Sunday, January 10, 2010

I Have Called You By Name!

First off, I owe much to "Partners In Urban Transformation" for background on this sermon. Also, the opening story is taken from "Rebecca's Community."

As always, please comment, criticize, etc. as such things will make me a better preacher.

Isaiah 43:1-7
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.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Ethiopia and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my sight,
and honored, and I love you,
I give people in return for you,
nations in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you;
I will say to the north, "Give them up,"
and to the south, "Do not withhold;
bring my sons from far away
and my daughters from the end of the earth —
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made."

Acts 8:14-17
Now when the apostles at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had accepted the word of God, they sent Peter and John to them. The two went down and prayed for them that they might receive the Holy Spirit (for as yet the Spirit had not come upon any of them; they had only been baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus). Then Peter and John laid their hands on them, and they received the Holy Spirit.

Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, 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. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had 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 Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

This is the Word of the Lord.

Ella was fourteen when she ran away from home. She went as far as her meager savings would take her, and ended up on the streets of the community of King's Cross. Within days Ella came to the attention of a drug dealer who was skilled in the art of taking advantage of others.

For around two weeks he supplied her with free drugs, saying she could pay him back at a later date. He showed her how to shoot-up and supplied her on a daily basis. He also protected her from other drug dealers, pimps, and people bent on violence.

The aim, of course, was to get her hooked, and after using heroin for two weeks Ella was well and truly dependent, both on the drug and on the dealer to supply her fix.
It wasn't long before Ella's debt to the drug dealer totaled well over a thousand dollars, and he issued an ultimatum: She had three days to pay back the money, or become a prostitute in order to work off the debt. Do nothing, and her throat would be cut.

Elle became, in effect, the property of the drug dealer.

Fortunately for Ella, the drug dealer wasn't the only person on the streets of King's Cross who had taken an interest in the teenager. Numerous homeless people had warned her about the path she was going down. She was warned not to use drugs, not to build up a debt to a drug dealer. She had ignored every warning.

Now, fearing for her life and not knowing what to do she turned to some of the homeless people who had warned her. They knew, given the particular drug dealer involved that the threat on her life was very serious and there was no way out. There was no point approaching charities for help. What charity would pay money to a drug dealer? Informing the police was not an option. On the streets, “narc-ing” someone out is a death sentence in itself.

They could have told her to go away, that she should have listened to them in the first place, but she had made her bed and now it was time to sleep in it. Instead, over the following three days a small group of homeless people raised the money needed to pay off Ella's debt.

They paid off her debt with money that had been stolen, money that had been made selling drugs and money that had been made from prostitution. They redeemed Ella through the “commerce of the streets.”

The day these homeless people bought Ella's freedom, they issued their own ultimatum. They took her to the train station and gave her money for the train, and told her “Take the chance you have been given and never, ever come back here.”

Six centuries before the birth of Christ, much of Jerusalem was in ruins and nearly abandoned. The Temple itself was a pile of rubble. After years and years of running after other gods and acting in abominable ways, after years and years of ignoring warnings from prophet after prophet, Jerusalem had fallen to Nebuchadnezzar, and the best and the brightest had been carried off to Babylon. More years passed, and the captives despaired. Psalm 137 remembers, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps.”
Into their bleak circumstance, God speaks hope through the Prophet Isaiah: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

Not long after Jesus rose from the dead, ascended to Heaven, and sent the Holy Spirit to his followers, news came to the Apostles that the Samaritans, too, were responding to God's grace. The Samaritans thought differently, acted differently, worshiped differently, and were considered by the “good” Jews of the day to be beneath contempt. Yet as Peter and John lay their hands on these believers, they saw and heard irrefutable evidence that God had redeemed, had called by name, had claimed as God's own, even the Samaritans! That day the Apostles began to learn, as the Apostle Paul would write later, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

On the Christian calendar, we have left the season of Christmas for Epiphany. While the Feast of Epiphany remembers the Three Wise Men discovering the Christ Child, this season represents a time of discovery for all people, both in the church and outside of the church... an opportunity to discover the essence, the meaning of God's grace, an opportunity to see that God has called us by name.

Now in our American, twenty-first century culture, this idea of God calling us by name is kind of a nice, warm-fuzzy kind of thing, the stuff of a devotional book by Max Lucado. When we hear the phrase, “I have called you by name”, we interpret that to mean that God takes note of or recognizes us, and thus gives credibility to us.

For me it reminds me of growing up. Being called by name when you're a kid isn't always a good thing; you could be getting called home for dinner or called on the carpet for doing something wrong. Now, I could always tell which it was by how much of my name Mom used when she called me. “John” was OK, it was suppertime or maybe “Match Game” was on, but “John Richard” was trouble... and how much of the second syllable you heard was an indication of how much. “John RICHard!” was a talking-to, “John RicHRT!” meant RUN!

In the understanding of those who wrote and read the Scriptures, though, this idea of being “called by name” went much deeper. It is in fact a technical term used for indicating the establishment of sovereignty over a person. For a king to “call you by name” means that the king has selected you from his court to bring you under both his protection and his authority. For a superior (in this case, God) to call someone by name means that the superior is declaring sovereignty over the other.

The person named now comes under that sovereign’s protection but is also under his authority and is therefore accountable to the overlord. God says, “you are mine.”

And unlike some earthly king or ruler who captures and conquers and annexes simply in order to have more and more territory and control and possessions, God's claim over us is a claim not of property but of family. Our Gospel reading, Luke's account of the baptism of Jesus, is an opportunity to remember our own baptism, when we became members of God's family, adopted or grafted in, sealed into an ever growing, ever dynamic, ever deepening walk with our loving Creator, who has redeemed us.

When we Christians hear the word “redemption”, we automatically think of the act of sacrifice by Jesus on the cross that brought about our salvation, and while that's true, it is an adaptation of the word. “Redeem” actually means “to buy back” or “to repossess.” It's primarily an economic term, meaning to free one from a legal or financial obligation by a transaction or agreement that takes place. Thus, for God to say, “I have redeemed you” is to have God declare, “I have bought you back”. Back from whoever we have tried to become or whatever we have done or wherever we have wandered, all in search of something to fill what St. Augustine called the “God-shaped hole.”

God has redeemed us, yet God's claim over us is not a claim of possession but of love. Elsewhere in Isaiah, the prophet quotes God as saying, “See, I have engraved you in the palms of my hands.” This same Jesus who we see baptized in today's reading of course goes on to have his palms engraved by nails in an act of redemption for all humankind: The people who are like us, and those who are not. Those we love, and those we don't like very much. People who impress us, and people who scare us. All humankind.

Thus our epiphany, our discovery, is that the beauty of the Gospel message is this: Whether we are trapped like Ella, exiled and enslaved like the Jews in Babylon, despised and marginalized like the Samaritans, or just normal everyday people, God speaks to us in every place and time and says, “ I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.”

Thanks be to God!

1 comment:

  1. Wow. Very good man. The story about the girl was very moving. But I completely understand what you're saying. We're called into God's family by name that we may serve our God not because he's a king conquering but because he loves us.