The baptism of Jesus

The kiss of the sun for pardon, The song of the birds for mirth, One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden Than anywhere else on earth

So said Dorothy Frances Gurney a hundred years ago – and Monty Don said much the same thing on Friday.  Now it won’t come as much of a surprise to you to know that the clergy don’t much care for Dorothy Frances Gurney.  Here we are busting a gut trying to get people to come to church and there she is telling us all that One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden Than anywhere else on earth. 

If that’s true, then don’t bother coming to church at all – just get out there into a garden somewhere instead. And to make it worse for us poor beleaguered clergy – we’ve been saying much the same thing ourselves.  How many sermons from clergy and lay people over the years have I heard telling us that you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian .. you know the saying : 

Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.

And yet  ….. 

There is something about gardens and places.  

As you all know too well I have been doing pilgrimages to special places for years and years and years.  I have taken people to the Holy Land, and I have taken them to Lindisfarne – Holy Island, up in the North Sea.  I have taken them to Canterbury, Salisbury and Winchester and I have taken them to Dunfermline, Glasgow and Iona.   When it comes to taking people to holy places I have done quite a lot of it – and I have seen and I know that it makes a difference.

The lapping waters of the Sea of Galilee reflecting the sunlight and the surrounding hills are like no-where else on earth. These are the very sights and sounds which Jesus himself heard. The wildness of the wind and sea on Holy Island with the seals howling in the distance is eerie and evocative.  The sites where Margaret of Scotland taught and lived, and then the Island of Iona itself – these are all places which stir up the soul. The great cathedrals of Canterbury, Salisbury and Winchester reaching long and high fill the pilgrim with awe and wonder.   Place makes a difference.   Some places seem to be holier than others.  Some places touch the heart.

We call them thin places – or liminal places –  places on the edge.

Now it might not be your kind of place but knee high in the mud of the River Jordan was exactly one of those kinds of places.  For the people of Jerusalem and the surrounding area it was the holy place where the Israelites first entered into the promised land all those hundreds of years ago.  It’s the place where the land became their home. And it was the place where Elijah came at the end of his life and was mysteriously carried up into heaven in a chariot of fire.  It was a place where there was a hole between heaven and earth, a place where God could be glimpsed from below. 

So John the Baptist put himself there and hundreds of Jewish people came to be baptised by him .. they wanted to cross over into the country we now call Jordan and then go through the waters and re-emerge clean and cleansed to enter their promised land as if for the very first time all over again.  It was like a one-off New Year’s Resolution – a time to put the past behind them and make a brand new start.  

And this is where Jesus came …  Now, Jesus coming to be baptised raises all sorts of problems for us. 

We presume he didn’t need to be cleansed and have a fresh start –  we presume that he was spiritually clean already and that he was already living the fresh start.  As St John himself says, it should have been John the Baptist who is being baptised by Jesus, not the other way round.    But Jesus comes to this holy place, this special place, this place where heaven meets earth – and lo and behold heaven really does meet earth .. a great voice is heard `

‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’

So are there really places on earth which are closer to heaven?   Are there places where we can feel the presence? I think the answer – like the answer to most things in life –  is both yes and no.

On the no side – there is no place where God can not be found.   God can be found in a garden, as Dorothy Gurney and Monty Don say, God can be found on a hillside, or found in a busy city, or in prison or even in a war-zone.   God can be found in a picture, a piece of music, a face …

God can be found everywhere because – as one of the the ancient pilgrimage writers wrote :   The King you have in mind, unless you bring him in your heart, you will never find’.

We find God because God is already in our hearts.    But ‘are there really places on earth which are closer to heaven?’   The answer is also yes,  – and we shouldn’t shy away from it –  there are places where we do feel the presence of God more  – and that probably has more to do with where we are, than with where God is.

I find God in beautiful hymn words and powerful music –  not because they are beautiful, but because they have come from the heart of the poet or the composer .. they have reached deep into their own hearts and found God, and then they had the gift to be able to share what they have found:

‘This is my Friend, In whose sweet praise I all my days Could gladly spend.. ‘

Those words are not just words – they are heart words, they are God words,-  they are a way for me to find God through someone else’s deeper experience.

I also find God in beautiful churches –  I love lots of big buildings – great museums, old railway stations – and of course God is there – but I find God more easily in churches because, as another hymn puts it so beautifully 

‘These stones that have echoed their praises are holy,

and dear is the ground where their feet have once trod;

yet here they confessed they were strangers and pilgrims,

and still they were seeking the city of God.

Sing praise, then, for all who here sought and here found him,

whose journey is ended, whose perils are past;

they believed in the light; and its glory is round them,

where the clouds of earth’s sorrows are lifted at last.

Even these Victorian stones here this morning have heard the hymns of praise and the tears of grief of generations past – and that simple fact affects me – I feel it in my heart – I find God here in a way that I don’t find God in other places.  

And yes I find God in our worship together with one another –  just us all being here together and doing the same thing that millions of other Christians are doing all over the world this morning :  getting out of bed, going to church, listening to the Bible, singing hymns, saying prayers, taking bread and wine.   Your faith in your hearts affects my faith in my heart – and perhaps my faith in my heart affects your faith in your heart too. 

The sacraments are sacraments not because God is only to be found in going to church and in taking the sacraments, but because we know that millions of other Christians now and throughout the ages have always found God in going to church and in taking the sacraments – and we can too.  

And so .. The kiss of the sun for pardon, The song of the birds for mirth, One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden Than anywhere else on earth.

Perhaps Dorothy, yes perhaps that is right –  but it is only right if you have already found God elsewhere and only if God already lives in your heart.

Fr Paul