This is a great Sunday! We are going to baptize twins today, Clayton Alexander and Suzette Catherine Smith will become baptized members of the body of Christ today! What a joy for all of us. As we watch them being baptized we will recall our own baptisms and the vows made for us; we will affirm our faith again, and we will take vows to be instruments of God’s nurture in the lives of these children.
It is so fitting that our lectionary texts from the Old and New Testaments are both stories of children.
I want us to notice something together at the start: when the subject is children, we are in deeply significant waters. “Because they are cute” is not the reason we speak of children, baptize children, or have stories of children in our sacred scriptures. The stories we have of little Samuel and of Jesus as a child of twelve are stories of God at work in hugely significant ways, in the lives of children. The waters of baptism too are deep, because what happens here today sets the direction of the entire lives of these children – just as it did for us. Let us step into these waters together as we look at these texts.
The Story of Samuel
It may have been a while since you heard the story of Samuel. He was a gift-child; a child that was born to a woman who thought she couldn’t have children. Hannah would go to celebrate Passover, but for her, it was a sad time. She would stand there, in the presence of the Lord, and pour out her heart with tears because she was unable to be a mother. She vowed in prayer that if God would give her a son, she would dedicate him to the Lord. One year, as she was praying silently, the priest Eli thought she was mumbling from drunkenness. They had a brief conversation; she explained her situation. Eli prophesied that by the next year, she would have a child.
She did; she named him Samuel, and after he was weaned, she took him as a child to the priest Eli, to live at the shrine and to minister before the Lord. Every year she went up at the time of the Passover, and bring little Samuel new clothes to wear, and we are told:
the boy Samuel continued to grow both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people. (1 Sam 2:26)
You may recall that all of this was happening during a period of time during which the Israelites were to make the greatest transformation of her history, to that point, since Joshua led them across the Jordan river, ending their long years of wandering in the wilderness, into the land of promise. All the years since then until this time, they had been a collection of tribes with no king, no monarchy, no temple in Jerusalem. It was that little boy, Samuel, who was going to grow up to be Israel’s last judge, and who would anoint Israel’s first king. In that great time of change, Israel was transformed from a tribal-confederacy into a monarchy.
The story of the little boy Samuel, serving in the Lord’s house, is not told to us because it is cute or sentimental; it is told because it is the story of God at work in deeply significant ways; transformative ways, starting with a child.
As Luke tells us the story of Jesus, he remembers the story of Samuel, and he notices similarities. Mary and Joseph go with their family every year to celebrate Passover, just as Hannah’s family did. Hannah and Mary both have their firstborn sons under the most unlikely circumstances: Hannah had been barren, Mary was unmarried. Is it any wonder that Hannah’s song of praise to God at the birth of Samuel became the basis of Mary’s song of praise, the famous “Magnificat”. Both of the boys, we are told:
grow and become strong, increasing in wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him. (Lk 2:40 // 1 Sam. 2:26)
Both Samuel and Jesus are born into times of great transition: in Samuel’s days the nation became a monarchy; in Jesus’ days the nation is fast approaching its demise. Samuel anoints the first king of Israel; Jesus’ whole message was about the Kingdom of God coming near.
The similarities are here to alert us: this is not the story of a cute, precocious child who needs to be in the gifted program. This is the story of God who is again at work in the life of a child, born into troubled times of change, to be God’s instrument.
Raised in the Faith
So let us look for a moment at this story of Jesus as Luke tells it. Jesus is twelve years old. Just like Samuel’s family, Jesus’ family raise him in the faith traditions and spiritual disciplines of Judaism. They are torah-observant; they keep the commandments, they make the 90 mile round-trip journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem annually to observe Passover.
It is well to note that faith is formed in families: two kinds of families; the biological family that practices the disciples of faith and teaches the habits of faith to their children, and the community of faith in which they regularly participate. Take away either, and it is like pulling a burning log from the fireplace and setting it on the cold bricks of the hearth; the flame will not last long. We were created to live in families and in communities who take responsibility for each other.
