Evensong for the feast of the Baptism of Christ
and admission of girl choristers
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Sunday 12 January 2020
Picture medieval bridge, Crane Street, Salisbury
Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, but we start with an English river. At a charity event once, I won the chance to raise the Thames Barrier; or actually just one of its ten gigantic gates. How do you do that? I wondered. It took just the click of a mouse to start four thousand tonnes of steel rotating up from the river bed.
Look at the mighty Thames Barrier and how distant the world of the Bible seems. As we heard, 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, we can do it, thanks to our technocratic priesthood, the engineers. Are mega-structures like this signs that the human race has come of age? We still have some growing up to do.
We can dam mighty waters, but we’re also good at creating for ourselves most of the horrors you can find in the Book of Revelation: poisoned lakes, parched rivers; and in Australia, fiery heat.
This is the world in which we – the people of God – are called to speak: a world both amazed and alarmed at what it can do; and a world, in which many people view the Bible – if they think of it at all – from across a great gap, seeing the scriptures and the church that preaches them as offering irrelevant answers to uninteresting questions. Our task is to cross that gap. But how do you do that?
Long before there was a barrier across the Thames, there was a bridge. The Romans built a wooden affair, then 800 years ago came the first stone bridge. Round here are several bridges of a similar age. I cannot find one reference to bridges in the Bible, which is odd, as the Romans were so keen on them, even in remote places like London. They thought that bridges were holy things. The high priest in Rome was called Pontifex Maximus, chief bridge-builder, an office once held by Julius Caesar, and now one of the titles of the Pope.
And a bridge can be a holy thing. Crossing one can be a God moment. Try it on a bridge near you: walk over swirling water, while your feet (like the Israelites’) stay dry; be close to danger, and yet be safe; start in one place, and find that, despite the river in the way, an excitingly different place – Harnham, perhaps – is just footsteps away, because the bridge has, so to speak, got there before you.
These are the things that the faith of Jesus offers: not to escape life’s risky journeys, but to travel secure; and to be assured that, wherever you go, God will always have got there ahead of you, which makes any new place a potential promised land.
Now – Ava and Faith, congratulations on being admitted as choristers. Is that entering the promised land? Perhaps, but it’s also the start of another journey. You and your choir colleagues have an important role in bridging that church-world gap I've described. And if anyone asks, ‘How do you do that?’ why not watch a movie?.
1917 is a war film flowing with Christian imagery. Will, one of the two central figures, at one point undergoes a kind of baptism, a death-and-rebirth ordeal in a river, then stumbles upon a crowd of soldiers listening to a young man singing The Wayfaring Stranger, with its refrain about ‘going over Jordan’. For one reviewer, it is this a strong film’s strongest scene, as it ‘brings the characters and the audiences together in silence, communally experiencing that still small voice of calm’.
1917 is rated ‘15’, though. A ‘PG’ alternative is the 1986 film The Mission, set in 18th-century South America, as European missionaries try to share the gospel among people of utterly different language and culture. How do you do that? Fr Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) goes into the rainforest, sits on a rock, takes out an oboe, and begins to play. His tune draws an audience out of the trees. The beauty of sound bridges a gap that nothing else could – and soon the sharing begins. The music has a power, not to abolish differences (that would be wrong) but to bridge gaps and create common ground on which conversations can start.
That’s true of any beautiful sound, I suppose, but our sound – its words and music – is unique, and invites a unique conversation, because it springs from Jesus: the one by whom (as the letter to the Hebrews says) God has finally spoken to us; the one who has built a bridge between us and God, in his own flesh.