(a sermon for January 10, 2016, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, based on Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:21-22)
What’s in a name? Well, apparently, in some instances a great deal!
Case in point: a few years ago the Chicago Tribune ran a feature article on the subject of grandparents; specifically the names that grandparents go by. It seems that this latest generation of new grandparents have become increasingly uncomfortable and dissatisfied with traditional names like “Grandma” and “Granddad,” “Grammie” or “Grampie” and have been actively seeking out some kind of alternative; a name that comes off sounding a bit more contemporary, creative, and well, younger. And so, lo and behold, now there are suddenly a number of books and websites out there that serve just that purpose: to help us aging boomers and millennials find that perfect, hipper grandparent name!
And there are literally hundreds to choose from, ranging from the sweet and rather silly – names like Mimi and PoPo; Kitty and LaLa, Chippy, Cappy, Gankie, and Pittipat – to that which is arguably trendy: Jammagramma and Geezerguy, for instance; or my personal favorite, the Granddude! And some just want to approach the issue head on and simply want to be known henceforth as Moredaddy and Nothermother!
Pretty interesting; but here’s the thing with all this: it really doesn’t matter what name these new grandparents might choose for themselves, for what this Tribune correctly concludes is that very often one’s “grandparent name” is not going to be what you choose, but what pops out of the mouth of that first grandchild! It’s whatever that little one happens to call you; so in other words, if that baby starts addressing you as “Moo-moo” or “Poo-poo,” you’re stuck with that for life! But… no matter how silly it might sound to other people, you accept that name; you love and treasure that name, because that name is a gift, an incredible gift from this little one who simply adores you and smiles when you are around just because you are you! The name that child gives to you – whatever shape and form that name happens to take – turns out to be a symbol and expression of full and unconditional love!
Actually, when you think about this in connection to our reading this morning, it’s really no wonder that when God expresses unending love and loyalty to his people, he begins by saying, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” Because names, you see, not only tell us who we are, they have a way of letting us know whose we are as well.
This was the Word of the Lord as it came to Isaiah the prophet some 2,600 years ago, directed to the people of Israel living in exile; miles from home, their city destroyed, their faith fading into little more than distant memory; their very existence as a people in danger. After years and years languishing in Babylon, Israel wasn’t even sure they could say who they were anymore, and that alone filled them with fear and dread; could it be, they wondered, that they were simply lost and abandoned forever.
But now, in the midst of this despair comes Isaiah bringing the Lord’s message to his people: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you… When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned… Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you… do not fear, for I am with you.”
Do not fear… fear not. Those happen to be among the most common words in all of scripture; we hear them spoken by prophets and angels and from the mouth of Jesus himself again and again: 70 times throughout the Bible, twice in this passage we’ve just shared alone! So it’s a commonly used expression and meant as a word of comfort, but there’s something particularly comforting about it here. As The Message translates this passage, “Don’t be afraid… [for] I’ve called your name. You’re mine. When you’re in over your head, I’ll be there with you. When you’re in rough waters, you will not go down. When you’re between a rock and a hard place, it won’t be a dead end – because I am GOD, your personal God, the Holy of Israel, your Savior.”
Can you imagine how this must have sounded to the people of Israel; these people who really had nothing left but their identity, and that’s slipping away from them! At this point all that they are, or at least all they think themselves to be are exiles: homeless refugees; nameless, faceless and… lost. But now here’s God saying, No… you’re mine! You do not belong to some Babylonian king; you are not subject to the Egyptian pharaoh; just as you aren’t being left out in this desert to be blown to and fro with the wind and shifting sands! You are mine, for I have named you and claimed you as my own!
It’s a gift; in its own way no different than that of a name bestowed upon a grandparent from a little one who claiming that one special person as his or her very own, forever and always. The great blessing of our lives is that God names us and claims us as his own in just the same way; and to be claimed in this incredible and deeply personal way is what makes all the difference for us in this life.
I’m reminded of a time many years ago when my daughter Sarah was still just a toddler, and I happened one day to be taking care of both her and her cousin Bethany, who was about the same age. For reasons I can’t recall now, the two of them had become very upset and rather cranky with one another; a conflict that eventually grew into this huge yelling and crying fit, all because they couldn’t and wouldn’t agree as to who Lisa was! Sarah, of course, called her “Mommy;” she wanted to know where Mommy was. But Bethany wasn’t having any of that and she kept say, quite emphatically, that she was not ‘Mommy,’ she was Aunt Lisa!” And off they went: “She’s mommy!” “No, she’s Aunt Lisa!” “No, she’s mommy!” Louder and louder it got, and then tears were flowing and the wailing started… oh, and did I mention we were in the middle of a crowded McDonald’s at the time? So, of course, I did what any harried father/uncle would do under the circumstances, I said, “That’s alright, now calm down, she’s both Mommy and Aunt Lisa, and she loves you very, very much (!)… now be quiet and eat your happy meal.”
