St Stephen Lewisham

18th January 2009

The Atheist Bus

You may have spotted a so-called ‘Atheist Bus’ with the following advertisement on its side, ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’. The fact that some of these advertisements appear on ‘bendy-buses’ (which will soon be obsolete) may tell us something about the campaign itself. However, it’s about those words, rather than the campaign behind them that we shall be thinking this morning – not least because of their relevance to celebrating Niyah’s Baptism here today.

Holy Baptism, of all the Sacraments, depends on our believing in God. You can get married, or be forgiven by someone, without any having any religious belief; but Baptism involves commitment – not just commitment to a god, but to the One God who revealed Himself to Man in the Person of Jesus Christ, and through His Holy Spirit turns into the sort of People He intended from our very conception.

When we say that we ‘believe in God’ it doesn’t just mean, as many people suppose, that we believe that God exists. Believing in someone is like believing in your doctor, or the surgeon who is going to operate on us. It means entrusting ourselves into his (or her) hands in the belief that they have both the will and the skill to make us better. It will also involve being willing to do whatever they tell us both before and after the treatment itself – in a word, obeying them.

The boy Samuel, about whom we heard in the first reading this morning, believed in God, and so he listened to Him; but he didn’t just listen to Him – he went on to do what God told him: he obeyed Him, even though this meant being obliged to give his beloved guardian, Eli, some really bad news, namely that both his sons would soon die in battle because, even though, like their father Eli they were priests they had behaved so wickedly.

Samuel was born in an age when people had little interest in faith. The word of God was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision, as the Bible tells us. In many ways it was like these present times. People had given up on worshipping the God who had saved both them and their nation, and as a result did pretty much anything they liked. Which, if you think of it, is exactly the same message which the Atheist Bus is spreading around: ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life’.

The problem with this message is two-fold. Not only do people of little or no faith do what they please – because if you don’t believe in God then there’s no very good reason why you shouldn’t do whatever your fancy suggests to you; but there is another, more serious problem, that it’s only when we believe in God (in the sense mentioned earlier) that we can find any satisfactory purpose to our lives. If, like Samuel, we believe that God has a Plan for each one of us, then our lives will have just such a single purpose – namely to ‘glorify God and enjoy Him for ever’. – though the details of God’s plan will differ from one person to another, depending on our nature, our talents, our age, our sex and our circumstances.

However, those who choose to take the advice on the Atheist Bus by making enjoyment the one aim of their life, find themselves in for a big disappointment. For Joy is neither something we can find by looking for it, nor, once we find it, something we can hold onto. Like gold-dust it slips through our fingers. As the poet William Blake wrote, joy is something we ‘kiss it as it flies’ and must be ready for it to fly away again. The person, like Samuel, who follows God’s Plan as it gradually unfolds and when following it ‘kisses joy as it flies’, will, (as Blake says) find that he (or she) ‘lies in Eternity’s sunrise’.

So in a few minutes, when we come to baptize Niyah we shall in fact be enrolling her in God’s service and launching her upon the life-long process of discovering joy. Of course the time will come when the responsibility for fulfilling that purpose will devolve upon Niyah herself. But the Sacrament of Baptism has to be the starting-point for everybody, Niyah included, because it will instantly transform her into ‘a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven’.

What greater gift could God give Niyah, or us? And who except God, with his plan for each of us, could bring about that transformation which converts us from being people without hope (and therefore without a worthwhile future) into His very own people, whom He has designed to enjoy Him for all eternity?

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