This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday in Lent, given in the “church up the road” and the “church next door.” The main service of the day included a baptism. The Scripture it references is John 11:1-45.
Recently I was talking to the father of a young boy; seven years old or so. The father was a bit worried because his son had taken an action figure of the Star Wars character, Qui-Gon Jinn, and was calling the figure Jesus and using it to act out various scenarios. The problem was that Qui-Gon Jesus came complete with light sabre and was, in these imaginative scenarios, acting in a most un-Jesus-like way. What to make of this? The dad worried. Should I stop my son’s play, tell him this is wrong, is it maybe even a sort of blasphemy to have “Jesus” cut down his enemies like a Jedi?
I was (I hope) able to reassure the father that this is very normal. Children of that age haven’t yet learned to categorise fact and fiction in an adult way; all of the ideas they encounter get mixed up together and engaged imaginatively, and that’s how young children learn and grow. It’s normal to play with ideas – even about sacred things – as young children, and we do, mostly, eventually grow out of it.
In fact, I have a suspicion that often we train ourselves out of it a little bit too thoroughly. We need imagination in the life of faith; not that I want to imagine myself striding, robed and light sabre wielding, through all opposition, (satisfying though that might sometimes be); but that if we are to have hope, we have to be able to imagine that things can be different than they are now. If we are to believe that God is up to something; at work in our lives, in our community, in our wider world, we have to be able to imagine what change might be needed, and how things might be, after that change.
In our gospel reading today we see Martha and Mary struggle with this need for imagination. Lazarus is dead. It’s been four days and the reality of that has started to sink in. Jesus arrives and first Martha, and then Mary also goes to meet him, and each says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” They each have enough sense of who Jesus is at this point to know that things could have been different, but now that Lazarus is dead, their hopes for a resurrection are postponed to the last day.
Jesus’ response is key here; “I am the resurrection and the life,” he says. I am here, now, present, and you don’t yet see how much that changes the range of things which are possible. I am the resurrection and the life; and that means that Lazarus can rise today, that life can return to one whose body already stinks. Throw out the normal rules, ladies, because where Jesus is, they don’t apply.
I wonder how often, in our lives, we do the equivalent of saying to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, things could have been so much better…” instead of looking around with the eyes of imagination, and seeing how things could still be so much better?
In a few minutes, Oscar’s parents are going to bring him for baptism. And for them, too, this is an act of a hope-filled imagination. They have seen that with God, with Jesus, there is potential open to Oscar which is absent if God is not acknowledged. None of us can know, when a child comes for baptism, what God will do in the life of that child, how he or she will grow, what he or she will become or accomplish. But we can claim the presence of God in that child’s life, knowing that that presence of God broadens the horizons of life, of spirituality, of hope for that child.
In baptism we claim that the one who raised Lazarus, the one who told Mary and Martha and the assembled mourners that all the usual rules don’t apply to him, will be present and active in Oscar’s life as he grows. That God will help him to develop a character which expresses love and joy and peace. That God will work through Oscar to bless those around him, in the uniqueness of Oscar’s particular gifts and strengths. We claim that for each of us who has gone through the waters of baptism.
In baptism we claim that broadened horizon of hope even beyond this life, trusting that somehow even in eternity we will continue to be in the presence of God.
These are big claims. It’s quite possible that some of you are listening to me, but thinking that they are not, in fact, very credible claims. And I can certainly understand why you would think that.
But this brings me back to thinking about the other little boy I started talking about, the one with the action figurine with the light sabre. Maybe he doesn’t know Jesus’ character so well yet, but he’s got one thing right; it’s a mistake to try to put limitations on what Jesus can and can’t do. The innocence of a childlike imagination is helping him to avoid the very grown-up traps of preconceived ideas or rigid thinking.
Jesus once said that unless we change and become like children, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven. It seems to me that one aspect of this is the ability to let go of our own perceptions of what is possible; to suspend disbelief, and to let our imaginations play.
So we come to the font, to baptise Oscar and to remember each our own baptism, and my question to you is, dare we imagine?