Returning from Thin Places

There are places in this world that are “thin.”
It is a label given to places, in the Celtic understanding, where the barrier between the human and the divine, heaven and earth, is nearly imperceptible.
A place where we experience the divine more readily.

In biblical history, we see a number of these “thin places” or holy locations: like Mount Sinai or the temple in Jerusalem, or that mountain where Jesus was transfigured. Sometimes, it is the location itself that is key… sometimes it is the hearts of the people gathered who seem to transform it.

Perhaps you have known a “thin place.”
Experiences that have filled you with a sense of awe and purpose.
Sometimes people call these “mountain top moments”… even if they didn’t actually take place on a mountain because they are the peaks of our spiritual journey.
“Thin places” are where you have felt God’s presence more than any other.

As I think back in my own spiritual journey, I’ve had these kinds of experiences in large gatherings of faithful folks at retreats, and I’ve had them in silent moments at the top of mountains. I’ve also had them right here, in this sanctuary, in this building, as we have gathered to worship and praise God.

And what I have noticed is that it is always hard to leave those places.
You want to linger.
You can’t imagine normal life in the same way again.
The pull to stay is almost irresistible.
But eventually you have to return.
Return to your life.
Return to solid ground.
Return to the mundane and the thick and the muck and mess.

In our gospel this morning, we find Jesus returning from one of those “thin places.”
The Jordan River was a place of healing and transformation.
John the Baptist called people out to the river to repent and be baptized.
And when Jesus visited, that barrier between the heavens and earth grew so thin that the skies burst open and the Holy Spirit descended upon him.

But like us, Jesus can’t stay there.
He can’t set up shop there on the banks and wait for the world to come to him, any more than we can’t live here in the church for our whole lives… waiting for flocks of people to come into our doors.
No, he has to return to the rest of the world.
There is work to be done.

So, full of the Holy Spirit, like we often are after these holy moments, Jesus returns from the Jordan.

And there is something that happens in this returning, in this transition.
In between verse 1 where he returns from the Jordan and verse 14, where he returns to Galilee, there is a gap.

The wilderness.
A liminal space.
40 days of discomfort, of waiting, of transformation.
40 days of fasting and wrestling.
40 days of trial and temptation.
40 days.

Biblically, this 40 days reminds us of the great flood in Genesis, or the Israelites wandering for 40 years in the wilderness. Moses fasted for 40 days… so did Elijah.
This number 40 doesn’t have to mean a literal forty days… but it signifies the right amount of time it takes to get you ready for whatever comes next.

As Jesus returns from the Jordan, he needs to prepare himself for his ministry in the world. And the devil shows up to tempt him. As Jesus is shown all of the possibilities for what that ministry might look like, he has to figure out what kind of savior he will be. He wrestles with his calling. He takes time to focus fully on the presence and power of God that will sustain him in his work.
And in that time, Jesus is preparing himself to go and BE a thin space in the world.
To be the very presence of God, Immanuel, with the people.
And if Jesus, the very Son of God, needs this liminal time to get him ready to return to the world… don’t you think we do, too?

Every week, we gather in this church to worship and experience the divine. It has become for us a sort of thin place… [And soon, some of us will be worshipping in a new thin place].
And what we experience here… the friendships we make, the prayers, the support and accountability, the life-giving spirit… is good and awesome and holy.
But we can’t stay here forever.
Every Sunday, when the worship has finished and we take leave of the building, we have to return to the world.
We have to go out into Galilee, into Des Moines, into our mission field.
There is work to be done for the sake of the gospel.

But I’m afraid that too often, we come to a holy and thin place like this, we get filled up with the Holy Spirit, and then as soon as we step outside of the doors, the devil is waiting for us.
And the devil prays on all of our insecurities and temptations.
I fear, that most days, instead of holding on to the spirit of God… we instantly fill ourselves back up with worries and concerns, with politics and ideology, with work and school and family troubles.
We walk out the door and forget about what we have just experienced.
Back to the normal, mundane, ordinary world, as ordinary, normal, mundane people.

What if, before we left the building, we took a moment to get ourselves ready?

Sometimes I give you big challenges, but this morning, I want us to think small.
I want to challenge all of us to carve out not 40 days, not 40 minutes, but 40 seconds of space…
40 seconds of wilderness time… to help us return back to the world.
I want to challenge you, before you walk out the doors today, to spend just 40 seconds putting your trust in God.
40 seconds to remember who we are and whose we are.
40 seconds to lift up the temptations we know we will face and place them in God’s hands.

Our churches have work to do. We have a kingdom to help build. There are lives that are lost that need the love and grace and mercy of God.
And we cannot do it by ourselves.
We can’t do it without being filled with the Holy Spirit.

Here’s the thing… YOU are the temple of God. God’s Spirit lives within YOU.
And God wants you to be the hands and feet of Jesus out there in the world.
God needs your ministry and your work out in the world.

So let us get filled up with the Spirit.
And let us go out, to live as “thin places,” to be people who bring the love of God to every person we meet.
Amen.

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