St Barnabas 3rd October – Baptism
Reading – Psalm 139:1-16
While I talk for a few minutes, I wonder if the children would like to draw a picture of someone who came with them to church this morning. Don’t rush your drawing. Try and take as much care as possible, and then in a little while I can see what you have drawn.
May I once again extend a warm welcome to our many visitors who have come from far and wide for the baptism of SG this morning. I think it is fair to say this is a day for which many of us have been praying for a long time, and we rejoice with P and S in the gift of this child.
At the moment, of course, SG is very much in that baby stage which seems to go on forever, even if in reality it will only last for a few years. But – whisper this quietly – SG will grow up. She will learn to take her first few hesitant steps, and one day she will pick herself up and toddle out of sight into the next room. Later on, she will take her first steps in the playground on her own, and she will disappear into this big, scary building called school. Some time after that, she will have first sleep over or her first residential away from home. And gradually she will learn to make her own way in the world, with her own hopes and dreams and visions. What these hopes and dreams and visions will be none of us know. But our prayer is that they will informed by a living and personal faith in Jesus Christ, and that she will come to affirm the promises P and S and the godparents are making on her behalf this day.
However I am going to put it to you that if she is going to do this, she needs to grow up with a big view of God. I am conscious there are many people – perhaps even some here today – who grew up with all the stories of the Christian faith, who perhaps faithfully came to church or Sunday school, but at some stage or other left God behind. Maybe once they went to secondary school and no longer had regular assemblies. Maybe once they were old enough to decide for themselves whether they wanted to go to Sunday School. Maybe once they found a job or went to university, and discovered the stories they learnt didn’t have a lot to do with the real world. And it hasn’t helped that so often the church has given the message it is mostly interested in what happens within the walls of a strange building on Sunday, and doesn’t care that much or indeed understand what its members do from Monday to Saturday.
SG, and indeed all our young people here this morning, need to grow up with a big view of God, a God who isn’t just there for special occasions or when we are in trouble, but a God who is much interested in our work, rest and play, as our Sunday services and our times of worship. And this is what our readings this morning from the Bible give us.
First of all, we have a God who perfectly knows us.
Now I have no doubt that as SG grows up she will be surrounded by all the latest technology, and she will even from a fairly early age be familiar with the world of computers and the Internet, and all those wonderful modern inventions some of us older folk find hard to get our heads round. The world of IT is a wonderful blessing, and children nowadays can do amazing things which even ten years would have been thought impossible. As someone whose first computer was a ZX81 I for one find the ability and speed of modern computers absolutely astonishing, and see their development as a great gift from God.
But there is an important question surrounding the IT revolution which I think churches in particular have barely begun to talk about, and that is the way in which brings people together. Because like any great invention, the rise of modern computers also can have its downside. For example, is a friend someone who happens to poke me on Facebook? Is that person I am messaging really who he or she claims to be? And perhaps most importantly of all, amid all my contact lists and address books, is there in fact anyone out there who knows me and actually cares for me?
The opening words of our psalm this morning seem to me to be highly relevant at this point. O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you know it completely, O Lord. This isn’t Big Brother watching over us to monitor our every movement and punish us the moment we make a mistake. Nor is it spyware seeking to steal information and personal details from us. This is the Lord Almighty who knows and loves us perfectly because we are His creation, the work of His hands. And wherever we go, whatever we do we can have the certainty of His love and His care with us. Even at work, in the gym, or at home in bed. That is the God we worship today.
And following on from that we have a God who is always present with us.
Do you remember the story of Jonah and the whale? Can any of you tell me what happened? It’s a great story and it’s one that appeals to all ages. But maybe we sometimes forget why God sent the whale to swallow Jonah in the first place – which was to teach Jonah a lesson that you cannot run away from God. Jonah thought if he escaped to a different country God wouldn’t be there, that he could hide from God. If only he had read today’s psalm he would have spared himself a lot of trouble.
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast.
Now I guess none of us here today believe we can catch a boat and escape from God. But let me ask you – do you sincerely believe that God is as present with you on a Monday morning as He is here with us today? I think too often we break our lives down into different compartments, and we put God in the part marked Sundays. The lesson of Scripture is that no part of our life is outside God’s control, that we can’t draw a box around, let’s say, our leisure time and tell God to keep out. God is always with us, whether we like or not. And as we shall shortly, that has massive implications for our lives.
