1 Samuel 3.1-10
Mark Twain was the nineteenth-century American author of books like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Someone once asked him, ‘Mr. Twain, do you believe in infant baptism?’ He replied, ‘Do I believe in it? Hell, I’ve seen it!’
In Mark Twain’s day, there were those who wondered whether baptism should be reserved for those old enough to answer for themselves. A lot of people these days have doubts about the rightness of baptising infants too.
I want to talk a bit about baptising babies, and then I want us to recall that God called Samuel when he was just a child.
We baptised CJ this morning, and he didn’t make his own promises. M and A answered for him. Next month, we’ll baptise L and T’s son, and D and A’s daughters. Did we do the right thing with CJ? Will we do the right thing next month? Should we listen to those who say, Wait for them to make up their own minds?
Does the New Testament command us to baptise babies? No it doesn’t. (Does it tell us not to baptise babies? No it doesn’t.) What the New Testament does give us is a picture of the way baptism happened in a time and a place very different from ours. It was a time and place in which the Gospel was brand spanking new. (It’s still brand spanking new, but sometimes we make it sound old and tired. That’s a sin, but let’s save that for another day.)
The apostles went out to spread the good news that a Saviour had come, Jesus Christ the Lord. We read the stories of people accepting the message—stories of adult people accepting this new message of hope and life.
We also read about whole households being baptised. That’s another way things were different back then. If the head of a house became a Christian, everyone else did too. That was expected and understood. And it’s happened many times in the history of the world. A tribal chief becomes a Christian; so the whole tribe becomes Christian.
That challenges us, because it’s just not the way we tick. But our ways are not their ways. Our way is harder. A and M, I think you already know that CJ won’t become a Christian just because you are. You and we have got to put those promises we made into action if we want him to receive Christ for himself.
So in the New Testament, whole households were baptised. Did that include the children? I’m sure it did, if the head of the household turned to Christ. But we are not specifically told that the children were baptised.
Do we have anything else to go on? I’d like to mention two things.
Firstly, in the third century (around AD 215), we have a description of what was done in a baptism service. It talks about the adults and what they are to be and do as baptised members of God’s people, and then, right at the point of baptism, it starts talking about children. It says:
First baptise the children, and if they can speak for themselves let them do so. Otherwise, let their parents or other relatives speak for them.
Hippolytus, Apostolic Tradition 21.15
Notice this one thing: the children hadn’t been mentioned at all up to now. They’d been invisible before this point. If we didn’t have these words, we might think there were no kids there at all. But they suddenly pop up into view!
The second thing is simply this: in the ancient Church, there was no controversy about baptising children. (There were those who thought it was better to wait until the children were about two or three years old; but it didn’t occur to anyone to fight about it. But like Mark Twain, they ‘just believed in it’.)
This is too much like a lecture, and I sincerely apologise for that. I wanted to say these things because of the wonderful Old Testament passage we have today. Let me remind you of it.
Remember, it’s about the prophet Samuel as a child. Samuel has a very different kind of life; he has been dedicated to God, and he lives in the Tabernacle, the tent which came before there was a Temple. We don’t know how old he is, but the impression is of a child—just a child, and still God calls him. Samuel doesn’t have it all worked out, he’s not a mature believer. He doesn’t even know that God is calling him. Yet God calls him all the same.
Samuel is a child called by God to do wonderful things. God already knows Samuel. Nathaniel meets Jesus in our Gospel story. God knew Nathaniel before he was born. God knows us from before our birth.
God won’t wait until Samuel’s old enough to choose for himself, so why should we? God calls Samuel, and God calls CJ today. Will CJ do wonderful things? Well, if you ask his mum and dad, everything he does is already wonderful. But God has even more wonderful things in store for CJ to do. So we declare today that CJ is a child of God, adopted as a true son in God’s family. And so we baptise him.
The story of the call of Samuel encourages us to baptise the children among us. And you know, if it were the only story in the Bible about God calling us as small children, I’d be perfectly happy to baptise babies. But it’s not the only story. Jeremiah was called from the womb (see Jer. 1.5). John the Baptist kicked inside the womb of his mother Elizabeth when Mary visited her. And today’s psalm, Psalm 139, tells us that God has known us from the very beginning:
it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together
in my mother’s womb.
I praise you,
for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
God doesn’t want to wait till we’ve made our minds up, because God already has plans for us. We matter to God all our lives, not just when we’ve made our minds up.
Mark Twain wasn’t stupid. If he were here, he’d smile and say, ‘Do I believe in infant baptism? Why, I’ve seen it!’
So we value CJ and his parents we thank God for them; and we thank God for every child, and for the family of every child we’ll baptise in the days to come. Amen.