Actually, looking back on it I think that, however unintentionally, I hit on one of the great truths of faith: that we all need to name something, someone that is our own; that in one way or another each of us spends our life trying to find and to name God. It’s what the theologian Paul Tillich refers to as our “ultimate concern;” in that we are ever and always seeking to wrap our minds and our hearts around that which is bigger than ourselves. And that’s true for all of us; even those who would deny the very existence of God more often than not are seeking to make of who they are in the absence of that God! And why we do it is no real mystery; it’s this struggle we have regarding the uncertainties and unknowns of our lives; it’s trying to figure out how we cope with life’s failures, misfortunes and tragedies; it’s seeking to reconcile why bad things happen, or for that matter, why good things happen. It’s about not wanting to be alone in the universe; and so we yearn for something, someone we can name; we want to find God!
So isn’t it amazing, then, even as we are seeking to name God and to claim God as our own God has already called out our name, and has taken the loving initiative to claim us as his own! It’s love; love beyond any measure we have, and the good news is that since we are “precious in his sight, and honored,” we will be given the peace, the comfort, the strength and inspiration we need for the way, no matter how perilous the way might well be. To know that to be true in your life, friends; to accept and treasure the name and claim that God has made on your life… that’s the blessing of FAITH. To quote William Sloane Coffin, “Faith is being grasped by the power of love. Faith is recognizing that what makes God is infinite mercy, not infinite control; not power but love unending.”
It is no accident that at the time of Jesus’ baptism, which we read about briefly this morning in Luke, “the heaven was opened” and the Holy Spirit came like a dove, and then a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” That’s very significant, because it tells us that Jesus’ ministry began with an affirmation from God of who and whose Jesus was: as John Buchanan has written, this was a day when Jesus himself was grasped by the power of love; a time when “he knows deeply in his soul that he has nothing to fear, not even death itself, because God has called him by name” – “my Son, the Beloved” – “because he belongs to God.”
Indeed, that’s also the significance of our baptism; in that moment of water and Spirit we accept Jesus’ powerful loving grasp in and on our lives; and in that moment we receive a brand new name, that of a “child of God, disciple of Christ, member of the church.” And then with that new identity we are empowered to move through life and even beyond life without fear… but with a new spirit of hope and peace and even joy along the way.
In an autobiography written a few years before his death, the actor Christopher Reeve wrote about the first time he awoke after having had an accident on a horse, which as you may remember, essentially paralyzed Reeve for the rest of his life. In those first few days it was a pretty dire situation, and although it seemed at the time to be a callous way to go about it, almost immediately the doctors began to lay out for Reeves the realities of his condition; the extent of his injuries; the necessary surgeries; and the fact that he might not even survive those surgeries.
Reeves wrote that initially, he just sort of said, “Well, whatever you have to do,” but once the doctors left the room, he began to absorb the gravity of his situation. And when his wife Dana came into the room, Reeve wrote, “We made eye contact [and] I mouthed my first lucid words to her: ‘Maybe we should let me go.’” And Dana said, “’I am only going to say this once: I will support whatever you want to do, because this is your life and your decision. But I want you to know that I’ll be with you for the long haul, no matter what.’ And then she added the words that saved my life: ‘You’re still you. And I love you.’”
Reeves went on to say, “If she had looked away or paused or hesitated even slightly, or if I had felt there was a sense of her being noble, or fulfilling some obligation to me, I don’t know if I could have pulled through. Because it had dawned on me that I had ruined my life and everybody else’s. But what Dana said made living seem possible, because I felt the depth of her love and her commitment to me.”
It seems to me that what Dana Reeve did for her husband that day is much like what God does for you and me. The fact is that there is much that we face in this life – some of it is horrific and catastrophic, and often on a global scale; some of it has its source in the quiet and ongoing struggles mind, body and spirit; and most of us, from time to time, begin to feel the fearsomeness of it all. But we make the journey; and somehow we get from here to there, and we do it because by grace we have one who gives to each one of us personally his deep love and commitment, this one who reaches out to us and tells us again and again, you’re mine… “because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you…” I am with you. “So do not fear, for I am God, your personal God, the Holy of Israel, your Savior.”
Thanks be to God who names us and claims us today and always!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry