Old High St Stephen’s, Inverness
15 November 2015
(The Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost:
Year 2 (Mark), Narrative Lectionary)
Scripture Readings: Hosea 11:1-9
Embraced by love
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
We too often think of the books of the Bible as having been written so long ago, they cannot have much to do with us. The prophet Hosea preached almost 2,700 years ago. What can a text that old have to say to us? The introduction in the Good News version of the Bible to Hosea says that he ‘preached in the northern Kingdom of Israel… during the troubled times before the fall of Samaria in 721BC’. He preached in troubled times- times of uncertainty, with wars and rumours of wars abounding. And do we not, also, live in troubled times?
There is a hint of the troubled times behind this book in the short extract we read, when the prophet predicts coming disaster for the people of Israel: ‘they must return to Egypt, and Assyria will rule them. War will break through their cities and break down the city gates. It will destroy my people…’ (Hosea 11.5-7). I’m sure these words did not make Hosea a popular preacher. He is telling the people that all their security is not guaranteed- that they will know violence, war and terror even behind their city walls, their secure city gates. In their cities, where they thought they were most secure, war and violence will erupt despite their best security measures.
And yet, among these harsh words, the prophet also has a word of hope. For most of the passage we read today speaks strongly of the love of God. For God, it turns out, loves his people with the passion of a parent for a child. God cannot let us go.
Today at St Stephen’s we celebrated- celebrated, even in the midst of the uncertainties of our lives, and of worrying world events. We celebrated the sacrament of baptism- always one of the happiest services of the Church. For as we heard in the baptismal liturgy, we do it because Jesus commanded us. One of the primary aims of the Church, he told us, was to go out into the world and baptise people everywhere.
Baptism takes different forms in different times and places. A fellow-student of mine, when he graduated, went to work not in a parish in Scotland, but in Mozambique. This Southern African nation is one of the poorest nations on the planet. At that time was beginning to recover from a vicious war. He was helping to train ministers there, and he came back with some incredible tales. Of how, for example, when he visited a remote village, the people he stayed with would often be desperately poor, yet their sense that an honoured guest ought to receive proper hospitality meant that they would kill even their last chicken. I’ve a feeling that its people like that who will show the rest of us what Christianity really means.
My friend once attended a baptism in Mozambique. It was not the baptism of a baby, as we had with Karson today, nor was it just the one person who was being baptized. Instead it was large number of adults- people who, in the midst of their poverty, had found hope in the Christian faith. And the service took place, not in a church, but on a beach. Hundreds had gathered to celebrate as these new Christians demonstrated their faith in Christ by being baptised among the waves, having water of the Indian Ocean poured over them to symbolise that they now belonged to God in Christ.
Now, that lovely sunny African beach must have been a very different scene from the one at St Stephen’s this morning as we baptised young Karson Kellacher. And yet we really did the same thing to Karson today as happened to those new Christians on that Mozambique beach.
Baptism is the way that people become Christians. In many churches, the font- the basin for the baptismal water- is not at the front of the church, but at the door. For baptism is the entrance to the Church- it is the way we become part of the church. Usually- but not always- when we celebrate baptism its children we baptise, from families who have some Christianity in the background. But in the places in the world where Christianity is growing, many of those who are baptised- like the Mozambiqueans on that Indian Ocean beach- are people who have left the belief system they grew up with- such as a traditional religion- to become Christians- a decision they have made as adults. We might not see much of that happening here in Europe, but around the world people are converting to Christianity at such a rate that nowadays most Christians in the world live outside the traditional ‘Christian’ areas of Europe and North America. It’s in places such as Mozambique that Christianity is today thriving and growing- and where people are choosing to be baptized.
It might seem odd that people who are so poor they need to kill a chicken to make a meal for a guest would choose to be baptized as Christians. And yet perhaps it isn’t so odd, when we think about what baptism is all about.
By being baptized we take part in the story of Jesus.
Jesus was more than just a teacher and healer. When we hear his story- born in a stable, growing up showing God’s love, healing the sick, forgiving sinners- we seem to see God himself at work. And more- Jesus shares not just our life, but our death. The Gospels show how, as he taught about God’s forgiveness, and as he healed the sick, still there were times when he was misunderstood, times when some people just didn’t seem to want to understand.
You wouldn’t have thought that someone with a message of love could make enemies, but he did. And so Jesus experience the pain of being betrayed by one of his closest friends, the humiliation of being arrested and put on trial for his life, and the horror of a brutal execution. He died a terrible death, but returned from death, rising again at Easter. And that, in a sense was his baptism. He came down among us and rose again from the dead. He not only taught about God’s love- his life story acted it out.
