Everybody loves a baby. Well perhaps not everyone, and after the umpteenth interrupted night, even parents can feel less than warm towards their offspring, but most people, most of the time would find it hard not to love a baby. They appeal to the protective instincts in us. They remind us of a time when life was uncomplicated, and all ahead of us. They are symbols of innocence and hope.
It’s not just human babies that are appealing. Kittens, puppies, foals, chicks, lambs… they are surefire winners too. Many people have ended up with pets they never meant to have because they just couldn't resist that bundle of fur. Animal rescue centres are always having to pick up the pieces when that adorable kitten or puppy turns into a full grown cat or dog, and loses its baby appeal.
That’s the thing about babies. They are just the beginning. Whatever species they are, they don’t stay babies for long. They grow up. But what do they grow up into?
The first of the pictures I've put in the service sheet is a baby which I have to confess is not one
And what about the baby below it, a tadpole). It will grow into a frog, but you’d never guess that to look at it.
The third picture is one that is much easier – newborn babies, who will grow up into adult human beings like us. And yet, in a sense they are just as much a mystery as that awkward looking parrot chick or the tadpole. Those human babies all look pretty much the same to us. It would be quite hard to tell them apart – I’m surprised there aren’t more mistakes made in maternity hospitals than there are, though perhaps some go unnoticed! And yet, each of those children is a unique individual, who will go on to lead a life that is quite different from all the others. Who can tell at this stage what they will become. One of them might do something extraordinary, win a Nobel prize or an OIympic medal. One might struggle through life. One might live quietly, another might end up famous. You just can’t tell. To us, they might look the same, but to their parents each one is full of potential, a child they have lots of hopes for, and probably some fears as well. Sometimes it takes a mother or father really to see what might be in a child as well as what is.
In our Gospel reading today we meet two mothers who have seen the potential in their children even before they have been born. Elizabeth is expecting the child who will become John the Baptist, the preacher and teacher who will prepare the way for Jesus. And Mary, of course, is carrying that very special child, whose message and ministry will change the world, announcing God’s love for us all. Whether this encounter ever really happened or not, we’ll never know, but Luke’s message is clear. Right from the start these are children who will have a profound impact, and their mothers know it.
Mary and Elizabeth will shape the early lives of these two boys and set them on the right road – a hard road for them as mothers, but as a result, both John and Jesus will also learn to see the potential in others. John will call people to repentance, telling them that they can change and become more and better than they were. He will spot Jesus himself and acclaim him as God’s special one. And Jesus will make a life’s work of seeing God at work in unexpected places and people. He looks at a rough and ready fisherman called Simon and says “you will be Peter – the rock people will look to for strength and stability”. He looks at all sorts of people that others have written off, dodgy characters, people who look as if their lives are all washed up and proclaims that they are God’s beloved children, just as we all are.
Mary and Elizabeth must have done a good job to equip their children with this far sightedness.
It is something that all parents are called to do, and to many it comes quite naturally. Most parents love and believe in their children even when no one else does, sticking by them when no one else will, seeing potential in them everyone else misses. It doesn’t always happen, of course, and no one does this perfectly all the time. Sometimes parents weren’t parented well themselves or have other problems which take up so much of their energy and attention that they just aren’t able to give their children what they want and need.
I wonder what potential your parents saw in you, or see in you still? Perhaps they were your number one fans, supporting you and cheering you on as you went for whatever goals seemed right for you. Perhaps they weren’t so good – pulling you down rather than lifting you up, or just failing to look closely enough to see you as a separate individual at all.
The good news of our first Bible reading is that, even if people don’t get the mothering and fathering they need and deserve from their human parents, we all also have a heavenly parent who sees us as we really are no matter how far we have gone wrong, or how timid we are about owning our own gifts. God sees what we can be as well as what we are, and our first reading shows him doing just that for a young man who becomes the famous prophet Jeremiah.
I have no idea what Jeremiah’s mother and father were like, but it seems to come as a huge surprise to him that he might have any special role. “I appointed you a prophet to the nations” says God to him. “What, me?” says Jeremiah, “but I’m just a boy”. Maybe he is, but God sees that this isn’t all he is. He is also going to be a prophet to the nations, someone whose message will go out into the whole world. And God was right, because here we are, reading it…
Jeremiah isn’t just lacking in imagination when he finds it hard to believe that he might have a special job to do. He’s obviously also a bit frightened – and why not? Some of the things he’ll have to say to his nation, which is in rather a mess at that moment, are going to be hard for them to swallow. In fact they end up throwing him in a cesspit to try to silence him. How is he going to find the strength and courage to do what God calls him to? He isn’t some kind of superman, just a human being like the rest of us.
What God tells him , though, is that this isn’t really about him. He isn’t going to be given some sort of superpower which will enable him to do this. What will matter is that, just as he is, God will be with him. “Do not be afraid,” says God, “for I am with you to deliver you.”
Today, on Mothering Sunday we celebrate and give thanks for all who mother us – whether those are our mothers or not. We rejoice in those who see the potential in us, who see not just who we are, but who we can grow into. Whatever age we are, that growth can still happen. We also ask God to help us to encourage others and help them to be whatever they can be. Most of all, though, we celebrate the love of God who sees us all as his children, and who knows that each one of us can be more than we have dreamed, people who love others, people who make a difference, people who can change the world.