So, back to the story, Jesus and his family and his clan, all in this big group of uncles and aunts and cousins all from this tiny village of Nazareth that has no more than 400 people total at this time, and probably less, participate in Passover, then as a group, they all head back home.
Have you ever been in a group traveling together in which one person wanders away on their own? If you are the leader, this kind of person makes you crazy. Well, Jesus was this person. It takes his parents a day to figure out that no, he is not in that group of rowdy cousins that clump together like a pack of frisky dogs; he is missing. They get frantic. I get that; I’m a parent. The search begins.
Finally the search ends three days later, not in the places where they stayed the night nor where they ate together; not in the market nor with the local twelve year old hoodlums, but in the temple.
Found in the temple
This too is highly significant. By the time Luke wrote down this story on parchment, there was no temple; it had been destroyed by the Romans in their effort to nip a revolution in the bud. Jesus had spent his short adult life, not as a teacher in that temple, but out in the provinces of Galilee.
Why? Why didn’t Jesus, who showed so much promise, follow the path of Samuel and become a leader of the upcoming generation? Why didn’t Jesus become a famous Rabbi in Jerusalem?
Was it perhaps because he was asking questions during those three days but was not getting answers that satisfied him? Luke tells us that Jesus was found sitting among the teachers, listening to them, and asking them questions. Then we are told:
47And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers.
His answers amazed them. Whatever he was saying was not what they expected. So did his understanding amaze them. He was not a rebel with cynicism for the system: rather he was a person who understood on a deep level, the essence of faith. He left the temple that day, with his parents, grew up, and spent his life teaching about the Kingdom of God, at a time when the kingdom of Israel was teetering on the edge of destruction.
Already, by age twelve, this boy, who had been nurtured in a believing, faithful family and community was starting to understand things about God that made the grown-ups squirm. This child who was comfortable in the temple was asking questions that didn’t have good answers from the folks in charge. This was about to become a time of enormous transition and change; God was doing something new, and he began with the spiritual formation of a child.
Our days of change
We are living in days of enormous change. This is a transitional period we are in now. The future will not look like the past – though in many ways it appears to. But everything you read agrees – this is a time of change. Yesterday, according to Mashable.com, for the first time in history, Amazon.com sold more e-books for kindles than paper books.
What does that mean for us, here, today? As we come to the waters of baptism today, we come to immerse these children into a deep tradition of faith in God that is ancient, stretching back as far as Jesus, as Samuel, as Moses, all the way back to Abraham. At the same time, we will witness the birth of a new generation of members of the Body of Christ who will live their lives in a world that looks and functions quite different than the one we were born into.
We come with questions: what will it be like? We do not know. But we come with deep understanding that the God who has been faithful in the past will be faithful in new days as well. Jesus Christ has come to us: he has taught us to know and love God our Father, apart from a temple, without priests and sacrifices, but in communities of faith and practice. Jesus has come to end temple sacrifices for all time by being the final sacrifice for the sins of the world – even a world that persists in misunderstanding him.
Jesus has come to teach us to understand that God’s will is not to make a new institution – a new temple to replace the old one, but rather to understand that in the Kingdom of God, God is served when we serve one another: when we call each other “neighbor”, when we bear the cup of water to the thirsty in his name, when we visit the sick and prisoners in his name, when we feed the hungry and cloth the naked in his name, when we touch lepers in his name.
Now it is our joy to affirm our faith in this God of faithfulness; to be people of confidence and relaxed trust, even in times of turbulent change, that the world is still in the loving hands of our heavenly Father. Trust him; he can handle it.
Now is also the time to commit ourselves to nurture this new generation in faith. How will God prepare them for the unknown future? By their deep understanding of the traditions of our faith. We will commit ourselves to helping Clayton and Ashley to raise Clayton jr. and Suzzette as disciples of Jesus Christ.
He’s got the whole world in his hands – trust him.
He’s got the tiny little babies in his hands – trust him.
He’s got you and me, brother and sister, in his hands – trust him.
He’s got all God’s children in his hands – trust him.