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The lowest point

Advent 4 BCP

24 December 2006 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

Though having lead a pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine ten years ago amidst signs of political hope, this year I returned twice and sadly experienced a completely different mood of hopelessness. A close friend started a new job as the UN Spokesperson for the Middle East Peace Process (what process you might well ask). I went to see him in Jerusalem in May, and he took me to Bethlehem in his UN Car - even for us it was a hassle getting through the ghastly 30 foot wall and the checkpoints, and you will not be surprised that the Palestinian Christians are leaving the little town of Bethlehem in droves. I am really glad therefore, that the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Cardinal and other British Church leaders have gone to Bethlehem to highlight their humiliating plight. I also drove myself around and finally visited Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered… and learned that John the Baptist had possibly been associated with the Essenes who led an incredibly ascetic life. What struck me most forcefully were the large numbers of immense baths for ritual cleansing and purification…so numerous and complex that the cleansing was clearly literal as well as spiritual. Many of us I guess have at least two bathrooms these days, and even small flats are built with ensuite as standard. But you'd have to go to Japan, where personal hygiene levels require washing oneself down with bowls of water whilst on a kind of potty stool prior to bathing or showering…to come anywhere near the elaborate cleansing of Qumran.

Then, last month, I returned from leading another pilgrimage… with people from my former parish in Stamford Hill. We ended up on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea - a holy Odyssey we called it…the journey began in Alexandria…took in the Coptic and Syrian monasteries of the Eastern Egyptian Desert…Cairo and the Pyramids and the Hanging Church which is associated with the Holy Family…before embarking on retracing the whole journey of Moses and the people of Israel through the Sinai desert to the edge of the Promised Land at Mount Nebo in Jordan.

Near Mount Nebo is a place called Madaba, and a church dedicated to St George, like us. On the floor of this church there is a fabulous 6th C mosaic map of the Holy Land depicting Egypt to Galilee on the floor of St. George's, showing clearly the site of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist near the Dead Sea. Rather sweet is the detail of many fish swimming down the Jordan all the way down from the sea of Galilee, though the last fish is swimming back in the opposite direction for nothing lives in the Dead Sea!

The Testimony of John as recorded today in St. John's Gospel is located at Bethany beyond the Jordan where John was baptising (Bethabara in the King James Version) - and a small natural hill forming the heart of the little village is called Elijah's Hill or Tell Mar Elias in Arabic. Local tradition for thousands of years has identified this hill in Bethany, as the place from where Elijah ascended into heaven in a whirlwind…on a chariot and horses on fire, having parted the water of the River Jordan…and walked across it with his successor, the prophet Elisha. In our own day not so very far from here, people will surely too be talking for centuries about Kensal Rise as the local place where so much was literally taken up into the skies in the astonishing tornado.

And so the herald John, with his call to a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins arrives in the same place Elijah left…after a long silence during which there were neither signs nor prophets. John announces that God was about to appear. But how? Would he manifest himself like a meteor blazing a trail across the heavens…would people perhaps just catch a fleeting glimpse for an instant before darkness closed in on our world once again? The answer is No…for the Word who has invaded our time, speaks to all people of all times words of truth and grace.

We sing the hymn 'Come thou long expected Jesus' and we are probably no better today than 2000 years ago at knowing or recognising how and where to look for God's appearing…but still God comes…even if wrong expected. We know well of his coming at Christmas in humility, in a Bethlehem stable amongst the animals…the word humility itself is derived from 'humus'…of the earth. But the significance of where John cried in the wilderness and where Jesus chose to be baptised appears to have gone unnoticed. Us pilgrims visited the site of Jesus' baptism to renew our baptismal vows. It is about 1300 feet below sea level, and as such is the lowest point on the surface of the world. Surely there has to be a reason for starting his ministry at the lowest point on earth…isn't this a kind of parable in itself?

God 'enters in' quite deliberately at the lowest place…and this is where salvation springs from. This is reason enough for holy confidence - that God comes…God appears in the depths of any of our wilderness experiences, when we are reduced to rock bottom and not able to survive in our own strength and own resources. God appears not only at our lowest point, of course, though surely with extra clarity at these times. And I'm not only talking about our lowest moods and emotions…but also those other times when we hit rock bottom in our moral lives and choices, and have to live with the consequences of our sin…our shame…our fear…our hiding from God. This is where God enters in with forgiveness of sins…but not as a kind mother or father who says 'there there, don't worry, it will all be fine'…but rather with the clear message of John the Baptist: 'repent…change…choose a better way' as the loving kindness of the heart of our God…his forgiveness of sins…touches and heals both our shame and our fear.
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