On a cold, crisp night, I found myself gazing up at the star-splattered sky, the stars like small lights on a dark, black canvas. As I looked upward, I wondered about the story of magi or the wise ones who visited Jesus.
They were likely astrologers who spent hours studying this same night sky that I was looking at, understanding the stars, their positioning and how they moved through the seasons.
The well-known story of Christmas of course is that one day these sages – for the record the Bible does not tell us there were three of them and it does not tell us they were men – one day these sages noticed a new star shining in the sky and, just like ships used to use stars to navigate their way home, these wise ones used the star to navigate their way to baby Jesus.
In their visit with Jesus, they discovered Love beyond their wildest imaginations and, after their visit, the Scriptures say they returned home by a different route.
In other words, they went home by a way they had not seen before and we are not told how they managed to accomplish this feat successfully.
I am left wondering at this reality. Sure, we are told they find their way to Jesus by a brilliant star, but I want to know …
How did they find their way back home again?
When they were wandering, either by starlight or daylight – we can’t be sure – all of their surroundings would have been completely unfamiliar because they were returning home by a different route.
As they navigate these strange streets and unknown cities, they definitely did not have a GPS and we don’t know whether or not they had a map.
Either way, I imagine it was tough. In my experience, here in Essex, even when I am armed with both, I still get lost and I have lived here a year and a half.
So how the wise ones made it home with no smart phone in a place where they had NEVER been before is beyond me.
As I pondered how the sages found their way home through these strange streets, I found myself also asking: How do we make it home when we find ourselves in unfamiliar places? When we feel lost, when we are lonely or heartbroken or scared or hurting — how do we find our way back home again?
To a place where we can feel safe?
To a place where we can experience peace and love and healing?
That’s a question that Google Maps can’t help me with, which is why I am so captivated by the story of the sages.
How did they make it home? That’s what I want to know.
How can we all find our way back home again?
I pondered this question as I read the Scriptures about Jesus’ baptism this week.
The author of Luke tells us that Jesus was around thirty years old when this story takes place. I imagine Jesus, as a young adult on the cusp of something new, had many questions and doubts running through his head:
“What kind of leader will I be?
Will I live up to people’s expectations?
How will I know what to do? I’m new; I haven’t done this sort of thing before.”
I imagine that Jesus had questions not just about ministry but about finding his way around geographically in the world without getting lost. After all, he had grown up in the small town of Nazareth. The coming years would take him out of this small town throughout the countryside, to temples and villages, through wilderness and across seas. Jesus too was journeying out into completely unknown territory and maybe he too wondered: How will I find my way home?
In light of this question, I find it striking that the very first thing that happens in Jesus’ ministry – before Jesus wanders into strange streets or even calls the disciples – is that Jesus comes to the Jordan River and is baptized by John. John takes Jesus and puts him under the water and as Jesus comes up, his hair wet, the water dripping down his face, the doubts still fresh in his mind, the people crowd around the shoreline to see:
What will happen next?
What will be the first thing that Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, does?
And before anything else can happen, the heavens open up, the Spirit descends like a dove and God proclaims, “You are my Beloved Child, with you I am well-pleased.”
In that moment, Jesus knows who he is. There is nothing else that he needs to hear. Jesus suddenly sees that no matter what he does, no matter what others say about him, no matter where he finds himself, he has been named and claimed as God’s beloved and that is all he will ever need to find his way back home again.
Because being lost happens when who we really are is clouded over by failure or guilt, anxiety or sadness, bitterness or fear struggles or our situation.
Yet, just like Jesus, we have been named and claimed by God. God shows up and calls out to each of us, “You are my Beloved. The ones with whom I am well-pleased.” This is what we celebrate in baptism. Baptism is an outward sign and symbol of God’s grace and love poured out upon us without abandon.
And so, when the voices of society diminish you and distract you from where you are going, when you find yourself suddenly wandering in strange streets and foreign cities, unsure how you will ever get out of there, remember that the waters of your Baptism lead you home again.
That is what I learned from the story of Fayette. I heard the story many times when I was a student pastor and I heard it again during the sermon when I was ordained. In the context of today, it is a story that enlivens the Scripture and helps us understand the meaning of Baptism.
I came to know Fayette’s story from the pastor at my internship, who had heard the story from Janet Wolf in Nashville, Tennessee. Fayette came to Janet’s church one summer pacing back and forth outside the open doors, listening intently to the music, the laughter, the words. Occasionally she would crouch down on the front steps engrossed, amazed and astounded by what she heard. Little by little that summer, Fayette moved from the sidewalk to the steps, from the steps to the door and finally one day from the door to the pew.
Months passed and finally Fayette decide to join a membership class. As part of this class, Janet began to explain about baptism. She began: “You see in Baptism, each of us is named” but before she could finish, Fayette jumped up and with excitement and enthusiasm, began to finish her sentence “each of us is named by God as bright brilliant, beloved child of God who is beautiful to behold.” “I know, I know those words. I heard you say them before at all the other baptisms.”
“That’s right,” said Janet, “we say them as a response to everyone’s baptism.”
“Well,” said Fayette, “I can’t wait until you say them at MY baptism.”
It seemed from that day forward Fayette began reciting those words over and over again whenever she could. During prayer time, in the middle of the sermon, in the midst of a hymn, you could hear Fayette shouting out, “You are a bright, brilliant, beloved child of God and you are beautiful to behold!”
Finally the day came for Fayette to be baptized. As she emerged from the waters, she sprang out of the baptismal pool dancing and leaping for joy down the aisle. Turning to the congregation, she said, “And now I am …” and the whole congregation responded, “bright, brilliant, beloved child of God who is beautiful to behold.”
Well, not long after, the pastor received one of those dreaded middle of the night phone calls. It was the local hospital calling to say that Fayette was there, having been brought in after a brutal assault. As Janet approached Fayette’s room, she could hear her mumbling to herself, “bright, brilliant, beloved … bright, brilliant … bright, brilliant beloved child of …”
Standing in the doorway Janet could see Fayette pacing back and forth. Her face was swollen and bruised, muddied and bloodied, haring going this way and that. She turned to see Janet standing there and she said, “I am a bright, brilliant, beloved child of God …” but she couldn’t quite finish it. Again she started, “I am bright brilliant beloved child of God” and turning to see herself in the mirror with the reality of the words not matching the image staring back at her, she went on, “And God is still working on me! And if you come back tomorrow I’ll be so beautiful to behold you won’t recognize me.”
Fayette teaches me about what it means to find our way back home. You see, Fayette knew, even in the midst of the struggles of her life, that there was nothing that could have take back, erase or wash away the truth that had been proclaimed at her baptism: that she was a bright, brilliant, beloved children of God who was oh so beautiful to behold!
God’s love is a beacon that leads us to peace, to healing, to hope, to resurrection.
I learned this not just from Fayette but from Anne Lamott. Anne tells the story of a young girl, about seven who got lost one day. The little girl ran up and down the streets of the big town where they lived, but she couldn’t find a single landmark.
She was very frightened. Finally a policeman stopped to help her. He put her in the passenger seat of his car, and they drove around until she finally saw her church. She pointed it out to the policeman, and then she told him firmly, “You could let me out now. This is my church, and I can always find my way home from here.”
I can find my way home from here.
Whether we are Jesus in the Jordan, or Fayette in the hospital, or a lost person in a city, God’s love is our beacon.
And it will always lead us home.
No matter how lost we might be.