10 Jan 2010 - "I have called you by name"

Usha Hull - St Mary's
Isaiah 43 1-7
Luke 3 15-17 and 21-22

You might ask, what’s in a name. I would say a great deal. In India, your surname alone can tell others a host of things about you, for example, your caste in the Hindu hierarchy, the region of India you come from, and whether there have been any honours heaped on your family in the past. For example, if your surname is Banerjee, you are a Bengali and a Hindu and of the priestly caste. However, if your surname is Goswami, not only are you a Bengali and a Hindu of the priestly caste, but you have also had one of your ancestors receive an award for great learning. If your surname is Remedios, you are most certainly from Goa and a Christian, whereas if it is Elankulam Manakkal Sankaran Namboodiripad you are most certainly from South India, Kerala to be exact, and you are probably the Communist chief minister.

For the Jewish people too, a name has always had extreme significance. All Hebrew names were supposed to be significant. Originally people were called by a name expressive of some characteristic, for instance Edom meant red; Esau meant hairy; Jacob meant supplanter. But some names were divinely given. An example in the Old Testament is Hosea, who names his son Jezreel at the behest of the Lord, because that was where an atrocity had been committed and the Lord would avenge. Another example is when God changes the name of Abram, which meant Exalted Father, to Abraham, meaning Father of the Nations. Examples in the New Testament occur when Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter, meaning ‘Rock’ and Saul becomes Paul following his conversion.

The Jewish people placed such great emphasis on names that the name of God was held in extreme awe. In Jewish thought, a name conveyed the nature and essence of the being named and represented their history and reputation. So when in Exodus 3 13 to 22 Moses asks God what His name is, he isn’t asking God ‘what should I call you?’. Rather he is asking God ‘who are you and what are you like?’ And God replies that He is eternal, that He is the God of our ancestors, that He is the God who saves and will redeem us.

God gives us similar assurances in today’s reading from Isaiah 43. Here God says to us, ‘I have called you by name, you are mine.’ And the reading goes on to say, ‘You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you.’ This entire passage not only illustrates the relationship of God to the people of Israel whom He loved, but of the love of God for humankind throughout time and space, wherever they may be.

This reading from Isaiah tells us that when God calls us by name He knows and loves us intimately and individually. That He knows our needs even better than we do. That He wants our good far more than we do. That He understands us far better than we understand ourselves, loves us far more than we love ourselves, that He is far more forgiving of us than we can ever be to each other.

This is a reading that has played a powerful role in my own journey to faith. It tells me that God is with us in every trial that we may face, in every suffering of the human heart, through fire and flood, through loneliness and bereavement, in the still dark hours of the night, and in the glaring light of noonday. It tells me that He longs more for our happiness than we can ever long, waits ever more patiently and lovingly, works more towards our eternal good than we can ever begin to comprehend. In a moment of quiet this coming week, why don’t you try reading the passage for yourself, realising that the assurances it gives apply to you, personally.

And at baptism, God calls each one of us personally by name. In baptism we are given a special name known only to God, that reflects the love and intimate knowledge He has of us. We are given a new identity as a son or daughter of God, a new grace and a new life. In baptism Christ claims us as His own, reflecting the words of the reading from Isaiah, ‘I have called you by name, you are mine.’

Yes, we have a possessive God. We have a God who wants us to belong to Him and to no other, because love means belonging, love means possessiveness, love means protectiveness of the beloved, of safe guarding that which we hold to be precious, love means reassuring the beloved that all will be well. And no matter what our trials and troubles, our sufferings and dark times, through fire and water, that is what our God does for us.

Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus. The reading from Luke tells us that the Messiah will gather together the people of God, but not without division and judgement. The winnower’s job, mentioned in Luke, was to separate grains of wheat from the chaff, which would be collected and burnt. The fire of God, of the Holy Spirit is a holy fire. The poet TS Eliot in his poem the Four Quartets, Little Gidding says, I quote, ‘The dove descending breaks the air with flame of incandescent terror.’

Yes, the fire of God is a flame of incandescent terror. At our baptism we become the children of a God who baptises literally with water and symbolically with fire. The fire of God is a fire that in burns out all that is not true, that shines the clear light of day on the darkness of sin, that is uncompromising in its recognition of justice and love and wisdom, that is unrelenting in its protectiveness of goodness and vulnerability and the things that are of God. This is the fire in which we are purified through the sorrows and trials we face in our lives and whereby we grow spiritually.

There should be terror indeed, as we recognise the awesome, the uncompromising, the true presence of God in our lives. And yet as children of this awesome God we know that our God is also a loving God, a God who calls us personally by name, and who knows and loves us intimately. And we know from today’s reading from Luke that the burning love of God is gentle, too, coming down as the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove, that symbol of beauty and of peace.

John baptised Jesus with water. For the early Christians baptism was commonly by total immersion and this symbolised dying to the old life with its sin, its obstacles to the growth of the spirit and its darkness, and rising to a life lived in light and love, and the infinite opportunities for growth and grace as a child of God. In baptism just as God identified His beloved Son and conferred on Him honour and sanction, so too does God for us. And here is the challenge for us, to live as children of our Heavenly Father, not by right but through the great honour that He confers on us by claiming us as His own.

Mother Church, in her wisdom, chooses the baptism of our Lord with which to start the New Year. At the beginning of the year we are given the assurance of new life, an assurance of support as a child of God, and assurance that no matter what this coming year will bring, we are affirmed, and loved and valued. This is comfort indeed.

The future is shrouded in uncertainty, the way ahead perhaps strewn with difficulties. This is a year where there may be many joys and perhaps deep sorrows that we will encounter. But through the pain and joy of this world, through darkness and light, through fire and flood, we know that whatever we encounter, there is one who walks with us, who loves us and who calls us by name.

I spoke at the beginning of the significance of names. In India, wherever you travel in India, you will find that despite the name you present to the world, the name that identifies your origins and often social status, there is another name you are given by your family and friends, by those who love you, and which is known only to your inner circle. It is known as a pet name, but I would like to call it a love name as it is lovingly given and symbolises a deeply personal, intimate and loving relationship. This is the relationship we are called to as children of a loving God who calls us by name and in whom is our true identity.

And I would like to end with a poem and prayer by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran minister martyred by the Nazis, who in the last days of December 1944, shortly before his death, responded to the love of God with words of trust, with words that move, with words of faith from a true child of God. He wrote:

With every power for good to stay and guide me,
comforted and inspired beyond all fear,
I'll live these days with you in thought beside me,
and pass, with you, into the coming year.

The old year still torments our hearts, unhastening;
the long days of our sorrow still endure;
Father, grant to the souls thou hast been chastening
that thou hast promised, the healing and the cure.

Should it be ours to drain the cup of grieving
even to the dregs of pain, at thy command,
we will not falter, thankfully receiving
all that is given by thy loving hand.

But should it be thy will once more to release us
to life’s enjoyment and its good sunshine,
that which we’ve learned from sorrow shall increase us,
and all our life be dedicate as thine.

While all the powers of good aid and attend us,
boldly we'll face the future, come what may.
At even and at morn God will befriend us,
and oh, most surely on each newborn day!

And so may we, whom God has called by name, and befriended, know that He walks with us through fire and flood into a brave new year.