(a sermon for January 17, 2016, the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, based on Isaiah 62:1-5 and 1 Corinthians 12:4-11)
One of the very first weddings I was asked to perform as a young pastor was for a couple of “seasoned citizens” in our community. Both the bride and groom were long retired, and had been widowed for quite some time: in fact, their story was that they’d been longtime friends – they grew up together in that town – and years later, when each had lost their respective spouses they’d found support and comfort in each other; so eventually they decided that they wanted to spend their remaining years together, and now they wanted to get married.
And so here we were all together at the home of the bride for some “pre-marital counseling,” which even back then seemed pretty odd to me, given how young I was at the time (in fact, I remember saying to them that I should be asking them for advice, not the other way around)! But as I recall, it was all going very well; at least until I asked the bride, whose name was Agnes, a very simple and routine question: if she intended to take the groom’s last name when they were wed. And it was at this precise moment that the warm gaze of this wonderful woman suddenly turned “steely” in my direction as she answered firmly, “I most certainly am not! I have spent a lifetime building a name in this community, and I’m not about to give that all up now to marry this man!”
It’s at this point that John, the groom, turns to his bride-to-be, eyes wide open and jaw having dropped to the floor, and says (and I swear, he answered it just this way), “Madam, if you’re going to marry me, you’re going to have to take my name!” Well, from there on things just got ugly (!); and as they then engaged in a rather heated “discussion” of this particular issue, I awkwardly shuffled papers around wondering if there was a way I could slip out of there!
But by golly, come the wedding day – yes, there was a wedding day (!) – Agnes didn’t take John’s name, and John had to learn to live with it! And truthfully, I could completely understand why: in that community there were (and in fact still are) several businesses and buildings with Agnes’ family name on them, and as far as Agnes was concerned, that family name was emblematic of her very identity, who she was and what her life had been up till that point, and she wasn’t about to let that go!
There’s no underestimating, you see, the importance or power of one’s name! Last week, you’ll remember, we spoke about how a name not only says who you are but also often a way of showing whose you are; well, likewise, one’s name also goes a long way in establishing or preserving one’s identity in the world. There’s a reason why some new parents will often take months to choose the right name for their newborn; not only does it need to sound good (especially when you’re yelling that name out the back door: “Michael Ware Lowry, you get in this house!”), but it needs to have meaning, some level of power and significance for that child being named, whether it’s in the meaning of the name itself, or who or what that name might represent; because that name, in some fashion, is going to express something of its bearers’ identity, and so the right name becomes crucial.
There’s actually a fair amount of biblical precedent for all of this: there are many instances throughout scripture where one’s name has everything to do with his or her character or faith; and, in fact, there are stories when a change of name ends up representing a shift in that person’s relationship with God. In Genesis, for instance, Jacob’s name becomes Israel, which tells us that Jacob is no longer a liar or deceiver, but now “the prince with God.” There’s Abram who, in faith, becomes Abraham; Saul of Tarsus, who as a result of his conversion on the Damascus Road, takes on the name of Paul, an apostle of the Lord. Each name change ends up affirming the true identities of its namesake to the entire world. Well, this morning as we return to Isaiah we see a similar affirmation extended to the nation of Israel and the whole people of God, which includes you and me.
Now, what’s interesting about this passage is that it’s set on the devastated streets of Jerusalem. This is what is often what is referred to as “Third Isaiah,” and it takes place just as God’s people have been brought home from exile: just as God had promised, just as Israel had hoped and prayed for so long; and yet, what’s clear here is that Israel’s story isn’t done. They’ve come home, but it’s far from a glorious homecoming: now there’s poverty and unrest, the temple is in ruins, and there’s still this matter of Israel’s very identity, the hard reality that after all this time who and what they thought they were as God’s people barely existed anymore, if at all! What happens to your identity after losing everything? How do you recover when everything you are has been stripped away from you?
Well, that’s the issue here, and another interesting part of this passage is that most scholars believe that these first few verses are actually Isaiah’s words, as opposed to God’s, and that it is, in fact, a bold prayer from the prophet to God for vindication: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent.” (One commentator I read this week suggests that this verse should be read this way: I. Will. Not. Keep. Silent!”) “For Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines like the dawn and her salvation like a burning torch.” In other words, “We’re still praying, God; we’re still hoping with everything within us that life will be what it once was and what it should be; can it be, O God, that righteousness can be ours once again!”