The third point of the psalm, and one we have already touched on, is that we have a God who made us.
Of course the psalmist lived in a very different world where very little was known about biology. He knew nothing about genes and chromosomes and DNA, and how a baby develops in the womb. He lacked the basic scientific knowledge that is taught in primary schools today. But somehow despite all this, the words he wrote in our psalm find an echo in our hearts even today:
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well. My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place. When I was woven together in the depths of the earth, your eyes saw my unformed body. All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.
Aren’t those wonderful words? And indeed there is something about holding a newborn baby in your arms which at least in my experience is truly miraculous. You are not just cuddling a bundle of molecules, or a random collection of chromosomes. You are holding a live, real person who is so much more than the sum of his or her parts. And it’s at times like this you understand just how much life is a gift from God, and what a privilege He gives us of bringing new life into the world.
Of course it’s easy to see a little baby as a wonder and a miracle from God. But you have to realise the psalmist wasn’t writing about babies at this point. He was in fact writing about himself, a grown man with all kinds of faults and flaws, a man who at times had done terrible things and thought terrible thoughts. Yet even as he wrote this psalm, as he thought about how God knew Him through and through, as he thought about God’s constant presence with Him, he came to the understanding that no matter what he had done or said or thought, the fact remained he was still fearfully and wonderfully made in the image of God.
And the marvellous thing is, what was true of the psalmist then, is true about each and every one of us here today. You may have to church feeling today less than special, you may be conscious you have recently made a complete mess of things, you may even still be feeling half-asleep, but the wonderful truth is that – no more and no less than baby SG- you have been fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image. You are a unique creation. You are God’s handiwork. God has made you and has given you life.
But not just you. The person sitting next to you. The person you meet on the bus every morning. The schoolfriend you hang out with after lessons. The grumpy colleague who hates Monday mornings. In fact every single person around us is a masterpiece, a person fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image.
Now I wonder how the children are getting on with their drawings. Is there anyone here who was drawn a perfect picture? Is there anyone who has made a mistake?
I thought so. We all make mistakes. Not just when it comes to drawing pictures. But in the things we say and think and do. The words we shouldn’t have said. The bad habits we find so hard to break. The wrong thoughts we have about other people. The Bible calls these mistakes sin, but whatever we call them, they are a problem. It means we do not see ourselves, or indeed other people, fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image. So that instead of welcoming God’s constant presence with us, we try to hide from Him. Instead of seeking to know God we run after other things, like the things Jesus mentions in our gospel reading – food, fashion, money. We end up living a life less than God intended, a life where we try and shut God out and play by our own rules. With the result that we make more and more mistakes and get further and further away from God.
But the good news – and it’s the good news we are celebrating today in this baptism – is that there is someone who walked this earth and led a perfect life, without any mistakes. He was always aware of God’s presence with Him, and He knew and loved God as His very own Heavenly Father. His name was, and is, Jesus. And because He was prepared to die for the mistakes that we have made, because He paid the price for all the times we shut God out and ignore Him, He is able to restore our relationship with God and help us lead a new life with the presence of God – the Holy Spirit – living in our hearts.
Now I guess some of you have heard this message before, and you’ve heard the appeal to believe and trust in Jesus many times before. But you might be saying – so what? How does faith and trust in Jesus relate to the real world, to the busy working week that lies before me?
Jesus Himself gives the answer at the end of our gospel reading – But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Because faith and trust in Jesus isn’t just about saying some nice religious words in a service, or vaguely believing something is true. It’s about responding to a big view of God with a big decision. To put God first, and at whatever cost to yourself, to live by His values and His priorities. That’s what P and S have done. That’s why they have brought SGhere today for baptism. And the challenge for all of us who are here today to support them on this big day is not simply to say we believe in big God who has given us Jesus but live radical new lives that translate that faith into action.
Now there’s much, much more I could say about this. But this seems as good a place as any to stop and ask: Do you yourself have this big view of God? Do you understand why it is so important to believe and trust in Jesus? And if you do, what does it mean for you to put your faith into action and show others you have the presence of God – the Holy Spirit – living in your heart?