St Francis, Terriers - Epiphany 1 (07.01.2018) Tony Dickinson

Can anyone tell me what you get when you cross a sheep with a kangaroo? [a woolly jumper]

What do you get if you cross a teddy bear with a skunk? [Winnie the Phew]

What do you get if you cross a sheepdog and a buttercup? [a cauliflower]

I’m told that somebody once thought about crossing a walrus, a hamster and an owl – just for the joy of calling it Walthamstow.

Now here’s a more serious question. What do you get if you put together water and the Holy Spirit? Here’s a clue: it happens in each of today’s readings.

What you get is a new creation. In our first reading we heard how “a wind from God” swept over the waters of chaos to set the whole fantastic process of creation going. But the words that were translated in our Bible as “a wind from God” could just as easily mean “the Spirit of God”. And many English translations of the Book of Genesis say that it was “the spirit of God” which “swept over the face of the waters.” That’s because the Hebrew word “ruach” can mean “wind” or “breath” or “spirit”.

Now “breath” and “spirit” are what make us alive, alive in the world, but also alive to God. And that’s what happens in today’s gospel reading when the Spirit of God flutters down like a dove upon Jesus as he comes up out of the water. It’s like a new creation. It marks God’s new way of getting stuck into his world to bring about its healing, to bring hope and joy for the whole of humankind. That doesn’t mean that God magics all the nasty stuff away. It does mean that God gives us a way to cope with it.

How he does that is to make us part of that new creation, part of God’s new way of getting stuck into his world in healing and hope and joy. For most of us there was a day when water and the Holy Spirit made us part of God’s new creation. Now when might that have been?

It was at our baptism. We heard in this morning’s gospel how John baptised people to wash away their sins, giving them freedom from all the burden of past failure that weighed them down. But he warned the people that that was only part of the story. Something else, or rather someone else, was about to happen. “I have baptised you with water” John said; “but he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit.” That’s how we become part of God’s new creation. The Holy Spirit descends on us as she did on Jesus two thousand years ago. The Holy Spirit makes us part of God’s new creation, part of God’s plan for saving the world through him.

Richard Rohr likes to tell a story about something that happened to him when he was on retreat at Thomas Merton’s hermitage at Gethsemani Abbey thirty years ago. He was walking down a little trail when he recognized a recluse (that’s someone even more withdrawn from the world than a hermit), coming toward him. Not wanting to intrude on the recluse’s deep silence, Fr Richard bowed his head and moved to the side of the path, intending to walk past him. But as they neared each other, the hermit said, quite out of the blue, “Richard, you get chances to preach and I don’t. Tell the people one thing.” Pointing to the sky, he said, “God is not ‘out there’!” Then he said, “God bless you,” and carried on down the path.

“God is not ‘out there’!” That’s the truth that holy man had discovered in his deep silence and solitude. That’s the truth we celebrate today as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus and as we remember our own baptism to new life in his love, life in Christ. “God is not ‘out there’!” God is in us through the Holy Spirit poured out on us at our baptism. God is in us as he puts himself into our hands and on our tongue at the moment of Communion. God is in us and in every human being and, as St Francis realised, in the whole of creation. “God is not ‘out there’!” God is here with us. God is in us, in the power of the Holy Spirit, working through our failures and conflicts and fears to heal the wounds of his creation. To him, Father, Son and Holy Spirit…