And the Lord does respond to this plea with another promise: but this time the promise has to do with identity. Yes, “the nations shall see your vindication and all the kings your glory,” because “you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.” A new name; as The Message translates it, “a brand-new name straight from the mouth of God… no more will anyone call you Rejected, and your country will no more be called Ruined. You’ll be called Hephzibah,” which means “My Delight,” and your land will be named Beulah, which means “Married.” And why this name change? It’s because “GOD delights in you, and your land will be like a wedding celebration.”
What an amazing image that is! Two people coming together, starting a new life with a new name; everyone rejoicing in this blessed new beginning: what we have here are the people of God with a new name that not only defines, but proclaims exactly who they are and what they are about: that they are neither desolate nor forsaken but ever and always “God’s Delight.” They are henceforth and forevermore God’s own creation that embodies God’s loving purpose; and for this God rejoices!
It’s a wonderful affirmation: one that does tell us everything we need to know about God’s people, and the good news, dear friends, is that here’s a name and an affirmation that includes and encompasses you and me.
Of course, you have to wonder just how many of us find ourselves laboring under the weight of old names rather than the new. Those names might not be exactly the same as “desolate” or “forsaken,” but it could well be that some us have been saddled with names like “demeaned” or “abused” or “ignored.” Or “lost;” “confused;” “hurting.” Or maybe worst of all, “without worth” and “alone.” There are so many – maybe even some in this sanctuary this morning – who know the weight of having had a name like that; they know what it’s like to have walked through a lifetime feeling unappreciated, undervalued, often despised and even abandoned. And you see, the weight of something like that can literally end up destroying everything else that’s good about life.
Years ago in a former parish there was a woman who had a great many problems in her life, not the least of which was a complete and utter lack of self-esteem. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that she really thought of herself as a totally worthless person; and she lived her life under that assumption. To tell the truth, this was a woman who had a great deal going for her in life: she had a wonderful family, a good job, she was well-loved by the people around her; but this self- identification as being worthless and unlovable had colored everything else in her life. In all honesty, the sheer weight of that was the source of a great many of her other problems! And I remember asking her, “what is that you really want? What is it that will make things better?” And her answer, simply and profoundly, was this: “All I want is to be loved. I want to be valued. I want to know I belong.”
And that’s what we all want, right? To be loved and valued and appreciated and of worth to those around us; we want to know we belong to something and someone. That’s what God gives us, friends; because we are named as God’s delight, each one of us uniquely created and formed in such a way that that we truly shine as we have always meant to from the beginning.
So often we forget that; or worse, we ignore it. How often it is that we carry ourselves – even you and I who are named and claimed as the people of God (!) – how often it is that we carry ourselves through this life as though it doesn’t matter; as though we cannot possibly make a difference, as though we can’t change the world, or at least touch the hearts and lives of those who within that world. And having said that, let’s be clear: ultimately, it’s God who does the work of change and spiritual growth and healing and restoration; that’s also the clear message in our Isaiah reading this morning. But it’s also true that God has placed within each one of us what we need for that change and growth and healing to happen; that’s who we are, that’s how we’re named, you and me.
That’s why I included this morning the reading from 1 Corinthians: that “there are varieties of gift, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.” Ordinarily, you know, we tend to take these verses as a way of saying that everybody has a gift and a role to play in the body of Christ – and that’s very true – but I also think this means the each one of us needs to take good care never to assume that we don’t have the gifts necessary to fulfill what God would have us do; that we might not have the capacity for spiritual gifts! Because trust me here, because I’ve seen it again and again: so often it will be the least likely person, at least in our eyes, who will have exactly what God needs, and frankly, what we need at that particular moment in a singular situation… and it’s been, and I mean this literally, delightful.
Right now all around us – even here in this little house of worship on Mountain Road – there is more untapped potential for the business of the God’s kingdom than we can possibly discern; more opportunities for outreach and care and extravagant welcome, more avenues for justice and peace and proclamation than we can ever know; and that’s because here are people who have been named and claimed as “God’s delight.” The question is, when will we embrace that incredible new name that the Lord has bestowed upon us? When will we let go of the old names and the old ways that hold us back from being the people that we can be that God wants us to be; when do we go from forsaken and desolate to a divine delight? When will we finally join in the joy of this incredible wedding feast that’s already begun and live unto our identity as disciples of Christ and members of the Church?
That’s the challenge, beloved; that’s the call that even now our Lord is making upon our lives. And he calls us by name, the name that he has given to us.
So let us answer that call with boldness…
…and as we join in the celebration, may our thanks be to God.
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry