But now thus says the Lord,he who created you, O Jacob,he who formed you, O Israel:Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;I have called you by name, you are mine. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
Luke 3: 15-16, 21-22
15 As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah. 16 John answered all of them by saying, "I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 21 Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, 22 and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Have you ever wondered whether you were an evangelical kind of Christian? I have, so I came up with a little test. Evangelical Christians are those who pray out loud in restaurants. I know, it seems like a little joke, but it has some truth in it. To be evangelical is simply to be willing to say God's name out loud and not be ashamed by it.
One of the biggest questions theologians ask is how shall we name God. After using predominantly male images for so many centuries, such as God the King, the Father, the Lord, the Master, people are now stressing the value of using other kinds of images to express our understanding of who God is and how God loves us.
- So today we hear, not so much God not as King, but we use the gender neutral Sovereign.
- Or not so much God's kingdom, but we say God's reign.
- God not as Father, but God as Divine Parent--or in some places, God as Mother-- words that stress the feminine attributes that God surely has.
Modern hymn writer Brian Wren wrote a wonderful hymn called "Bring Many Names," in which he rehearses the many attributes of God that can be understood by using many names for God.
The reason this matters is that the way we choose to speak about God says a lot about what we believe about God. Yet, there are plenty of people who still prefer to use the traditional names for God and are not ashamed to call God Father and Lord or to pray out loud in the name in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps an even more pressing concern for all of us should be not what names we use for God, but what names God chooses to use for us. This tells us even more about God and God's love for us.
Remember the psalmist asks: "Who am I that God should be mindful of me?" It is astonishing that the Creator of all the universe should spend any attention at all on us.
And yet, Jesus tells us that God knows each of us intimately, down to the number of hairs on our heads. God does know us, and God names us.
To name someone is to exercise power over their lives, power both for good and for ill.
Just think of the positive, forming and shaping effect it has to pronounce a good name on someone. To a child, we say good boy or good girl; we say you're very smart, or you can do it. We know how that works, the self-fulfilling prophecy: We call people by positive names, and that becomes both what they think of themselves and what they are.
There is real influence in that: how powerfully shaping were those words spoken to me a long time ago: "Clay, have you ever thought about becoming a pastor?" Words spoken to a boy who in large measure did not know who he was or what he was made to do.
Many of us are careful to use positive words in our homes and in our work: nice job, you are a faithful friend, you're such a good helper, you are very good at your job.
Of course, it works in the opposite way as well, when we say negative things to people: you're no good, you'll never amount to anything, you are a fool.
Here, too, giving the name becomes part of what shapes the person. We should never be surprised if people sink to our lowest expectations of them.
Naming people is an act of shaping them, like clay in the hands of a potter; and it is within our control to help people become the finest vessels they can be.
I bear the name Clay, but in a sense, we all do. All of us are made from the mud of the earth, all waiting to be shaped by the potter's hand. And God shapes us by what God names us. What God chooses to call us has a strong effect on who we are and who we become. If there is power for a parent or a teacher to name and shape a child, how much more is there authority for the Creator to name and shape what God has made?
Now, consider the names that God could rightly call us, if God chose to name us by our thoughts and actions: Sinner, Unclean, Unrighteous--God could call us--and God would be right. Because these are who we are. In fact, when we confess our sins to God, this is precisely what we call ourselves. "I confess that I am sinful and unclean. . . ," we say.
These are mighty names, damning names, names we would not want to use on each other, but we know we should use for ourselves.
- Because we are sinful, not living as God calls us to live.
- We are unclean, with plenty of impure thoughts and actions.
- We are unrighteous, not serving the world as God calls us to do.
These are our rightful names.
But they are not the names God chooses to use for us. They are names that could weigh us down, drive us further away from God, making us more and more what they describe. Especially if they were the names that God chose to use for us.
But God has other names in mind, chosen to let us know who God hopes we will be, claiming us so that we can become what God intends for us. In our Isaiah text today, God says:
But now, thus says the Lord who created you, O Jacob, who formed you, O Israel. Do not fear, for I have called you by my name and you are mine. . . . For I am the Lord your God, the Holy one of Israel, your Savior.
Israel is the name, and Jacob--the very name of God and God's own people.
And today, Christian God calls us--the very name of Christ whom God sent to be God's self among us and to save us from whom we might otherwise be.
- Child of God, we are called.
- Brother or sister of Christ, God names us.
- Even friend, Jesus calls us, and names us.
And so named, that is who we become.
- More and more each day, becoming the persons God created us to be
- More and more like the Christ whose name we bear
- Less and less like the names that we confess
- Less and less shaped by their negative power
When God gives us God's own names, we are made new, reborn, reshaped, reformed into the image of God.
The great preacher Gardner C. Taylor once said in a sermon that he imagined that when we reach heaven, the very angels would look over at us--and at Jesus--and would be confused. He imagines that by bearing the name of Christ through life, we will have become so like Jesus that the angels would have a hard time telling who was who.
Reformed, reshaped, reborn through the gift of a name.
Hear again the words of Luke:
Now when all were baptized, and when Jesus had also been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: "You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased."
Now, when we are baptized, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, we are given the name of the one who was baptized before us: Jesus Christ, the Anointed One. And we are anointed ourselves, with water, perhaps also with oil. And from that moment on, we bear his name: Christian.
It is Jesus' very own name we hold--even though we continue to confess those other wretched names. Both at the same time, sinner and saint, we say.
But, sinner, though it is who we are, is not what we are called, not by God. And it is not who we will become. Through the love of Christ, we are seen in his light: lover of God and of people, we are called. Righteous, like Christ, St. Paul calls us. Clean and pure and innocent as the Lamb of God, we are called.
We bear God's name for the sake of the world. This is the name that transforms us.
A friend of mine once said that she was going to put one of those Christian fish symbols on the back of her car. I said I was surprised because I knew she hated bumper stickers on her car. She said she wanted to put the symbol of Jesus on her car so as to keep her from making rude hand gestures when someone cut her off in traffic.
Well, that is a step in the right direction.
My friends, if you are among God's baptized, this, then, is who you are. Baptized in the name of Christ who entered the streaming Jordan so that we might be cleansed through him.
This is your name, the name of Christ with whom God is pleased.
This is your name. Say that name out loud in restaurants, and speak that name unashamedly to others.
Let Christ's name shape you, let it move you, let it save you.
Let us pray. Loving God, you care for us like a father. You nurture us like a mother, you give us your Son who calls us sister and brother and friend. Let the power of these words form us into the willing hands, feet, and voices of your love in the world. If we are to bear Jesus' name, inspire us to actions worthy of that name. Thank you for giving us your name, O God, inspire us to speak it boldly, and to act upon its power. We pray in the mighty, holy, transforming name of Jesus. Amen.