This is Drew’s sermon from Baptism of the Lord Sunday, January 13th, 2013. The text for that Sunday is Luke 3:15-22. Blessings to you and yours this week.
I Have Called You By Name
When I was in 7th or 8th grade, my brother went with the church’s youth group to Mo Ranch instead of our usual trip to Montreat. He came back with great stories, new friends from places all across the country, and a T-shirt, that said: “ I have called you by name.” That was the theme of the conference. I remember it so well, because every time I saw that shirt I felt jealous that I wasn’t yet old enough to go on one of the youth group’s trips, I got excited that next year I would finally be able to go. I remember wondering what the T-shirt meant, and if that phrase was in the Bible or was just a slogan for the conference that year. But mostly I remember that “I have called you by name” comes from a place where awesome things happen, a place I longed to be.
To the people of ancient Jerusalem who heard this piece of scripture for the first time, the promise it held would have been much sweeter. I was looking for a week of making friends and playing games away from my parents. They were in a much more serious situation, one in which the love of God was truly in doubt. Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem, and the ruling elite of Jerusalem had been forced to march from Jerusalem to Babylon, where they lived, separated from the family lands they had worked, separated from the networks of kin and friendship that helped them navigate their world, separated from people who spoke their language.
But most of all, they felt separated from God. The Bible tells us that in the later days of the first Temple, the devotion of the people had faltered. They forgot what God had done to bring them out of Egypt, and to save them from the Philistines, and so they brought in other gods to the temple to worship, and they got rich from the offerings people brought, they oppressed the weak and poor among them so that they could give lives of pleasure to themselves. And now it seemed that God had forsaken them, and brought the Assyrians down upon them like locusts. Listen to the last words of the book of Lamentations, written in the wake of Jerusalem’s fall:
Why have you abandoned us so long? Will you ever remember as again? Bring us back to you, Lord! Bring us back! Restore our ancient glory. Or have you rejected us forever? Is there no limit to your anger? (Lamentations 5:20-22, TEV)
The people had lost everything, their home, their culture, even their God seemed far away. They hardly even knew who they were anymore. They were the people of Israel, but Israel was no more.
The latter parts of Isaiah speak to the loss and the separation that the exiles feel. They hold within them the promise of a future with God beside them. Isaiah can be divided into three parts, Isaiah 1-39, which is called Proto-Isaiah (first Isaiah),40-55, Deutero-Isaiah (or second Isaiah, like Deuteronomy means second law, since it’s a repeat of much of the law and history found in Exodus and Numbers), and then Trito-Isaiah, which goes from 56 to the end of the book. Each was written in a very different time period, likely by different authors, and each has a distinct message for the descendants of Jacob. The first part was most likely written before the destruction of Jerusalem, and contains mostly warnings for the people of Judah and Jerusalem to recommit themselves to God and God alone.
Deutero-Isaiah, begins in chapter 40, and was written with almost the opposite goal in mind. It was most likely written during the exile, to the community of exiles living in Babylon, and instead of condemnation it offers words of assurance and comfort that God has not abandoned them in their pain. The passage we have today reflects the major theme of Isaiah 40-56, that as separated as the people felt from God, God is there with them, and God has a future planned for them. In our passage today we hear God’s promise to the exiles: “I have called you by name.” What God is telling them is that their God is not a distantly benevolent deity, or a deity who is tied to the land of Israel, but an intensely personal God, who loves each and every one of them as he did their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Isaiah tells them (and us) Each one of us is precious in God’s sight, so beloved that God would trade great riches to have us return. These words would have spoken right to the hearts of those who had been feeling so separated from God, those who wondered if God had truly given up on them this time. The words have been a balm on the wounds of those who suffered in Jerusalem, it would fill the hole in their hearts that had once held hope and joy.
Hearing these words today reminds us that God’s love does not end, and it knows us, personally, and still loves us. And less we forget, we have been given something even more powerful than words that declares God’s love to us, that declares that God is with us through water and fire, even when we feel hopelessly separated from God. We have the sacrament of Baptism.
Baptism is a sign of God’s promise to us. It’s like the rainbow. It is a visible sign of God’s love. It says that we are redeemed by God, not through our own abilities, but through God’s grace. It doesn’t matter if we are dipped, dunked, sprinkled, or sprayed, in baptism we are marked, first and foremost as a child of God. God has called us by name, we are God’s. This is especially powerful today, when we have many so many names. We have nicknames, screen names, facebook pages, twitter handles, internet forum handles, and so much more. In an era in which we have so many names, where we might be one person to our family, another with our old golf buddies, and even another to people we see online, it is a powerful declaration that first and foremost I am a child of God. And that it what is declared in Baptism. It is a mark, a seal imprinted upon us that we are God’s, and no one else can claim us.
The declaration made in baptism is that God has called us by name, has loved us for who we are, that we are as the book of Isaiah describes it, “precious in God’s sight.” We read today about Jesus’ baptism, when the heavens opened up and a voice of the Lord spoke, “You are my son, the beloved; with you I am well-pleased.” This is the type of love that Baptism marks, a sign through which God declares, “You are my child, and I love you.” The book of Isaiah explains that God loves us so much God would trade great riches for us, Egypt, and Sheba. The truth is that God has traded the greatest of riches for us, God gave his only Son, who came down and shed his blood to wash us clean.
And unlike other baths we take, the washing we go through in baptism never wears off. We can’t get rid of it. Though we can change our name, we cannot change our status as a child of God. We say every week in the Apostle’s Creed that we believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins. Baptism isn’t like nail polish or car wax, it’s not something that needs to be redone every once in a while to stay effective. We might need reminders now and then, but God’s love for us does not ever fade away. It’s even more permanent than a tattoo. Because no matter how many times we drag ourselves through the water and fire, God will not forsake us. We will always have that mark, the baptism of water and Holy Spirit that declares that we have been called by name, that we are God’s, and God will pay dearly for us.
This is a big deal. And in spite of the fact that some people don’t think it’s as important as it used to be, it is. Unlike the theology of long ago, we don’t declare that a child who hasn’t been baptized will face eternal torment, we understand Baptism to be a sign of a reality that is already occurring. It’s like marriage. Before we were married, Hannah and I loved each other. After we got married, we still loved each other. But marriage made a big difference in the way we live our lives.
Baptism makes a big difference in the way we live our lives, because we all need that love, that assurance that we are loved and that God knows us for exactly who we are and God loves us anyway. Everyone who has lost a loved one, a partner, a child, a friend, needs to hear, “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.” Everyone who has felt the burn of hate and anger and thought they did not have the will to resist needs to hear “when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flames will not consume you.”
Every teenage girl who wants someone to call her beautiful but looks to the wrong place to find it needs to know, “You are precious in my sight.” Everyone who feels like it has been too long since they’ve said an honest prayer, and don’t know where to begin should hear “Do not withhold; bring my sons from far away, and my daughters from the ends of the earth” And everyone, I mean everyone, needs to hear, “I have called you by name, you are mine.”
These are the promises that we proclaim when we baptize, and when we are baptized. They are as relevant today as they were 2,000 years ago, because everyone has experienced something that made us feel separated from God, whether it’s our own sin or someone else’s, or something else entirely, all of us have felt just a little of what it’s like to be exiled, what it’s like to feel forsaken, what it’s like to be hurt and alone. And what Isaiah has to tell us, what we proclaim in our baptism, is that even when things are at their worst, even when we are at our worst, God is with us. Even when we don’t know where we are going, God guides us. And even when we don’t know who we are, God calls us by name.