Hespeler, 8 April, 2018 © Scott McAndless – Baptism of Lincoln
John 15:12-17, Ephesians 2:4-10, Psalm 139:1-16, 23-24
incoln Alexander ______, it is such a wonderful privilege for all of us to be able to celebrate your baptism today. It is wonderful because it means that your parents and your brother have been willing to share you – their joy in you, their hopes and dreams for you – with all of us and with Christ in this very meaningful way.
I remember when we first heard from your parents that you were coming and how exciting that was. When I heard what they had named you Lincoln Alexander, I wondered (the way that you do) what significance there was in such a name. One thing that occurred to me, for example, was that you might have been named after one of the most famous presidents of United States. You could certainly do worse than to be named after a man of such vision, the great emancipator who changed the world for good. We certainly still need people who will stand up and stand in integrity for what is right, no matter what the cost may be. But no, your parents tell me that you weren’t exactly named after Abraham Lincoln.
Next I wondered whether you might be named after Lincoln Alexander. That is also not too shabby for a namesake. Lincoln Alexander is a very important barrier breaking leader as every Canadian knows (or at least as every Canadian should know and it is a tragedy if they don’t). Alexander was Canada’s first Black member of parliament and first Black cabinet minister as well as Ontario’s 24th Lieutenant Governor. He blazed the trail for so many minority voices and leaders who have followed in his wake. But it appears that you were not named after him and the “Alexander” in your name is, not surprisingly, a gift to you from your father.
My next guess was that you were named after history’s third most famous Linc, the star character of the “Legend of Zelda” video game series. In fact, that is not really my guess at all but is actually who your father told me that you were named for. That too, is a great legacy – the hero of thousands of quests, the saviour of the beautiful princess Zelda – you could do worse! But alas, while your father does say that you were named after that Linc, I am not entirely sure that your mother agrees.
So we are left with what I am pretty sure is the ultimate truth. Lincoln, you weren’t named after anyone, not really. You are Lincoln, and your parents want you to be your own person and for you to grow up and set your own course and find your own destiny in life. That is what your parents hope and expect for you and for your brother overall and that, along with their love, is the greatest gift that they will ever give you.
The very concept of a God has long led human beings to struggle with strange concepts. We describe God as this being who is far beyond our limited human understanding. God is all-knowing and there is nothing in the entire universe that can ever escape God’s sight. We also believe that God is not limited by time and is able to view the past and the future just as easily as the present. Above all, we confess, God is powerful and nothing can resist the imposition of God’s will.
Now this understanding of God has created many problems in our philosophies and theologies. It makes us struggle with the problem of evil – if God is good and all-powerful like that, how is it possible that God would permit evil to occur? That is a great question and people of faith have been struggling with it for a very long time. Unfortunately, it is not a question we are going to be able to answer here today.
There is another question, connected to this idea of the nature of God, that I think we ought to deal with. If God is indeed all knowing and all-powerful, what does that mean about our own free will? Is the entire path of Lincoln’s life all laid out for him? Has it already determined what he will be and do – that he will be a great emancipator, or a breaker of barriers or a rescuer of princesses or some other thing? Is the whole future path of his life written for him? Is it written for you and for me? And if it is, what is the point of all the human plans, hopes and dreams that we cherish?
A quick reading of our responsive psalm this morning would certainly seem to indicate that we have very little control over our own paths through this life: “O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.” That certainly seems to be saying that all of our paths are completely determined – that God has literally hemmed us in and so limited our choices that we simply must move in the directions that God has given to us.
And, by the way, we don’t even need to appeal to an all-knowing God to run up against this whole question. The whole scientific approach to reality – where every effect has a cause – has led us to the idea that everything in a human’s life is pre-determined. For example, if the decisions that I make are determined by such things as the levels of certain chemicals in my brain, previous life experience and the circumstances that surround me, can I really say that I have free will to determine the course of my own life?
