On this Sunday 15 years ago, I was just returning to the pulpit after a maternity leave/Sabbatical. Here is part of what I said to the congregation at St. Mark’s, Penn Yan that Sunday:
“You know, when I was pregnant, I got used to a lot of attention – people holding doors for me and asking time and again how I was feeling. Now the focus has shifted. It is amazing how attracted most people are to babies! So, I’m having to become used to the fact that when Marcella is on the scene, the one pushing the stroller is of little interest. But that is how it should be. And really, I couldn’t be happier. When people dote on her, I feel affirmed in my own head-over-heels infatuation with her.”
Reading that really took me back! And I had the same experience when Nicolas came along – most people are just so drawn to babies. What is it, do you think that makes babies so attractive? Part of it is of course that they are just so small – those tiny fingers and toes amaze us – how is it possible that they will eventually grow up to be a big as we are? But it’s more than that. I think we are also drawn to babies because of their utter, untarnished openness to the world. Babies don’t have any defenses up. The open their eyes in the morning and they just take it all in. Ant there is no pretense with babies. They haven’t learned to fake it in any way yet. They are authentic in their interactions with us. You can easily tell what they like and don’t like by their honest expressions. And is there anything much better than the feeling you get when you strike on something they like? The way their little faces light up can make you feel like a million bucks! And there is no cynicism in a baby. Think of a baby you know. Aren’t their bright little eyes and their inquisitive and engaged nature part of what draws you to them? I think that’s because in a way, we all long to get back to that place somehow. Back to a time when the world was new to us and each moment was an adventure. Back to a time when we were not in any way weighed down by the worries, griefs and injustices of this world. Basking in the glow of a baby can take us back, even if just for a moment. Spending time with a baby can get us back to basics and remind us about what is really important in life.
Maybe that is why Jesus refers to those who have truly received the good news of the gospel as infants – or in some Bible translations babes. He is talking here about those who may lack in what the world counts as wisdom and understanding, but who possess the clear vision that does not filter out the goodness in the good news. They are bright eyed believers who are bubbling over with enthusiasm. God has shown them something earth shattering and life changing in him and they are excited about it. These are the ones that Jesus gives thanks for in this morning’s Gospel lesson.
Now let’s be clear, Jesus is not suggesting that his followers need to remain in some sort of infantile state. He is not recommending a halt to the natural maturation process in our minds and in our spiritual lives. But he seems to be recommending an approach to the life of discipleship that moves away from pride and self-sufficiency, and instead bends toward dependence on the presence of God.
St. Paul, who penned the letter to the Romans which we have been reading from over the last several weeks liked to use his own life as an example of how off track we can get when we think we have reached a place of spiritual maturity and acumen. You will remember that before he took the name Paul, he had lived under the given name Saul. Under that earlier identity, he did everything in his power to destroy the community of faith growing up around the disciples of Jesus. On one such campaign of violence to Damascus, Saul was knocked off his horse, had a vision of Jesus calling to him and asking him why he was persecution him and his followers. Then Saul went physically blind and had to be carried to DaMarcus by others, where he spent 3 days in darkness. The darkness only broke when a follower of Jesus came, laid hands on him and prayed with him in the name of Jesus. It was this experience that led him to admit his own great lack of spiritual vision and to take a radical turn in his path of life, renaming himself as Paul, servant of Christ. Even years later, after becoming a central leader in the early Christian movement, Paul admits that though he strives to put the Gospel law of love always at the center of his life, he struggles, and is not totally free from the tendency to think that he can live on his own power alone. He describes this struggle in words we heard read earlier from his letter to the Romans. He writes, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind…with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.”
If he were living today, perhaps Paul would say, “Sin is cunning, baffling and powerful.” A simple definition of sin is, the self trying to occupy the center of life, thus sidelining God.
I love that Paul, the great and renowned apostle, makes this confession in this letter to the Romans. He, to whom God has revealed so much about the salvation available in Christ Jesus, is just like the rest of us – he struggles with the cunning and baffling power of sin to recommend itself to us over the power of God. There is no way around this. If the great apostle himself cannot over-come it completely, what makes any of the rest of us think we can?
Instead, we must go through life, not trying to defeat sin ourselves, but rather with the one who has done so already for us – Christ Jesus. In the closing words of the Gospel lesson for today, Jesus invites us into a life of mature spiritual connection to him. He invites with these words:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Writing about these words this week on the website “Working Preacher” Biblical Commentator Colin Yukman writes:
Jesus’ promise of rest should not be taken as guaranteed vacation time, but a kind of theological category. The language clearly recalls Moses’s own vocation (Exodus 33:12-17). To ease Moses’s anxiety about the uncertainty of the wilderness journey, God promises to accompany God’s people along the way: “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14…Jesus incredibly offers the rest which only the God of all Creation could extend to a weary Israel longing for the Promised Land.
As disciples, we do not simply attempt to duplicate the actions of an absent master; on the contrary, we rely on the ongoing presence of Jesus himself. This, too, is included in what Jesus means by “rest.” As Matthew reminds us early on, Jesus bears the name of the one promised in Isaiah: Immanuel, “God with us” (1:23). All who take the yoke of discipleship upon them can experience a kind of new creation sustained by the ongoing presence of the Creator in a life of discipleship.
Babies know that they are totally dependent on their parents, those who brought them into this world and who go on caring for them. Babies grow up and face a world of complexity that they were not aware of in their infancy. Their strong connections to parents who care for them all along the way is what makes them able to both face the world as it is and trust that they have many gifts to offer for the good of the world. Those who are mature in their faith and spiritual path have reached the same conclusions based on a strong and daily renewed connection with God. May this weekly worship we share in Jesus name be part of that strong connection for each of us alongside the daily practices of prayer and action that sustain us individually. All for the good and gracious purposes of God for God world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen+