A sermon based on Luke 3:21-22 and Isaiah 43:1-7 preached on January 10th, 2016
What’s in a name? Perhaps when I ask a question like that, your mind goes directly to Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet.
What’s Montague? It is nor hand, or foot, nor arm, nor face…O! be some other name: What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet!
That’s Juliet struggling with her identity as a Capulet and Romeo a Montague, and the very real significance of those two names. What is it about names?
I remember coming home from school—my brother and I were latchkey kids—before ever stepping into the house, I would run to the mailbox and sort through each piece of mail. Rare were the days there was a piece of mail for me, but everyday I hoped there was. On those rare days, though! It was so exciting to flip through all the junk and find an envelope with my name on it! What kid doesn’t like to see their name spelled out in big huge letters?! It means that someone out there, whether they had any idea who you were or not, took a moment to type or write your very own name out onto a piece of paper. “Someone out there knows I exist! That I’m a person with an identity all my own.” It’s a rite of passage, and it is like magic, too!
What is it about our names?
The Bible is full of stories about people who are called by their names—chosen out of a crowd for some special reason. People like Abram and Sarai in Genesis who were wandering the desert as nomads—two unknowns who kept to themselves, more or less, anonymous—then that moment when all of that changed. A voice rose up from somewhere—who knows where, really—and spoke their names. “Abram, Sarai.” And from that moment on, their lives changed. No longer anonymous desert wanderers, God said that Abram and Sarai would now be called Abraham and Sara, the Father and Mother of nations.
We only have to flip a few more pages to Gen 32 where Jacob wrestles with a strange presence who feels a whole lot like God to him. And God asks Jacob his name, and Jacob grunts it out while he’s still wrestling with this presence, and God says,
No more. Now you will be called Israel…he who wrestles with God.”
There are many more stories like this in between, but perhaps the most notable name change in the New Testament comes when Saul, the Pharisee and Christian-killer, powerful and noteworthy among the leadership of his day is blinded by light along the Damascus Road. The book of Acts tells the story. His eyes were so damaged by this light that scales developed over them, and it took 3 days for them to fall away, but when they did, he was a brand new man, a different person. He was immediately baptized, and God gives him a new name. “Paul,” which means small or humble. When you meet Jesus, you’re no longer the same. Your name may or may not change, but your entire identity does.
In all these cases and more, when we are called by our name, it affirms that we are known, and all of us want to be known. More than anything else in the world, we want to be known.
And then we have the story of Jesus’ baptism, where once Jesus is lifted out of the water, there’s that voice again, from who-knows-where exactly. And this time it says: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in You I find happiness.” Beautiful, affirming words! Words of validation and blessing. Which one of us doesn’t need to hear these words, or ones like them, spoken to us by others?
And then the words for today from Isaiah, from that voice again:
Don’t fear; I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine…You are precious in my eyes, honored, and I love you.
With words like that, God gives us identity and value, gives us a place to belong, affirms us as His own.
Luke doesn’t take long to tell us the story of Jesus’ baptism. Just these two short verses. But in them is something that all the other Gospels don’t have. We have this little, wondrous sentence right at the beginning:
When everyone was being baptized, Jesus was also baptized.
John the Baptist was a popular guy, people stood in line for hours to be baptized by him. When John the Baptist saw Jesus coming, he didn’t move Him to the front of the line. There’s no VIP passes for Jesus here. Jesus is just one of many in and among the masses that day. He stood in line and waited for His turn just like everyone else did. The browbeaten and the sick, the forgotten and the disenfranchised, they formed lines in the hopes of being restored through the waters of baptism, hoping there could be a new beginning for them, and Jesus joined them. The line was long and it moved slowly because John the Baptist took his time with each and every one of them. I imagine he asked them their names and then he repeated each name, lifting it up so God would hear it and affirm it. Then he immersed them.
Hello, my name is Patrick. I have tough days and I have good days. On the tough days, my legs don’t work for me. And on those days, walking from here to there might as well be a trek through the Himalayas. I walk around with a funny gate, a bit slouchy. Sometimes, I have curled wrists and fingers that get stuck. I have no control over the toes on my left foot, and most of the time my muscles are tenser then an angry German army sergeant. I have to hold onto something or lean against something in order to stand at all, and because that hasn’t always been the case for me, I get really frustrated by that. But I am loved, and I am confident in this love even in my awkward movements and all those times I wished my body worked better for me. I am made in God’s image, and this body I have, although complicated and cranky, tells a beautiful story of suffering and difficulty, challenge and determination, defeat and victory—it tells a story of a tough road walked. And I am still walking.
And all of us, we are husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters; coupled, single, divorced, widows and widowers, both whole and broken at the same time, each one of us with a story not so different than mine, perhaps. Full of both victories and defeats, triumphs and regrets, happy times and sad ones, too.
Notice the words in our passage from Isaiah this morning.
When you pass through the waters…when you walk through the rivers…when you walk through fire.
Not “if, “ “when.”
God doesn’t give us free passes. There will be raging fire and troublesome waters. Hills and valleys. Darkness and light. They will happen over and again throughout our lives. God’s presence doesn’t assure us escape from any of these things. God only promises to endure them with us.
One of the scariest words in the English language is “perfect.” I think we should vote perfect out of office. I wonder if you’re with me on this?
Perfect has been in charge for way too long apefectnd has spent its time in office ceaselessly and easily convincing us of way too many lies. Lies about this world and how it works. Lies about ourselves. What we need to be and have and do. Perfect has kept us scrambling. Perfect has kept our terror alert on high for years. We have bowed down to Perfect before. We have let Perfect into our homes. It has sat along side of us on our couches. Perfect has spoken into the little ears of our children, way too young to hear what it has to say.
Perfect has been on billboards and on the covers of magazines. In movies and on TV. Perfect is everywhere. What Perfect says, we repeat. What Perfect wears, we wear. What Perfect eats, we eat. Perfect intimidates us. Perfect has us between its fingers. And we may even be addicted to Perfect. But Perfect has been oppressing us for way too long. It’s time for a new administration. It’s time we said goodbye to Perfect. The idea of Perfect is one of our culture’s most dangerous traits. We chase after it, but it’s always two steps ahead of us. There’s no catching Perfect. But still we chase.
It’s time to do Perfect in. Let’s put something more realistic in its place. How about Acceptance? Wouldn’t it be nice to stop chasing Perfect, to stop where we are to catch our breath, finally, and turn around to see that Acceptance was standing by our side all along, smiling with its arms out, eager to embrace us, saying to each of us, “I like you, just the way you are!”
In the gospel according to Matthew, we hear Jesus use the word “perfect.”
Be perfect, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect.
But back when Jesus used the word, it meant something entirely different than what it means to us now. When Jesus urges us to be perfect, he’s asking us to be whole, entire; be complete; be mature and full-grown. God doesn’t ask us to do the impossible. God encourages us to become fuller versions of ourselves. That’s God’s definition of perfect.
And we find God’s sort of perfect as we are raised up out of the waters of baptism, as we hear that voice that says to each us, “You are my daughters and sons. You are dearly loved—more than you could ever know; and in You, I find happiness.” Friends, we are loved, and we are—each and every one of us—children of God.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!