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Child of Promise
For the Baptism of Joshua Aria Abdi


Old Testament: Isaiah 9:6-7

New Testament: Luke 2:21-32


On this Christmas Day when we celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus Christ, it seems to me that there is no better sacramental way to mark the occasion than to christen another baby, and, as it happens, one with the same name. In a few moments we will dedicate the infant Joshua Aria Abdi to God. And before we do, I want to help you to reflect on the significance of what we will do. I believe our scripture lessons will help us to do this quite nicely.

Both of our passages, the one from the Prophet Isaiah, the other from Luke the Evangelist, fall into a particular literary genre. Both are called "birth oracles." Birth oracles were made by court prophets on the birth of the new heir to the throne of Judah. There seem to be several of them in the Bible. The Isaiah passage is not intended as a prophecy of a Messianic king whose coming might be expected in some far off future. It was rather Isaiah's hopeful oracle, a kind of well-wishing, on the occasion of Heze­kiah's birth. His birth boded great things, and biblical history tells us that indeed he fulfilled them.

The idea of a birth oracle is something like casting the horo­scope of the new born to see what his future will hold. The idea may seem strange, but that's pretty much what Matthew's Magi do for the infant Jesus. By interpreting the meaning of a star which rose at his birth, they know his destiny is to be king.

And Simeon delivers a birth oracle for Jesus, too. He takes up the child and announces that his future is to be a great one, though not without turbulence--as is the case with great lives generally, I suppose.

Let me pause a moment to consider what the Prophet Simeon says before he begins his oracle proper. "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word; for mine eyes have seen thy salvation." In other words, "Now I can die in peace, I can die satisfied; I have lived, at long last, to see what you promised I would see: the coming of the savior."

There is a great wisdom here, a wisdom that wells up from the depth of the soul of a parent, even. deeper: from the wellsprings of the species. Simeon could not die till the child of promise should arrive. And then his own prophetic work is done.

Every parent knows, too, that his or her work is done once his or her child has arrived, though in another sense it is just begin­ning. Think how much of our endeavor and of our instincts are aimed at the moment of bringing forth a child, a child who will replace us. That goal is so fundamental that usually we do not even notice that is what we are bending all our energies toward.

Let me give you an example. Several years ago, Carol and I went to Houlihan's with Becky and Rey Redington. Victoria was a newborn and we brought her with us. Carol made some comment about how incongruous she must seem as a mother with her baby here in what was essentially a singles joint with young folks cruising for the opposite sex. And then Becky made a very wise remark, wise with the wisdom of Simeon. She said, "Carol, you've got what they're all trying to get."

Yes, that's right, all the mystique of romance, flirting, and sex, is Nature's programming to get us dumb humans to be about our evolutionary business: to repopulate the next generation. We may not know it at the time, but isn't it obvious?

And then when we get that business done, when we become repro­ductively mature and have children, and when we start to care for them, what happens to us? Our powers begin to ebb. As our babies grow, we begin to fade. As John the Baptist says of Jesus, once he ushers him onto the public scene: "He must increase, and I must decrease." We retire from center stage. Our lives are not about us anymore. They are in large measure about our children.

Why do we start getting old and fading? Nature's business is to make you attractive and alluring only into the reproductive years. And once Nature's got you there and you've done your bit; she has no further need of you! Nature can afford to allow you to wear out and turn her attention instead to your kids, to make them grow toward childbearing, and to start the cycle all over again.

And, like Simeon, we can step aside, our business done, now that the child of promise has arrived.

Did you notice that in both our readings, much is made of the naming of the child? In Isaiah's birth oracle for young prince Hezekiah, he is given a whole panoply of titles: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Prince of Peace, Everlasting Father. These were precisely the same titles bestowed on every Egyptian Phar­aoh, too. These are the great roles, and equally the great res­ponsibilities, the king is to fulfill for his people. They deli­neate the burden he would bear.

Jesus, too, is given a great name. "Jesus," or “Yeshua," means "Yahweh is Salvation." And Simeon understands that Jesus will one day flame forth as the beacon of salvation for the nations of the world. It is a role he is assigned.

Sometimes in the Bible a name is a prayer. When Abraham and Sarah name their son Isaac, the meaning is probably "May God smile upon him." But in the case of these birth oracles, the name is more of an assignment. A name is a destiny. The path is marked out for the infant Hezekiah and for the infant Jesus. As it happens, they fulfilled their names.

Today we are dedicating a young child to his destiny. That destiny is contained in his name. He is Joshua, again, "The Lord is salvation." He is named Aria, which means, "the Noble, the Nobly born." He has a fair name and a noble destiny.

