St Francis, Terriers - 2 before Advent (19.11.2017) Tony Dickinson

During the past three weeks or so, Shelina and her parents, and Jessica’s family, have been exploring the words and the symbols that are important in this morning’s service. We looked at the cross, and the oil, and the scallop shell, and thought about the different levels of meaning they carry for Christians. We read the words of the prayers and we thought about the stories from the Bible that they bring to mind, from the beginning of the very first book, the book of Genesis, to the closing chapters of the last book, the book of Revelation. And we set all this within in a frame made up of the two elements that are central to what we are doing today: the water in the jug which will become the waters of baptism, the waters that speak to us of God’s creative, life-giving, liberating power and the fire which lights the Easter candle, the light that proclaims a new life, the life revealed in the resurrection of Jesus.

The whole of the baptism service is about the movement from darkness to light, out of the darkness of a world enslaved by dreams of power, wealth and celebrity and into the light of God’s love, the light by which we see everything else as it truly is, the light which gives life to everything that is, the light of freedom and hope and joy. It’s the same movement that St Paul describes in that passage from his first letter to the Thessalonians which was read to us just now.

Paul writes about the darkness that scares us, the darkness that ensnares us, the darkness that enfeebles and befuddles us. “But”, he adds, “you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day [the day when God will set everything right] – you are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day.” Those last words are words I hope that Shelina will take home with her, and that Anthony and Stephany will take home with them for Jessica. “You are… children of light and children of the day.” In a few minutes, when they are baptised, Jessica and Shelina will move decisively out of darkness into the light. Their calling, from now on, is to move always further and further into the light, not just to let the light of God’s love guide them, but to let the light of God’s love enfold them.

Sometimes that will mean taking risks, like the slaves in the story Jesus told in today’s gospel. Sometimes it may even mean putting themselves in danger. People who stand up for truth and justice are not always popular. St Paul warned the Thessalonians that they needed to arm themselves like soldiers fighting in a battle. But the battle they were fighting was a spiritual battle, not a physical battle. So the armour they needed was spiritual. That’s why he tells them to “put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” They’re a far more effective defence than Kevlar when you’re fighting the powers of darkness!

So, Shelina, Jessica, whatever you do, however things turn out for you, hang on to those three things, faith, and love, and hope. Trust in the God who has revealed himself in Jesus. Trust that God is there for you, there with you, always and everywhere. Trust God and love God, because God loves you, loves you more than you can possibly imagine. God desires only good for you, though it may not always feel like it. Listen to St Paul again: “God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that … we may live with him.” That is our hope. That is the purpose for which God made us, to live the life of Jesus, here, now and forever.

But we can’t hang on to that hope, we can’t grow in faith and love, just on our own. We grow as members of a community, that weird and wacky group of people called “Church”. If we want to test how well we are loving God, we can check that against how well we’re doing loving the weirdest and wackiest members of the congregation. But there’s something else, too. Living alongside our fellow-Christians and learning from them, we discover that they aren’t really that weird and wacky. They’re just marching to the beat of a different drum to the rest of the world. We discover, too, that they are learning from us, that together we are, as St Paul wrote, encouraging one another and building up one another. We rely on one another for our growth in faith and love and hope. And all of us, in the end, rely on God. So to God…