Mark 4 and Luke 18
Now here's a question to conjure with...why are we about to baptise Ashton Philip Michael Davis?
The baptism of children is something that most parts of the Christian Church have done since the earliest days after Jesus walked the earth. But there are some parts of the church - particularly those known as 'Baptists' who would say that what we are about to do makes no sense. They would argue that baptism should only be given to adults who have professed a faith in Jesus. For them, baptism is a sign of conversion...a sign that the person being baptised has chosen to follow Jesus.
But that's not what the Orthodox, Catholic and Anglican churches have taught. For us, baptism is much less about our faith, but about what God wants to do in us. Baptism doesn't depend on us...it depends on God. Through Baptism, we declare that God loves Ashton...and that God welcomes Ashton into life on earth, and into the church.
There's a measure of protection offered here as well. For centuries, parents have called priests to the bed of sick children, and asked for them to be baptised. That was my experience in fact. When I was born, I suffered from a condition which twisted my stomach around 360 degrees. It meant that no food would go down into my tummy. Well, as you see, I've overcome that particular difficulty now! But I still bear the very large scar of an operation which was needed to untwist my tummy. But before the operation was carried out, my parents asked for a priest to baptise me. They were seeking a sign of God's protection on their son, and assurance that if anything went wrong...if I had died on the operating table...then God would have continued to protect me. In fact, my poor Mum was so distraught that she prayed "Oh God. If you will only save my son, I will give him to you." I will leave you to imagine her joy when about 30 or so years later, I told her that I was to become a priest!
Just now we watched a video of the time when Jesus stilled a storm. He did so as a way of offering protection to his disciples. He demonstrated that he had power to protect them, power even over the weather itself. But there was a much deeper point that he was making. This was not an invitation for the followers of Jesus to become 'weather wizards'. Rather, Jesus was living out a powerful story - a story in which whatever life throws at us, God offers his protection to us. Whether we live or die, God's protection of God's children never fails.
Because we are human, and we live an earthly experience, we tend to see things only from an earthly point of view. We tend to forget that God sees things from an eternal perspective. For God, even death is only a door-way...a door-way to an eternal existence of never-ending love. Baptism is a sign that God wants only the best for us...God wants us to live life that goes on for ever. God wants us to be God's children - and, through baptism, to offer our children to God as well.
Now here's another question. Have you ever heard the phrase 'born again Christian'. Through baptism, the church has always taught, we are all born again. We are born once when we enter this world...born into the physical reality of our body. But then, through baptism, we are born again of the Spirit of God. Our spirit is awakened. It is enlivened to the presence of God. Baptism is a bit like lighting the touch-paper of our soul.
So that's something of what baptism means - and what Ashton's baptism will mean in a few minutes. Its a sign of God's love. Its a sign of God's protection, through this world, and on into eternity. Its a sign of the awakening of our Spirit. And its an invitation to each one of us who has been baptised that we can live a renewed, energised, transformed life, by the power of God.
So why is it that so many baptised people don't belong to churches? Why is it that people seem to reject God's offer of living a renewed, energised, transformed life? Well, its because ultimately, God only offers his love. God never forces himself on us. God's offer is free, and without charge to us. God's love is free and unconditional - for all of us - and any price was paid by God himself, through Jesus. Fat, thin, black, white, gay or straight, male or female, young or old - God's love is unconditional and free to you and me. But free, unconditional love needs to be accepted. If God were to force his way of living on us, he would be little better than some kind of puppet master...pulling the strings of our life. God says to us, each one of us who has been baptised "I give you a choice. Its up to you whether you choose to live my way, the best way - or whether you try to live life on your own, without my wisdom, without my protection, without the friendship, support, challenge and encouragement of my church."
Whether Ashton one day decides to accept that invitation will be up to him. No-one but Ashton can make that choice. And no-one but you can make that choice for yourself either. But let me offer you this little encouragement and challenge....
There's been a lot of talk in the press recently about football clubs. Pompey's administration, and now Liverpool's take-over. It all reminds me of what a wise friend once asked me. He said this:
"What does it take to be a footballer? You need to practice don't you...if you want to be really good? You need to take that football out into the yard, and then you need to practice keepy-uppy, and smashing the ball into goal against a brick wall, and dribbling the ball around some old traffic cones. If you practice really really hard, you might be able to play keepy-uppy for hours on end. You might be able to score accurately every time. But let me tell you this. You are not a footballer yet. You will never be a footballer until you've been out on a playing field, with a team."
Being a Christian is a bit like that. Oh, its possible to be a sort of Christian on your own. God never stops loving you. God never stops caring about you, even if you rarely pray, and never open your bible. Its possible to believe that God exists, and even that Jesus lived and died for you - without necessarily thinking about things any more than that. But, let me tell you - you will never be fully alive, fully awakened, fully engaged with the things of God until you have joined spiritual forces with the people of God.
Being a fully awake, fully alive, fully 'born again' Christian takes commitment; and it takes persistence. Remember Jesus' story of the widow who kept demanding justice from a judge. Some people confuse this story with the idea that you have to keep on asking in order to get God to listen. Some people think that Jesus is saying that we have to keep battering on the doors of heaven, until God listens. But that is to read the story at much too simplistic a level. After telling the story, Jesus explains what he means. He says "Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them?" Jesus says that God is nothing like a reluctant judge, who gives in to the widow, just to shut her up. Instead, God is willing to act straight away. God longs to bring justice to all those who cry out to him...all the poor of the world, all the oppressed, all the suffering.
But there is a sting in the tale. Jesus concludes: "And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?". It's a rhetorical question. Jesus is asking, "Does anyone care? Will there be anyone living a faithful life, through whom God's justice can be brought about? God is willing, very willing. But are we? Will God find faith, or rather 'faithfulness' on earth...faithfulness to his teaching, faithfulness to the promises of baptism, faithfulness to living the Way of God?" Jesus is asking "who are the people who will stand up for God, and for God's children?". But perhaps we don't care enough. Perhaps we would rather not get involved. Perhaps we are rather too interested in our own lives to care very much about what happens to the rest of God's children.
So that's the question I want to leave with us all this morning. As we come to baptism Ashton, we come to offer him a choice. Its a choice that he is too young to make now...but the rest of us, most of us, are old enough to be able to make that choice for ourselves. Are we content to live half-lives, with our spirits only just awake? Or are we prepared to place ourselves entirely under God's protection, and to be persistent in the pursuit of his Kingdom, his way of life - following his teachings, and living his life which goes on for ever? Are we prepared to stop kicking the ball around on our own, and to get really stuck in to the team? Are we prepared to see what North End could really be like if God's way of life could be released here through us?
The choice is yours. The choice is mine. Let's offer the same choice to Ashton now...