Did you hear it? God knows you, right down to your cotton socks. Before you were born, God knit you together in the womb: you are the product of divine handiwork. God watched as each bone took shape in secret; God saw your body grow in the depths. You are made in the image of God. There are no exceptions: every one of you is fearfully and wonderfully made.
Do you believe it? For you were born, and you were not perfect, and gradually you realised that no one else is, either. We have lumps and bumps, weaknesses and foibles, rashes and allergies, disabilities and mucked up biochemistry and over-reactive guts, crippling anxiety and fear and depression and doubt—is this what divine handiwork looks like?
The Augustinian answer is ‘No!’ That sin entered the world, and our imperfect selves are the product of sin, a sin which can only be washed away through the earliest possible baptism and repentance. And we do live in a sinful world, which damages and shapes us and in which we participate: there is no way around that. Yet who is God? Aloof, judgemental, contemptuous of stumbling souls, waiting to punish? Well, this is not the God revealed through Jesus Christ.
For we place our faith in a loving God, a God who loves us so much that they relinquished divine power and came to us as human. And this human, Jesus, did not strive to seem perfect, but instead showed perfect maturity as he aligned himself with the sick, the suffering, the possessed, the foreigner, the social outcast, the lonely, the confused; and, of course, with the child.
His loving acceptance shocked everyone; yet many flocked to him, bringing their children: sick children, ratty children, pushy and disobedient children; children with disabilities; babies who cried all night. Ordinary kids, fearfully and wonderfully made. And Jesus said, “Let them come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” He did not single out particular children, who were gifted, or squeaky clean, or polite, or upper middle class, or trained in religious practice. Instead, he welcomed all children, and all who are like children; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God already belongs. Do you hear that? There are no barriers and no hurdles for any child, or anyone who is like a child, to enter God’s kingdom; there is no need for early baptism; the kingdom is already theirs.
Some people say this is because children are hyper-holy: innocent babies, super-spiritual toddlers, young children chatting to God. Certainly, many children show a deep spirituality, but this is not the reason the kingdom is theirs. The reading from Samuel tells us that, although God knew him and called him by name, Samuel “did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.” He could hear God, but he did not yet know God. Like all of us, knowing God was something he grew into.
So why does the kingdom belong to children, and people like children? Well, like the other people Jesus aligned himself with, children are deeply vulnerable: they rely utterly on others, and in this they model his own perfect life, ministry, and death. For Jesus relinquished all power and became vulnerable. He relied absolutely on God for love and guidance, and the ministry of angels, women, and men for his needs. He also relied on religious institutions and the state for justice and mercy, although he did not receive them; and so, like too many children even now, he accepted their violence on his own body, even unto death.
In their vulnerability, then, and in their utter reliance on family and others for love, food, shelter, kindness, education, justice, mercy, and safety, every child is an icon into the nature of God. God’s culture belongs to them, not because of their inherent loveliness, but because of their vulnerability and need. God makes fragile ordinary people, who must rely on God and others for all life; and this is good. In our wealthy atomised society, we pretend this is not true. We mock and deride this, or deny it altogether; but Jesus and children remind us of the truth: we need each other, and we need God, to live, and to live deeply, freely, and abundantly. Truly, we are fearfully and wonderfully made.
This is not to deny that children have spiritual experiences. They do. Perhaps they sense God’s presence through the wind and the waves; perhaps they feel it in the love of others; perhaps, like Samuel, they hear God calling in the night. But whatever their experiences of God, like Samuel, they need a worldview and a language for those experiences to be vested with meaning and able to be shared: and this is where we come in. As a Baptist faith community, we have a priestly role: together with Christ, we form the priesthood. And so, like Samuel’s mentor Eli, together we seek to point every child, and every adult, towards the God made known in interdependence, vulnerability, and powerlessness: Jesus Christ, Son of God.
We perform a rite of dedication, then, to remind family and faith community—us!—of our responsibilities towards this child, and every child: to raise them in the patterns and practices, language and worldview, of faith, and to walk with them along the ancient way. We do so in the hope that, one day, every child will recognise and accept for themself God’s promise of abundant life through God’s life-giving culture; that they will plunge into the depths of the waters of baptism and find God waiting there; and that they will realise God has been with them, and has known them and loved them in the depths of their being, all the days of their life. Amen. Ω
A reflection on Psalm 139 and 1 Samuel 3:1-10 by Alison Sampson for Sanctuary, 14 January 2018, as a prelude to an infant dedication, Baptist-style (B12)