The poet William Wordsworth once wrote:
“Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come,
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy.”
I find resonance with that poem every time a hold an infant – there is a freshness, a vital new energy they bring that is, to me, irresistible. As others have put it, they have the dew of heaven fresh on their brow. Usually on this feast of our Lord’s baptism, we baptize such little ones, and we have several little ones in the parish, but in order to include family and God parents from far away, we will baptize them on several occasions in the coming months.
Nonetheless, this feast gives us the opportunity to consider again our own baptism and its meaning in our lives. That Wordsworth poem that I began with, continues on this way:
“Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy.
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.”
What this poem captures for me is the sense that though we come into this world trailing clouds of glory, life in this world can gradually turn us and fade the memory of the God from whom we come. What happened to Jesus at his baptism, and what happens to us at ours is that the clouds of life in this world which may obscure our vision of the light from which we descended, are cracked open and the mystical reality of our connection to a loving God is remembered and reaffirmed, and we are touched by the Holy Spirit. Now if we are tiny babies when we are baptized the remembering and reaffirming happens in those who surround us on that day – our parents, our God-parent, our siblings, grand-parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and our family of faith in the congregation. And the Holy Spirit comes upon us and, I like to think, plants the seeds of spiritual gifts that with time and nurturing can bloom into talents and facets of our personalities that God will use for good in our world.
And it is plain – is it not – that the world needs people to be connected well to God? We simply have to look around to see that all sorts of evil and suffering spring up when people are not walking humbly with God. Now those of us who are go getters, who are people of action might get all fired up by this sort of talk. But we would do well to pause on this feast and to remember that when it comes to baptism – both Jesus’s baptism, and our own – baptism is not about what we are going to do to make the situation right again in the world – and indeed in our own lives- rather it is an acknowledgement that only God, working in us can make the situation right again. Baptism can make us fearless in accepting the fact that our world is severely bent by human sin, because baptism offers us a covenant with God who- unlike us – is stronger than that sin.
And that covenant is free gift to us. We don’t have to do anything but reach out and accept it. There are no prerequisites or entrance exams. All we need do is open our hearts to God’s grace who comes to us in Christ so we can be swept into God’s loving embrace. We don’t even need to understand the mystery of God’s incarnation in Christ – as if that would ever be fully possible – all we have to do is see that God loves the world and all people so much that God would want to come among us in human form. As a friend of mine says – even just the willingness to have willingness to believe works. In our first lesson the prophet Isaiah said the one who is coming among us in God’s name, or as God’s word, “a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.” It is not our strength that God needs, but rather our willingness to put our trust in God’s promise to lead and guide us in the Spirit. And when we cannot muster up even a little willingness to believe, we can run here, and borrow some from the person in the next pew.
There is a wonderful story that Tom Long, a renowned preaching professor, tells about how faith is shared in community this way:
“Late one spring a former student came by Tom’s office for a cup of coffee. They chatted about this and that and then she said, “I have a secret to tell you.”
“What is it,” Tom Said.
“I’m pregnant, she said.
He was overjoyed. She and her husband had a seven-year-old daughter, and they had been trying since their daughter had been born to have another child, but had been unsuccessful and had finally given up. Now she was pregnant.
“That’s wonderful news,” Tom said
“We just got the test results and we know two things about our child. Our child will be a boy, and will have Down’s syndrome.”
Tom said that he knew she must be bruised reed and a dimly burning wick.
“I don’t know how we are going to handle it,” she said, “but we are trusting in God to help us.”
At Christmas that year a card and letter arrived in Tom’s mailbox from this former student, who wrote, “After nine long months of unmitigated discomfort, at four in the morning on August 18, I knew the magic moment had come. At last at 10:55 am, Timothy Andrew took his first breath and let out a hearty yell, he was whisked off to neo-natal intensive care where he spent the next three days before coming home. He’s strong, alert, beautiful. He has the sweetest disposition. He shatters daily our images of handicapped and special needs. He may need special help, but already he is no slouch in giving special love. We are blessed. Kate (that’s their 8 year old) is Tim’s champion. Hearing our concerns about how well Tim might be accepted by other kids, Kate informed the kids on our block, ‘My brother has Down’s syndrome and everybody’s going to play with him or else!’ One evening we overheard her talking to Tim: ‘I’m so glad you’re here, Timothy, I will always love you, I’ll never leave you, and I’ll always be nearby.’”
Don’t you just hear the echo of God’s words to Jesus at his baptism in the words of this little girl to her brother? These are words of love and hope and appreciation. God never stops loving us, hoping in us and appreciating us, even when our wicks burn low, or our bruised reed parts show. And when we lend and borrow that faith in community the mystical body of Christ, of which we are a part through our baptism, is built up.
Today we celebrate that God has given us the gift of a covenant in our baptism that can shape our lives for good, if we are willing daily to stay close to God, listen for guidance, and generously share our faith with those who need it. May it be so among us!
I want to end with some words from the 13th century mystic, Mechtild of Magdeburg. In one of her visions, God spoke to her about the covenant relationship between us and God. Mechtild wrote this:
“God said, ‘I am like a great magnet and you are like a needle, and I will draw you to myself’ That this God, no matter what mess we make of our lives, no matter how much we feel we have failed, nor will never make it, or God is far away – this Great Magnet – because we are made of the same essence of this Great Magnet – This Great Magnet, this Great God, will have us home.”
In the name of the Word alive among us, Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen+