Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Good Christian families today would be surprised by the baptismal service of the Middle Ages, and even Martin Luther’s minor changes to the ancient rite. In 1523, 6 years into the Reformation, the Order of Baptism for Lutherans prescribed the following. “The officiant shall blow three times under the child’s eyes and shall say: ‘Depart thou unclean spirit and give room to the Holy Spirit.’ Then he shall sign the child with the cross and say: “Receive the sign of the holy cross on both thy forehead and thy breast.’” That’s only the beginning. After a few prayers, it read, “The officiant shall now take the child, put salt on his tongue, and say: ‘Receive the salt of wisdom. May it aid thee to eternal life.” Then after a verse of scripture and the Lord’s Prayer, the Officiant shall take spittle with his finger, touch the right ear and the left and say, “Ephphatha, that is Be opened.” Mind you, this all takes place outside the church proper. Finally the child is brought to the baptismal font, where the confession of faith is spoken. Then it reads, “The sponsors shall be instructed to hold the child over the font, so that the pastor may make the sign of the cross on the crown of the head, and then pour water profusely over the infant. The drenched child would then be hurriedly wrapped in a white, holy and spotless robe, and then at last the pastor would place a burning candle into the child’s hand, with the words, “Receive this burning torch and preserve thy baptism blameless.” What a panic that would cause the adoring mother and father and their child in non-retardant white gown.
Interestingly, three years later, by the time Luther was baptizing his own first born son Hans, the rite had been pared down to the simple elements we know today: The water, the word, the sign of the cross, a white robe. The spittle, exhortation and salt were all gone. Candles were also optional- and could now be held by the parents.
Of course, it’s not unusual for kids to be curious about flames. Parents with toddlers know how much they delight in blowing out candles- even before they have sung Happy Birthday. Some of the earliest riddles children tell are about candles. What color Christmas candle burns longer, a red candle or a green candle? Neither – candles always burn shorter. Or, what did the big candle say to the little candle? I’m going out tonight. And my favorite, what did the Teddy Bear say after blowing out his birthday candles? No cake for me… I’m stuffed!
Children aren’t the only ones interested in candles and light. It is at the very center of Jesus’ most important meditation, The Sermon on the Mount. After leading the crowds to a grassy place overlooking the Sea of Galilee, he said to his disciples. “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hid. So let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
Although, the sermon today is for our baptismal families, it is really a message to each one of us. Jesus says, “You are the light of world- and most importantly, you are the light to your families and neighbors.” No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all in the whole house. That is your challenge. So where do you begin?
First of all, remind yourself that your Christian faith must be visible. And for better or worse, be aware that your children are watching what you do and say. One Sunday afternoon, a member of a church invited several friends of the congregation over to dinner, including the pastor. As they sat down to the table, the pastor turned to the 6-year old daughter of the house and said, “Would you like to say the blessing?” The little girl looked up to the pastor and replied, “Oh no, I wouldn’t know what to say.” To which the pastor answered politely and encouragingly, “Just say what your mother would say.” And so the guests around the table bowed their heads and listened to the earnest words of the little girl echoing the thoughts of her mother, “Dear Lord, why on earth did I invite all these people to dinner?” You cannot hide your Christian faith. It must be a light for all to see.
Second, as all forms of light, the Christian faith needs a source of fuel. You may be the constant, visible light that God has called to shine for your family, friends, and workplace, but with a renewed source of fuel, you will not burn long. Daily prayer and a time of worship are important to your effectiveness. So much so that when you miss it others can tell. Such was the case when a little four year-old accidentally spilled milk at the table. His mother responded in a screaming tirade. The young psychologist made an astute observation: “Mommy, you forgot to ask Jesus to help you to be nice today, didn’t you?”
So how do you renew your faith so that it is visible for all to see? Begin by telling the story. Children need to hear the story of faith at home and in church. That is how the energy of faith is renewed. Dr. Ross Campbell, in his best-selling work, “How to Really Love Your Children,” writes, “One of the chief complaints we hear from teenagers today is the failure of their parents to give them ethical or moral standards to live by in their formative years.” They fill their lives with activities, but not with stories of hope, forgiveness and love. And this all begins with stories. Young children, you see, do not learn morals and values, or what is right and wrong, by teaching them. Children learn these lessons through stories. Stories create your child’s reality. They create a reality of what is good and evil, fair and acceptable, just and honorable. The Biblical story creates a reality in which in God “all things are possible.”
On Tuesday, I will fly to Russia for my last visit as the ELCA Representative to Europe. One thing I have learned in the past 25 years in working to rebuild the church in post-communist Europe is the consequence when the story of faith is no longer told. Why was communism so effective in nearly destroying Christianity. Communism controlled the stories. In pre-school kindergartens, in schools, in social groups, young children were told stories that convinced them of a different reality. Through their stories they created a reality in which “with God nothing was possible.” Remember children always look first to their parents for the direction that allows them to develop healthy and meaningful values for life. So what stories are you telling them?
You also should share your light and renew your energy through the habits of your home. After church one Sunday morning, a young boy suddenly announced to his mother, “Mom, I’ve decided I’m going to be a pastor when I grow up.” “That’s okay with us,” his mother answered, “But what made you decide to be a pastor?” “Well,” the boy said, “I have to go to church on Sunday anyway, so I figure it would be more fun to stand up and yell than to sit still and listen.” Young children copy the habits and patterns that they hear and see, so set your habits carefully. Prayer, quiet times of reading, worshipping together as a family, these habits not only set a pattern for emotional and social growth, but they also set patterns your child’s spiritual development.
Letting your light shine, you see is not wearing Christianity on your sleeves to show everybody what a fine Christian you are. It is not wearing crosses on your ear rings and necklaces to show everyone that you are religious. No, letting your light shine is much more subtle than that. And you must find a way for the true light of Christ shine through you and your words and deeds.
My friends, is your light shining? You may not shine brightly, and sometimes “this little light of mine” may only be a glimmer of what God intended you to be. But even so, God has honored and invited you to be a part of his glorious story. You are light of the world. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.