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Baptism

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We can look at baptism in many ways - whole books are written about it - but in essence it’s formally establishing a relationship between God and the person who is baptised. It’s like the ceremony in which people are naturalised, or that solemn ceremony at Windsor Castle in which a person becomes a Knight of the Garter. The intent of baptism is to establish formally a relationship with God. Now when I read the lectionary readings for today, which are usually the starting point for the sermon, they were not about baptism, and I found myself asking what have these lessons to do with baptism. Then strangely I found myself thinking about it this way: what kind of God are we talking about in church? What kind of God is it that we think is establishing a relationship with Maclean?

Lois may have told you how we are listening to a set of podcasts on the OT from Yale. It’s a refresher course for us on the Old Testament background that we learnt 40 years ago at theological college. Some things in the lectures are new to us, and I am fairly certain we weren’t told about them back then. One new approach is in what might be called Ancient Near East religion. Scholars have dug in and around ruins, old texts have been found, inscriptions on clay tablets interpreted. We know a good deal of how life was lived in towns and cities around Israel. I have been fascinated by the way these lectures on the OT point to the similarities and differences between the God of Israel and the God of Israel’s neighbours. Suppose Maclean had been born 5000 years ago in Damascus or Tyre or Sidon, they might have had some ceremony to establish a relationship between Maclean and their gods. Then as Maclean grew up and began to work out that relationship, he would have been specially concerned with due process. Your relationship with the gods depends on soothing and placating the divine, working hard to get them on your side. You don’t have a lot of freedom in relation to God; if every week you provide a basin of corn for God, place a steaming mug of tea on the altar then it’s probable that you can get God on your side. But if you fail in the due process then God will not be pleased and it’s possible that Maclean or whoever will be zapped. When we look at the religious customs back then, we find a lot of responsibility is placed on us to get it right. You had to get the formulas, the words, the actions right even though there is no certainty to them; you had to hit on God in the middle of guesswork.

You can find similarities and differences between Israel and its neighbours when you come to the Ten Commandments. Other religions had their version of the commandments, such as the Code of Hammurabi - for most cultures don’t permit theft, lying, murder; most cultures lay down strict regulations for the worship of the divine, and require the family unit to be central in society – honour your father and your mother. But there are many differences. The God who gives the Ten Commandments is an absolute God: he commands these ten things to be done without any ifs or buts. These commandments are in black and white, they are not negotiable, there are no qualifications; you can’t blur the edges or construct escape clauses. You shall not bear false witness, you shall not murder, you shall not steal. With the gods of Israel’s neighbours there is uncertainty, there is the possibility of hit or miss. With Israel’s God there is absolute clarity, because there is no other God, the only God there is has spoken. With the God of Israel only one thing is required: obedience. Suppose Maclean was born a child in Jerusalem 3000 years ago (about the time of David), then the requirement of establishing a relationship with God was that of obedience, obeying these clear and distinct commandments. This God of Israel is not to be soothed or placated or bribed. This God is to be obeyed. No guesswork in the matter – here is certainty. If you want to have a relationship with God, then keep the commandments. What could be more straightforward than this?

But then there’s a difference again in the way we conceive of the God with whom we establish a relationship in the church. You get a hint of it in the parable of the vineyard that Jesus told. This parable of the vineyard is a summary of the way Jesus thought of his life and work, his destiny. God, otherwise known as the owner of the vineyard, sends his servants one by one to the rebellious tenants, but each of them is killed. Then the owner of the vineyard plans to send his son – and he explains it by saying, They will respect my son. Now in the parable the son is also killed – but the hope of the owner is always there – to establish a relationship between God and humans not based on the randomness of soothing a violent and unpredictable God, not based on the certainty of obeying ten rather difficult commandments, but based on the total response of the heart in love. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength. Love is the basis on which we establish our Christian relationship with God. Of course, it’s not an easy thing to love God: we haven’t seen God. And we can’t love God in the same way that we love other human beings or those physical and material things which make up our world. Our love for God is much more a spiritual response, the response of our heart in being dependent, connected, committed. This is both easier and harder than being obedient. Obedience can be measured in ticking the boxes. Did I steal? Did I lie? Did I kill? Did I tell the truth? Love can only be measured in orientation and attitude. And then, so that we might understand that the relationship we enter into with God at baptism is one of love, God demonstrates what it means through the life of Jesus. Jesus cures the sick, teaches the curious, restores the outcasts, and welcomes children. He doesn’t ignore them or send them off to watch a DVD. So we believe that children are welcome within the love of God, and that in the experience of being loved by God they might find the strength and the freedom to love God in turn. Love is the relationship which holds us to God, not ticking the boxes of obedience, and not the desperation to win God over to our side.

This morning in the baptism of the church we have established a formal relationship between Maclean and God. I’m sure that all of us will want to affirm and support this relationship of love – and hope that the love of the church will be given to Maclean and his family in such overflowing measure as to make real God’s love for them; and that, in time, it will enable him to love his God with heart and mind and soul and strength.

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