Readings: Joshua 3.7-17, Hebrews 1.1–12
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley
Water, water everywhere.
Today is the Feast of the Baptism of Christ, and this morning we saw the Spirit descend on Jesus at his baptism (Matthew 3.13–end) when the unimaginable coming together of heaven and earth in him, described in the letter to the Hebrews, was made manifest in the river Jordan. In tonight’s Old Testament reading there is the water of that same river: as the Israelites escaped into the wilderness from Egypt through the parted waters of the Red Sea, so now they cross into Canaan past the dammed up waters of the Jordan. And that description of the Jordan overflowing its banks has horrible aptness here in England, where there is indeed water everywhere. By late last week, the Thames Barrier had been raised for eleven successive tides.
At a charity event once, I won the chance to raise the Barrier, or at least one of its ten gigantic gates – a great prize, but the raising itself was a bit – disembodied. I didn’t expect a lever, like in an old-fashioned signal box, but there wasn’t even a button; it took just the click of a mouse to set four thousand tonnes of steel rotating up from the river bed. Now the Barrier is an example of how distant the world of the Bible can seem. As we see tonight, when Israel needs to cross the Jordan to enter the Promised Land, it takes a mighty act of God, heaping up the river as the priests’ toes touch the water. Now, it can be done by human ingenuity, thanks to that rather under-rated secular priesthood, the engineers.
You could say that such mega-structures are signs that the human race has come of age. We’ve still got some growing up to do, though. We can dam mighty waters, but we’re also pretty handy at creating – all by ourselves – most of the plagues you can find in the Book of Revelation: the poisoned lakes, the parched rivers, the scorching heat, all these we are producing quite successfully around the world alongside the floods.
And this is the world in which we must speak: a world where the Bible seems irrelevant to many; where we are both amazed and terrified at what we can do; a world that is more clever than wise. The task is to overcome the gap between this ancient wisdom and all the cleverness and foolishness out there. A tough task, but it has to be done, otherwise the Church will become what some suspect us of being: unreal people with unreal answers to unreal problems.
Long before there was a barrier across the Thames, there was a bridge. The Romans built a wooden affair, then 800-odd years ago the first stone LondonBridge was finished. It was to be nearly a millennium before the Thames was spanned by a second bridge, here in Richmond. Now here’s a thing: I cannot find one reference to a bridge in the Bible, not in the Old Testament, not in the New. Fords – yes; miraculous crossings – we’ve just heard about one; but not a single bridge. Why is that, do you think? If our biblical ancestors never managed it, though, the Romans were big into bridges – by the time they threw the first one across the Thames they had built several in Rome itself – and they seemed to have thought that bridges were holy things. The high priest in Rome was called Pontifex Maximus, chief bridge-builder, an office held by (among others) Julius Caesar, and now one of the titles of the Pope.
A bridge can be a sacred thing. Cross one and it can speak to you of God – try it on our own bridge after the service: to walk over deep swirling water, but with dry feet (like the Israelites); to be close to danger, and yet be safe; to leave one place, and find that a very different place is now just footsteps away. And you only can do all this because the bridge has, so to speak, got there before you.
These are the things that people who want a grown-up faith look for in God: not to be spared life’s journeys or risks, but to travel secure; to be surprised by what’s new, and then discover that it’s connected to what God has already shown us; to do these things, trusting that God guides us, supports us and has always somehow got there ahead of us. Now if that is true, then – wherever we go – God is there; and, though things looks harsh and unwelcoming, if God is there, we enter a kind of promised land.
Now, let me ask you to look at the pink sheet you got as you came in. Like all parishes in our diocese, we are being asked to produce a Mission Action Plan. In November we had a session that brought together our three congregations with the Diocesan Missioner, Canon Stephen Hance. He put to us three questions
- How can we best serve the people in our parish with the love of God?
- How can the people with whom we have contact best hear the Gospel message?
- How can we help each other to grow as followers of Jesus?
and our conversations came up with three broad aspirations
- our churches as centres for the community
- provision for a variety of ages, with more children in church
- effective welcoming and follow-up, with wider, systematic pastoral care
This Wednesday, our Parochial Church Council (PCC) meets to sharpen these into specific proposals. And it needs our help. Do give some thought, now or in the next day or so, to what God might be asking us to do and to be.
What has this to do with our theme tonight of crossing the barrier of a river? At the risk of overselling the metaphor, in each question and aspiration there is some barrier to cross, or a gap to span: the fear of those outside of coming in here; our fear of going out there as ambassadors of the gospel; the gap between one age group and another; the ‘ugly great ditch’ that stops some crossing over to belief from unbelief; the gap so many feel between a faith that attracts them and a life that confuses them; those barriers that stop so many in our churches from journeying further into Christian faith and growing as disciples of Christ.
If we manage to turn our aspirations into action, then – whatever trembling steps we take to cross those gaps – we shall find Jesus our great high priest, our chief bridge builder, has somehow got there first, and meets us with all the things of God. How? Because his resurrection has set him free in all the world; because he brings together things earthly and heavenly; because – incomprehensibly – he spans the chasm between God, that infinity of love and generosity, and hurt and gonewrong men and women; because he has built a bridge between us and God in his own flesh; and we, the church, are his body, alive with his life.
Mission Action Plan sheet – see the end of this post
ugly great ditch a phrase of the German philosopher Gotthold Lessing (1729 – 1781) of the gap between history and eternal truths.
Mission Action Plan
Stage 2: Choosing a Direction
At the Mission Action Planning workshop on Sunday 24th November, members of our congregation came up with over thirty vision statements.
We now need to turn these noble aspirations into actions. Please take a little time to think about what we might do to realise our vision. To do this, we want to interrogate our vision using the three questions posed by Canon Stephen Hance, the Diocesan Missioner. It will help your PCC members if you can be really specific and banish all vagueness.
You can do this in one of the following ways:
- Write ideas on the poster in church.
- Fill in the grid on the reverse of this leaflet and put it in the box at the back of church or hand it in to the Team Office (The Vicarage, Ormond Road, TW10 6TH) or put your ideas into an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.