lifetime.
But one thing that can be helpful in drawing meaning out of an encounter with God is to know the stories of other people who have been in similar situations. To read the writings of other people throughout the ages who have encountered God and wrestled with these questions of identity and purpose, in light of their own experiences. And the best source of these stories is the Bible.
Jesus knew that. Jesus knew his scriptures.
And so when Jesus went into the wilderness, as he was reflecting on the voice that he’d heard, as he heard the words “with you I am well pleased” play over and over in his memory, surely he would have recalled the passage that we now call Isaiah chapter 42 verse 1, in which God through Isaiah expresses how pleased he is with his servant, the one who will come to save his people:
“Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen in whom my soul delights. I have put my spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations.”
and then, addressing the servant directly, God says, in verse 7
“I have given you as a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
I imagine that as Jesus reflects on these words in the wilderness, the link between his identity and his purpose starts to become clear.
And so when, forty days later, Jesus returns from the wilderness, and soon after to his hometown of Nazareth, when he goes into the synagogue and all eyes turn to him, he is ready to announce his mission. And he does so, as we heard in today’s gospel, drawing on words from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Now that’s a mission statement!
It’s a mission statement that we will be focusing on this year as we work our way through the gospel of Luke. And it raises questions for us, not the least of which is how we are to carry out Jesus’ mission in our time and place.
But for today, I want us to return to our thin places. A few minutes ago, we shared with each other our experiences of thin places, those times and places where we encounter something that we may later name as God. Those experiences are like the one that Jesus had at his baptism, maybe not so dramatic, maybe not quite so clear cut, but awesome nonetheless. I believe that we’re meant to draw meaning out of our experience. The meaning may not be immediately obvious. It may take days or years of reflection and interpretation. But I believe there is meaning for us in our experiences of God.
I shared with you an encounter I had at the corner of Princess and Division in Kingston, an experience of God’s presence and a sense that all was well. At first I didn’t think much about what it might mean. But a couple of weeks afterwards, a classmate of mine, who knew that I went to church, came up to me and asked me how I could be sure that there was a God. I guess he was asking his own questions at the time. And so I told him about my faith, and my relationship with God, and I told him about my experience at Princess and Division. And over time, over many years, I’ve now come to believe that God gave me that experience on Princess and Division so that I could tell people about God, as I did with my classmate, and, I suppose, as I’m doing with you right now.
So in a moment I’m going to create some breakout rooms on Zoom so that we can have some conversations in small groups.
What I’d like you to do in those groups is to go back to those thin places that you were thinking about a few minutes ago and tell each other about them, what happened, where and when. Tell each other about your thin places, those experiences of God, or those experiences that were special in some way, and then try to draw some meaning out of them. Ask the “who am I?” and the “what am I for?” questions and let’s see what happens. Maybe nothing special will happen and you’ll just get to know each other a bit better. But maybe, just maybe there’ll be an Epiphany.
For those of us here in the church, we get to chat in person. If you’re on Facebook, you can talk to each other in the comments. And of course for any one of us, if you prefer, you can simply pray or reflect quietly on your own, or go and refill your coffee. We’ll take about five minutes and then we’ll gather back together.
May God be in our midst during this time of open space.
Homily: Yr C P3, Jan 23 2022, Trinity
Readings: Nehemiah 8:1-3,5-6,8-10; Ps 19; 1Cor 12.12-31a; Lk 4:14-21
Image by Abhiram Prakash