January 10th, Epiphany Sunday, St Mary Magdalene, morning

Baptism of Rose and Theo Pumfrey

Reading Matthew 2.1-12

Preacher Canon Robert Titley

A couple of significant birthdays. Today David Bowie turns 65 (an idea I’m struggling to comprehend, as he is cemented in my mind as the voice in the soundtrack of my adolescent years), and yesterday saw the 70th birthday of a genuinely great figure.

Dear Professor Hawking, on BBC Radio 4 last week, broadcast some of letters sent to perhaps our greatest living scientist: moving words about the inspiration he has brought to people with illness or disability, the enthusiasm for science he has kindled in young and old; and questions, lots of questions: What was there before the Big Bang? What would happen if you fell into a black hole? and so on. It was a privilege to listen.

The Professor knows a lot, but he’s not infallible. We discovered last week that women are a mystery to him, and that he has an odd picture of God. He believes that science has made God unnecessary as an explanation of the origin of the universe. And if there is a God, he says,

we are such insignificant creatures on a minor planet of a very average star on the outer suburbs of one of a hundred thousand million galaxies [that] it is difficult to believe in a God that would care about us or even notice our existence.

If you want to talk about God, says Prof Hawking, think of God as ‘the embodiment of the laws of physics’.

God as a figure of speech or God as a supersized human being, with the same problem remembering the byways of the universe that you or I have remembering the birthdays of distant relatives: neither of them a picture of the creator that thoughtful Christians will recognise. Even so, you kind of know what he means: you look up into the immensity of the night sky and you ask, ‘If God is there, how can you and I – how can even Rose and Theo – matter to God, when we are just specks of dust on the speck of stardust that is our world?’

In the face of this the New Testament offers a bold and opposite claim: we matter so much to God that God was born as one of us. ‘In the beginning was the word,’ says John’s gospel, ‘and the word was made flesh’ (John 1.1,14): the God whose word ‘spoke’ the laws of physics has indeed been ‘embodied’, in a human life. And in Matthew’s gospel today, that claim is shown, made manifest, advertised to us.

Now that is part of the business of Theo and Rose’s dad. Justin and I talked last week about the challenge of finding the right picture to advertise something, an image that is both compelling and truthful. Matthew gives us a scene which has inspired a thousand compelling pictures in Christian art (including the one on your order of service which comes from one of our windows). It says, in effect, ‘What you see here is not fairly important: your life depends upon it.’

When Jesus is born, says Matthew, he receives some visitors, the wise men. They are clever, they are confident – quite happy, for instance, to drop in on a foreign king – and, if their presents are any guide, they have plenty of cash. And these people, who have most of what life has to offer, put it all at the feet of this little child, because their life depends on what they see there. Then there is the king, Herod. He reckons that his life depends on this, too: it depends on getting rid of Jesus, this rival for his power, and if you come back to church tonight you’ll hear Part Two of the story,and the lengths he goes to to try to pinch off the threat.

And so to Rose and Theo. Do they matter to God? We are about to show how much they matter by pouring the water of Christian meaning on their new lives. Beside the crib that shows Jesus sharing their life, we shall baptise them, as Jesus himself was baptised, so that they may share his life. In time, we pray, they will respond. They will certainly have to decide whether this stuff is true or not but – before that – I hope they will have get the message that Christian faith it is not trivial; that, if it is true, you life depends on it, on knowing the God who bothers so much about you.

It’s our job – Sophie and Justin their parents, Mark, Alice, Pierre and Julia their godparents, and all of us here, the people of God in this place – it’s our job to help Rose and Theo get that message. It’s our job to ensure that, when they come to St Mary’s, they breathe here an atmosphere of expectation; that they find here a place that people come to, expecting God to show up too; and that they find here the wise men and women of our day, who offer their treasures to God, because their lives depend on God and because they have discovered that secret of life, known to those who are truly wise, which is that (in bad times as well good) generosity brings joy. That is our prayer for Rose and Theo, as they now receive in baptism the sign of God’s great generosity to us.


‘A speck of dust…’ – the image is from Austin Farrer’s Christmas sermon, ‘A Grasp of the Hand’ , in Austin Farrer, the Essential Sermons, edited by Leslie Houlden, SPCK, page 207.

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