So what is it? Are we truly free beings who have an ability to set our own course in life, or is everything determined ahead of time and are we merely puppets who must follow a course that has been already set for us? To put it another way, who is Lincoln? Is everything that he is destined to be or to do already written? Is his destiny already decided by science? By his parents? By God? “In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” Is that what that means?
It certainly is possible to read the Psalm from this morning and conclude that that is what it is saying. But I don’t necessarily agree that it is the way that we were intended to read it. The Psalm, you see, isn’t really about the freedom of human will, it is about how well God knows us and relates to us. The psalmist talks about how God is everywhere with him and how he could not escape God even if he tried no matter where he might go in the entire universe. “If I ascend to heaven, you are there;” he declares, “if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.”
This is not a matter of God chasing us everywhere we go or anticipating our every move with all-knowingness. It is rather the case that, wherever we go, God is already there, has always been there because there is no place in the universe where God cannot be. The psalmist is able to set his own path as he travels through the universe and through time, it is just that wherever he goes, he will discover that he has been able to do nothing outside of the grace and benevolence of God.
It is in that spirit that I understand the words, “you discern my thoughts” in this psalm. It is not that God is somehow reading your thoughts from someplace on the outside. It is more that God is already present in your brain just as God’s presence is everywhere else in the universe. The God who gave us the ability to think, reason and choose can hardly fail to completely understand the processes by which we make our choices – processes, by the way, that modern neurologists have only begun to understand.
That is why I do not feel as if believing in God means that you lose your free will. Your course through life is not all set. Even when you are acting in obedience to God, it is not the type of obedience you might expect from a soldier drilling on the parade square where every moment is programmed out. There is not just one path for your life that is God’s correct and sanctioned path for you. Rather than acting like your drill sergeant, God is your constant companion on the journey. When you are open to God’s presence, God becomes so intimately involved in the decisions you make that it’s hard to know where your thoughts end and God’s begin.
Lincoln’s baptism today is a wonderful reminder of the entire basis of our Christian faith. We have today welcomed Lincoln fully and completely into everything that the Christian faith can offer to anyone. We have offered him hope, forgiveness, salvation and life eternal. We have welcomed him into full membership in the church of Christ, though, of course, we will wait until he is older before we ask him to choose for himself whether he will take on all of the commitments and responsibilities that come with being an active member of this congregation. These are all wonderful, divine and valuable gifts – gifts that many in this world have not found.
But what has Lincoln done to gain these things? Basically nothing. He just showed up – that is it. He didn’t even have to demonstrate any faith or understanding and it was his parents and us who confessed faith today. So how is it possible that we could offer so much to Lincoln today when he has done little to nothing to deserve it? This makes no sense according to the logic of our world, but it is the greatest mystery of the Christian faith, perhaps best expressed in a couple of the verses that we read this morning, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” It is only by the grace of God, a gift freely given, that we can claim so much for Lincoln and it is because of the grace of God that none of us can claim anything more than what this child has been given.
But there is one other gift that we have claimed today that doesn’t always get the same attention. The apostle continues on from there to talk about the purpose behind it all. “For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” What this is saying is that God has loved you, me and Lincoln so much that God not only gives us salvation and hope, God has also given us the great gift of meaning – that your life will mean something. God has something for you to do. Again, this is not just a matter of God having one specific thing for you to do and if you fail to do this one thing you will have failed. It is more like what we have been talking about that God will be there with you as you make your choices and develop what is actually important to you and that, if you are open to God’s presence, God will enable you to carry out the good works that have been prepared for you as you follow your path.
And this also we can celebrate today. We do not know what particular “good works” are in Lincoln’s future but we stand in awe of the great potential that is there in just one young life. Will he grow up to set free some in this world who are still in bondage like Abraham Lincoln did? Will he break yet unimagined barriers in politics, science, engineering, who knows what like Lincoln Alexander did? Will he save a princess? I don’t know, but I do know that some great good works have been prepared for him to do, that is why his heavenly father has claimed him, that isinin why his Lord Jesus has saved him and that is why we celebrate his baptism today.