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Sun, Dec 31, 2017

A New Name

Our second reading for today comes from the Prophet Isaiah. We will begin in the 61st chapter with verse 10 and continue until chapter 62, verse 3. Our text for today comes from a final section of Isaiah. The people of Israel had returned from exile but all was not the vision of milk and honey they expected. Much like today, they still waited for the fulfillment of the vision Isaiah saw and needed encouragement as they waited. Let us hear this Word of God.

10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord,
    my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its shoots,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to spring up before all the nations.
1 For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
    and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
    and her salvation like a burning torch.
2 The nations shall see your vindication,
    and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
    that the mouth of the Lord will give.
3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
    and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Throughout the month of December we have heard Isaiah pronounce hope in the midst of despair, light in the midst of darkness, and return in the midst of exile. There has been reassurance that no matter how bad things get, God is still there. God knows us and speaks a life-giving word to us. Then, as we celebrated last Sunday, this life-giving Word became flesh and dwelt among us as Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

I know that I needed to hear that Word of life again and again this past year for 2017 has been a hard year. We have talked from time to time about the challenges that divisions in our country bring; the general anxiety and unease we have experienced even in our own community around issues of economics and race; and the toll that sickness and death exert upon a church family. Yes, as 2017 comes to a close and we look ahead to a new year, we need to hear that encouraging word from Isaiah again.

And in our text for today, the word of rejoicing that we hear is that the Lord is going to give us a new name. A new name. Think with me for just a minute about some of the names that we call ourselves. We have the name our parents gave us. This morning we baptized Ella Ruby Hooker, a little one who carries names from her family and the generations who have gone before. Yes, one of the biggest decisions parents must make as they prepare for the birth or adoption of a child is the child’s name. Some couples, like Sarah and I, picked out names long before the child is born. Other families wait until they see their child face to face before deciding on a name. I once heard a man tell the story about how there was some indecision about what the name of his oldest child should be at his birth. They waited until they met him but still could not decide. The hospital actually made them stay an extra day, despite perfect health for mom and baby, because the hospital would not release them until they decided on a name for their son.

Yes, we have the name we are given at our birth, but we call ourselves many other “names” too don’t we. For Christmas I received a novel by Fredrik Backman called Beartown. I’m only about a quarter into it, but one sentence has already stuck with me. It gets repeated a few times in the novel and it goes like this: “One of the plainest truths about both towns and individuals is that they usually don’t turn into what we tell them to be, but what they are told they are.” Think about that for a minute: Individuals don’t turn into what we tell them to be, but what they are told they are.

More than a decade ago, I attended a youth conference at the Montreat Conference Center with the youth from the Presbyterian Church of Lowell. When we returned we produced a skit as part of Youth Sunday to share the experience with the congregation. In part the script went like this with a narrator introducing the scene:

As teenagers in America today, there are many names that we are called, some positive and some negative. Amid all the competing voices in our lives, the questions remain, “Who am I?” and “What does it mean to be called by name?”

… Our teen is trying to answer those questions and he encounters those who give voice to the general perceptions about teenagers in culture and the media, many of which you may share.

The teenager entered the stage and, with more detail than we have time for this morning, heard two people complain how lazy teenagers are today. They hang a sign around his neck which says “Lazy.” This is followed by his overhearing additional conversations and additional signs being added to his neck which said, “Don’t Care,” “Selfish,” “Technology,” “Drugs, Sex, Alcohol,” and finally “Ignorant.”

The teenager, wearing those six signs around his neck, with hands on head, finally cries out: “Is that who I really am? Are those my real names: Lazy? Don’t care? Selfish? Technology? Drugs, Sex, and Alcohol? Ignorant?”

Yes, are those the names that you and I are going to call young Ella as she grows up? Are those the names that we are going to call the children and youth of this church? Because “One of the plainest truths about both towns and individuals is that they usually don’t turn into what we tell them to be, but what they are told they are.”

And while we are talking about names, perhaps we should take a good look at the names we call ourselves. Do you have that voice that speaks to you in your head that calls you names? I suspect that we all have one of those. What names does your voice give you: Overweight? Old? Young? Tired? Sick? Anxious? Unworthy? Unhappy? Lonely? Inadequate? Most of the names that we call ourselves are those that diminish us, that highlight our faults, that pull us down, or that separate us from others. If those are the names we hear, how often do we call others those same names? And we wonder why the world is in the state it is in today? “One of the plainest truths about both towns and individuals is that they usually don’t turn into what we tell them to be, but what they are told they are.”

My friends, on this last day of 2017 as we look ahead into 2018, we need to hear that word from Isaiah again. I don’t want you to hear “A New Year, a New You.” No, I want you to hear, “A New Year, the Real You.” Because the one who really knows who you are has a different name for you. The Lord of heaven and earth, the one who formed you in your mother’s womb, the one who sang on the day of your birth, the one who has been with you every step along the way, knows your name. In that skit so many years ago, we put it this way as the teen’s youth advisor gradually removes the signs from the teenager’s neck saying:

I know that you hear all those things about teenagers and it is tempting to believe that is who you really are. But only God can tell you who you really are because God created you and God says, “I have called you by name and you are mine.”

“The world may call you ignorant; drugs, sex, and alcohol; technology; selfish; don’t care; and lazy, but God knows. You a child of God and God has given you a heart to love, a mind to explore, and hands to serve.

The teenager then spoke to the entire congregation words from 1 John:

“What marvelous love the Father has extended to us! Just look at it – we’re called Children of God! And that is who we really are!”

Child of God - that is the name Ella received in her baptism today. That is the name you received in your baptism. That is the name the Lord intends for all of us to share. And yet that is the last name we tend to call ourselves. We seek meaning and value in so many other places and ways. Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann once put it this way:

The crisis in the U.S. Church has almost nothing to do with being too liberal or too conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.

We try to be someone else, we settle for this generic American identity. But God knows we are so much more. We need to remember and be who we really are.

It was the early Hassidic sage Rabbi Zusya who once said, "When I reach the next world, God will not ask me, 'Why were you not Moses?' Instead, he will ask me, 'Why were you not Zusya?'" Why were you not the person you were meant to be? Why were you not who I created you to be? Why were you not who you are?

My friends, “One of the plainest truths about both towns and individuals is that they usually don’t turn into what we tell them to be, but what they are told they are.” Be who you are – a child of God. Beautiful in the hand of the Lord. Worthy. Loved. New Year, the Real You.

For you are a child of God. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. And be sure that is the name you share with the children of this church and community too.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

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