And Christians understand that, in a way we are all called to share in the life and death of Christ. In the waters of baptism, we undergo a sort of symbolic death- the water washing us reminds us that there are things we have to let go of if we really want to enter the Kingdom. And when we come out of the water, it is as if we are born anew, ready to take up our place in the new life which Jesus offers us. A life in which we are fully aware of being bound up in the love of God.
In our Old Testament text, Hosea speaks of the love of God. He imagines God speaking to his people as a mother might speak to her son:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him
and called him out of Egypt as my son.
But the more I called to him,
the more he turned away from me…
I was the one who taught Israel to walk.
I took my people up in my arms,
but they did not acknowledge that I took care of them.
I drew them to me with affection and love.
I picked them up and held them to my cheek;
I bent down to them and fed them.”
This is wonderful, tender poetry- a love song from a parent to her children. A reminder that, whether we know it or not, we are embraced in God’s love. The God who made the universe often seems a dim and distant figure, someone or something we can find it hard to relate to. But here God is pictured like a mother taking her child up in her arms, teaching him to walk, pecking him on the cheek, feeding and nurturing and loving him. It’s a beautiful picture of a beautiful God.
And in our New Testament reading, we have an incident from Jesus’ life where he, again, shows the beauty of God’s love. There are people- parents probably- who sense in Jesus that here is someone very special. They bring their children so that he can place his hands on them- a sign of blessing. ‘But the disciples scolded the people’- in other words, the people closest to Jesus decide that this is really not something their busy Teacher ought to be bothered with. So they try to shoo these troublesome mums and dads out of the way. But this is what Jesus is here to do- to bless even the youngest and most insignificant in the community- just as we blessed young Karson today.
In our first reading, the prophet Hosea imagines God to be like a caring parents- a mother who will bend down to teach, feed, care for her child. Perhaps the mums and dads who brought their children guessed that Jesus represented just that God. Jesus has time to bend down and bless children. In fact, doing that is so important that when his closest friends try to stop the children coming to him, he tells them off. And then he reminds them that in his Kingdom, the greatest are those who are the least in this world. He tells the grown-ups who want to follow him that they need to become like children if they want to follow him.
Sometimes people try to make rules and regulations for who can join the Church. Sometimes the followers of Jesus try to define what you’ve got to be like if you want to join them. Sometimes people ask me, ‘What do I need to do to be a Christian?’ So here’s Jesus answer: ‘whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it’.
That hints that we need to give up a lot to enter God’s Kingdom. We need to lose a lot of adult baggage- our pride, our self-importance. Above all, perhaps, our destructive belief that we know it all, and that we can force others to think as we do. That is, surely, at the heart of much of the war, terrorism and violence in the world. With guns and bombs, with drones and warplanes and missiles, we attempt, through violence, humans try impose their beliefs on other people. Because we are so sure that we are right.
Jesus calls for another way. Jesus calls on us to live in the light of the belief that God is not a god of war and destruction, but a God of love. And he tells us that the only way we can truly honour God and live peaceably with our neighbour, it to accept the love of God as a child accepts the love of his mother father. As he blesses the children, Jesus reminds us that we are all children of a God whose love is like that of a mother for her child. And to receive that love we need to be as children- accepting it, enjoying it, thriving within it, being blessed by it.
God wants to love us, to bless us, to call us his own. It just needs for us to accept that love, just as a child accepts the love of his mother. We find that hard to do, we are so self-centred and proud. But even when we turn away from God, and try to do our own thing, God will not turn away from us:
“How can I give you up, Israel?
How can I abandon you?
My heart will not let me do it!
My love for you is too strong.”
Because God will not abandon us, God has come into our world in Jesus Christ to seek us out. For God wants to bless us, wants us to live as people who know they are embraced by God’s love. After all, if you believe that there is a Creator of the Universe, and that that the nature of that Creator is love, then of course you are going to live differently. You are going to live as someone who knows that they are a beloved child of God. And that makes all the difference.
And so in churches like this, with children, on beaches with adults, in all kinds of settings and with all sorts of people, the Christian Church has followed the command of Jesus, who said we should go out into the world and baptise people everywhere. It’s one of the joys of my job, and one of the joys for any Christian congregation to share in a baptism. For every time we see a baptism, we see the story of the Gospel acted out. It is the story of a God who bends down to bless us. In the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, God has come alongside us, has lived our life and died our death, and offers us new life. Jesus shows us that the greatest power in the universe is not hatred, or violence, but a God of Love. And so, even in troubled times, we can have hope. And all we have to do is to accept God’s love with the wonder and trust of a child.
Ascription of Praise
The God of grace who calls you all
to his eternal glory in Christ
restore, establish and strengthen you.
All power belongs to God for ever and ever, Amen.
Based on 1 Peter 5.10-11: c.f. BCO 1994, p584
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo