Dedication and Holy Baptism of Eva (sermon)
Deuteronomy 6:1-9 St Mark 10:13-16 St John 3:1-8
Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot see…
he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Daniëlle and I come together today as people from two Christian traditions – Adventist and Anglican – to bring our little girl Eva Maria Sophia to God to ask for grace through Dedication and Holy Baptism. What a joy it is for me personally!
Thank you Henk for your love of Eva, for your willingness to participate today, and for your beautiful and heartfelt prayer of Dedication of Eva to God.
St Augustine, in the 5th century, wrote about the baptism of infants. He said, "The whole of this is done in hope, in the strength of the sacrament and of the divine grace which the Lord has bestowed upon the Church."
In our respective traditions – Adventist and Anglican – we have different understandings of when a person should be baptised, and I think there are good arguments on both sides from Scripture, but we both agree on the need of baptism. So let me speak today of baptism – what it is and why we have need of it.
Our first lesson was from Deuteronomy. This last book of the Law of Moses. The people of Israel are on the verge of entering the Promised Land, and Moses is told by God he won’t be going with them, he will soon die. What would you say to your loved ones at that point?
Moses summarizes for the people of Israel their foundational history – God brought them out of slavery in Egypt, he entered into a covenant with them. He recalls the Ten Commandments, and then we have this reading you heard today.
Moses commands the people to diligently keep these commandments and to teach them to their children – and we teach it by having it before our minds and in our hearts in our day to day life. If we keep the Ten Commandments, he says, we will learn to fear God, and we will learn to love God: we discover the beauty of the commandments and so come to love God, and we discover the difficulty of following them and so learn to fear God, because there is a judgement when we trespass them – not something external and after this life, but immediate, because we are breaking with the way the Creation has been made and ordered.
Christians and Jews understand that the commandments in the Bible are not prescriptive of something some people could choose to do, but rather they are descriptive of the very nature of reality as it has been made by God – follow in this way and you are living in the world as it was made to be, you will flourish, you will find abundance, you will find the kingdom of God here on earth. (That teaching – do what is right and all will be well – is given more nuance in the Wisdom tradition – in Job and the Psalms – where we learn that we can suffer not just because of our own failures, but also because the world is fallen. There is spiritual evil – the righteous will suffer – Jesus was crucified.
But, for the part that we are responsible for, our actions,) Israel discovered that they could not follow in the way of the commandments. Israel tried, they discovered their brokenness in the light of these high laws of love. It lead Israel to cry out for mercy!
The Old Testament story, recorded faithfully by the people of Israel themselves, when they entered the Promised Land, is one of failure and repentance, failure and repentance, egregious failure and repentance. To have the Law of God revealed to you, is not enough.
That same Old Testament history becomes intermingled in time with promises a New Covenant by God, of a way to make our hearts more permanently in accord with the laws of Love, with the way Creation is configured by God.
God spoke through the Prophets to reveal His intent to cleanse inwardly by Baptism and to give His Spirit. Here are just a few examples:
Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool,…I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground, I will pour my Spirit upon your descendants and my blessing on your offspring. [Isaiah 43, 44]
Through Zechariah, And I will pour out (why use this language we use for liquids?) in the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of compassion and supplication, so that, when they look upon him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him… On that day there shall be a fountain opened for the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to cleanse them from sin and uncleanness. [12:10, 13:1]
Through Joel,“And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. [2:28]
And through Ezekiel, And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord God.” [39:29]
As Circumcision was the means of Jewish males entering into the old Covenant, so is Baptism believed, by most Christians, to be the means by which Christians enter into the new Covenant. Paul describes baptism as effecting an inward circumcision of the heart. In [Christ]…you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead. [Colossians 2:11-12]
Circumcision of the heart means, that a heart that is insensitive, has the outer surface cut away, that we might be more caring, moved more naturally by the suffering of others around us. Think about it, compared with outward circumcision of males, it is meant to be a very graphic, a very vivid image for us!
Through Jeremiah God says,
Behold the days are coming, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah…I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts…they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. [Jer 31:31, 33, 34]
The Law of God, the way of Love, that was imprinted on the human heart by our creation, our image and likeness to God from the beginning, becomes worn away and lost through our neglect of living in that way. We become both blind to what truly is love, (we can no longer see the Kingdom of heaven) and we become paralyzed from being able to act according to that way even if we see what is right (we can no longer enter into the Kingdom of God.)
Nicodemus was a righteous man, a Pharisee, comes to Jesus by night, privately, secretly, because Jesus has caused such a stir with his colleagues.
“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”
Our vision of the pure, the holy, the beautiful, of what is love, becomes marred by sin.
Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother's womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.
Our will, our ability to act, becomes crippled, we cannot do the good that we want, we just let it pass by waiting for someone else to act, we experience a certain paralysis on our own.
The gift of the Holy Spirit in Baptism is meant to restore our sight – he gives sight to the blind – and it is meant to restore our crippled will – he makes the lame to walk. And as the Spirit of God restores our sight, and as we actually walk in that way of Love, we discover that the Law of God, the perfect Law of love, is restored, is written, into our hearts. We are moved more and more by Love to love.
This is the why we are baptized.
Then Jesus adds this further statement which I love:
Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
The new Covenant that we enter into through Baptism, brings about, in time, a marvellous unity in the heart around our purpose and the meaning of life – the love of God and neighbour. It brings us into union with the Principle of Life, and with the Church. But it does not make us automatons – all doing exactly the same thing, wearing the same clothes, doing the same jobs, living a narrow diminished life. It brings about a certain unpredictability like the wind – you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. The life of the saints through the ages marks out an extraordinary diversity of expressions of love. I am no saint, but I would never have believed, in 1982 when I came to the Netherlands for a two month exchange program for chemical engineers at Shell, at a time when I was asleep to the Spirit at work within me – that all these years later I would be married to the most lovely Dutch wife, preaching the Gospel to you as a priest, and at the baptism of our daughter, and having a genuine love for you all – new family, new friends.
We have no idea how the Spirit will blow in the heart of Eva. We dedicate her and baptize her this day in hope, entrusting her to God and to the graces bestowed by God through His Church, over time to bring about in her an ever clearer image and likeness of God. It is, we believe, to a life of adventure, freed up from the fear of death because she’s promised eternal life, assured of perfect forgiveness when she messes up and repents, and we hope, having an ever more penetrating vision and love of the beauty and glory and majesty of God and of her neighbour.
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2