Texts: Isaiah 43, Luke 3
You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls
But you're gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you're gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you're gonna have to serve somebody..
Before worship, we played the ‘Muscle Shoals’ cover, from the album subtitled ‘Small Town, Big Sound’, released in fall 2018 by Willie Nelson, Jamey Johnson, Christ Stapleton, and Lee Ann Womack’. You may prefer covers by Etta James, or Willie Nelson solo, or the original by the writer Bob Dylan. Online at www.trinityunitedkw.ca, you will just get me speaking this first verse and chorus.
The choir sang ‘Each Child’, by Eleanor Daly, before I spoke, and you can hear it on the church website or YouTube channel. ‘Can anything good come out of Toronto?’ We will remember the music and lyrics of Eleanor Daly long after the preachers of that town from the past generation.
Imagine the original prophets as musicians and lyricists, speaking or chanted repeated messages with distinctive cadences and melodies. The next generations generated new arrangements, in new musical and poetic idioms, but the spirit of each prophet was remembered.
The first prophet Isaiah lived through the collapse of Judah, and the relocation of the elites of Jerusalem to southern Iraq, in Babylon. Much of that original word came as warning and scolding to the degenerating nation and cult. Another generation took up the echo of his voice, as Calvinists echoed Calvin, or Lutherans Luther, or Wesleyans Wesley, till they became the ‘new normal’. Last week, we heard from a third generation, ‘third Isaiah’, living in restoration days.
We read today from the 43rd chapter of Isaiah, part of what’s called ‘Second Isaiah’, the middle generation, in exile and not yet seeing restoration under the Persians. In exile, we recalled the scolding of the original generation, and admitted ‘he told us so’. But the tone of a message to exiles is different:
But now, thus says the Lord,
God who created you, O Jacob
God who formed you, O Israel,
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you
I have called you by name, you are mine.
A people in exile, once greater, now marginal, can’t easily put their names together. The aspirational names are now turned against them in name-calling taunts. They need to hear that God made them, God named them, they are beloved, children of God, and claim those names in the face of the derision and group slurs against them.
So do we. We need to know ourselves known, and named, and loved truly, we who are in exile, who live with memory and with hope.
Luke’s gospel loves Isaiah the prophet. The gospel of Luke echoes the gospel of Isaiah as a decoding key to understanding Jesus. John the Baptist In Luke’s gospel is naming names, not only the good but the bad. He condemns Herod, sleeping with his brother’s wife Herodias, for abuse of power, not simply sex.
Herod imprisons John – so John is in prison when Jesus gets baptized in this gospel. Did you notice? Each gospel has to struggle with some part of the issue of Jesus getting baptized. If John baptizes Jesus, does that make him superior to Jesus? If baptism is a cleansing of sin, then why does Jesus need to be baptized? Does he ‘join the church’, or ‘believe in himself as Saviour’?
If you came at Jesus’ baptism from Luke alone, what would you get? Jesus is known, named, and beloved by God. The voice from heaven, and the dove confirm it: child of God, beloved. This gospel doesn’t even hear the voice of God telling the rest of us to ‘listen to him’, authorizing his teaching. Jesus was already baptized, and was praying after that baptism – then came the voice, in Luke’s version directed to Jesus ‘you’, not to us about Jesus ‘him’:
You are my son, the beloved
With you I am well pleased.
Isaiah is preached to and through Jesus: child of God, beloved, precious.
Known, named, and loved truly. Like us. More than us. Aspiration. Association. Claim the name!
We were pondering a pretty deep set of human needs and anxieties today. We crave to be truly known, named, and loved. Some of us get a taste of it in our homes, from our families, growing up securely known, named, and loved. Some of us find a partner, a spouse, who passionately knows, names, and loves us. Often people find it in church, where they are faithfully known, named, and loved. All of us could use more of it, and many of us are losing some of the people who gave it to us, through mobility, morbidity, and mortality.
We can get it wrong, of course. Being truly named is not a whitewash, but a clear-eyed recognition that being child of God, beloved, is fundamental, and that the things that we think and say and do – and don’t think, or say, or do – can be unworthy of the name, and need change. Otherwise, we’ve just got what H Richard Niebuhr named about our liberal tradition:
A God without wrath
Brought men without sin
Into a kingdom without judgment
Through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.
Marketing experts know a about this deep need of ours, and how to twist it. We no longer live in villages and communities where we are known, named and loved. We live mobile, fragmented lives of anonymity in a crowd. People don’t know us, name us, or love us truly, but we want it. Branding promises us that if we buy the right thing, wear the right thing, drive the right vehicle, drink the right coffee, that we will be named, known, and loved.
How are you known, when you leave this place? How are you named in the world? Do you have aspirational and associative names? Do you bear the weight and shame of being wrongly named, lumped together with some group of bad guys? Do you hear your name enough? Do you name others truly and often enough? If you heard nothing else today:
You are a child of God.
You are beloved.
You are precious.
That’s all there was to the gospel today. We don’t get told it often enough. We don’t tell it to others often enough. If we get it right, then like John the Baptist we can speak the truth to power, and call out Herod for his abuse of power:
‘You are a child of God.
You are beloved.
You are precious.
Why aren’t you acting like it?’
Remember who you are, and whose you are. Act as if it were so. Claim the name, and live it out loud, as if it were truly your name. Or at least, remember it like your middle name, if you fear the ridicule too much. It’s a good place to start, as you head back out into the world this week. God knows where you’re heading, and what you’ll be called by others. Remember your name – your Christian name: child of God, beloved. Amen