It is moments like this, when we pause to take an infant in our hands and to consider his future, that I feel a curious sense of dislocation. What I feel is that I am in that moment living in a memory. Because I feel very keenly the fact of a destiny already gestating in so small a package. It is as if even now that future, that destiny of fulfilling the name, is stretching forth invisibly into the future from a starting point that we hold in our hands. It is invisibly real already, and thus we, standing at the beginning, are already standing, like figures in a photograph, in Joshua Aria's past.

Imagine a day many years hence when Joshua Aria has surpassed even the hopes Ellie and Hosman dreamed for him today. They look back as proud parents to this day when none of it had yet unfolded from the vital seed of potentiality. That future is so powerful that it makes today already a shade of the past, waiting to catch up with the future. Again, we are like Simeon, who gladly admits he is that precious moment, utterly superseded, put well into the shade.

The future of Joshua Aria Abdi pulsates within him, eager to be growing. And like any seed, it needs to be tended and watered, and so our work is not done. It is the task of Ellie and Hush more than anyone else's, but we here who rejoice with them are thereby obliged to take our share of responsibility, especially Joshua's godparents.

Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and great things are ahead for him. Great things are locked within him, waiting to emerge. His destiny is the path that will reveal its contours to him as he walks boldly forward, as he follows its twists and turns. And he will be free to follow that path or to turn aside from it.

Tillich speaks of a dialectic in every life of freedom on one hand and of destiny on the other. Without either, there can be no greatness in human achievement. Our destiny presents our tasks to us, but we embrace them freely, or not at all. Destiny needs never to resort to compulsion. We recognize it and go forward to meet it with delight and desire, even as Isaac ran to meet his beloved Rebekeh.

It is Joshua Aria's task to tread that path for himself, but it is ours to help him recognize it, and to prepare him to meet it.


For the Baptism of Joshua Aria Abdi

Christmas Day 1994


We are gathered together today to dedicate and to bless this child and no less to bind ourselves in a covenant on his behalf.

And they were bringing children to him, that he might touch them; and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it he was indignant and said to them, "Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for it is to such as they that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs. And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands upon them.

[Take Joshua from parents and speak to him, saying:]

Joshua, we invoke upon you the Spirit of Truth, wishing for you a life abundant in love and opportunity. We require of you vows of faithfulness and noble aims that you cannot now understand.

You are blissfully ignorant of what we know about you: that you are the bud of a full flower, that we speak in you to one like ourselves, an individual sure to face the ambiguities and the challenges, the slings and arrows, the thousand natural shocks all flesh is heir to.

We know what you do not know. So what we require of you we will try our best to give you. We bind ourselves with a solemn oath today, that living among us you will see examples to emulate, love to be warmed by and to pass on in turn. We make a covenant with you to live with you so that you will find us an even road to an upright life, not an obstacle to it. To this we dedicate ourselves. And for our failures, which are sure to come, we ask your forgiveness.

I ask the godparents: will you commit yourself to be loving friends for this child, that he may never lack someone to respect, to learn from, and to look up to?

[Godparents: We will.]

Will you take an active interest in Joshua's growth, knowing that you undertake an obligation only less than that of his parents?

[Godparents: We will.]

Jesus said, "The man old in days will not hesitate to ask a little child of seven days about the place of Life, and he will live. For many who are first shall become last, and they shall become a single one."

Will you, Ellie and Hosman, covenant with this flesh of yours to provide a home of love, a haven of rest, a nest of harmony, as far as it lies in your power?

[Parents: We will.]

Here is one as vulnerable as the hatchling in the nest. Will you commit yourself now to protect and to nourish this tiny one, knowing that his life is a greater gift even than your own?

[Parents: We will.]

Will you see to his needs, setting aside wrath and ill-temper, in sickness and in health, in good fortune and in ill, recalling the word of Jesus of Nazareth, "Whoever gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones will not lose his reward"?

[Parents: We will.]

Will you resolve to hear as well as speak, to remember that youth knows things that age has forgotten, and that much truth has been vouchsafed to babes and hidden from the wise and understanding?

[Parents: We will.]

Then in the presence of this community of affirmation and this family of love I baptize you, Joshua Aria Abdi, in the Name of the Manifestations of God, Jesus Christ and Baha'ullah. I anoint you with the oil of gladness, with the Holy Spirit and the Glory of God. May you grow in wisdom and in stature and in the favor of God and men.

[Return Joshua to his mom and dad.]

Today we have planted the seed of future righteousness, courage and wisdom. Let none of us forget our duty to water that seed in due time. Amen.

[By choice this was my last Sunday at First Baptist Church of Montclair. The parents were Iranians, one a Christian, one a Baha’i. One set of Godparents were Baha’is, the other Shi’ite Muslims. Here you see the way of the future.]





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