Luke 3:15-17, 21-22
What do you know about where your name came from? Or what special meaning does your name have for your family?
There is a story to every name. Even if your story is that your parents found the name in a baby name book, a movie, a song, or a TV character, your name has a story, because names are important. We name what is important to us with names that have been passed down from generation to generation, with names that have been selected carefully for their meaning, with names that remind us of strong people, important virtues, or important stories, with names that simply bring joy to us as we bestow them on the ones and the things we love.
We name the significant aspects of our lives, as a colleague of mine pointed out, even those that are full of devastation. The names Katrina and Rita with remind us of storms and injustice for generations. We have Pearl Harbor Day and D-Day and 9-11. They aren’t memories of joy or excited anticipation, but even those events and parts of our lives that are full of devastation and violence have names, names by which we remember these life-changing times. Names are important. We name what is important to us.
Isaiah knew something about naming. God had taught Isaiah well.
The passage we heard begins with “But now” which should make any hearer wonder, well, what was before? What we heard today was a divine love song, but that love song is only made stronger and more poignant when we think about what came before it. Before it the people of God are reminded of the fury of God they have felt in exile. They are reminded of anger and justice that has been executed upon THEM when they would not hear God, when they would not walk in God’s way, when they would not obey the law of God. They probably didn’t need too much reminding of THAT part of their relationship with God, experiencing it every day as they lived in exile in Babylon.
But that reminder certainly perks up the ears of anyone who hears the words “But now.” Change is on the way. Hope has not been in vain. Before we have suffered and longed for the relationship we have had. Before we have cried out for a second, third, or fourth chance. Before we wondered if we would ever feel like God’s people again, but now… But now… Those words tell us in our deepest darkest experiences of pain and loneliness and suffering and questioning that but now, we will experience something different.
The very first thing God does for the people Israel is remind them whose they are - - remind them to whom they belong. They belong to God who created them. God who created them individually, and God who pulled them together into community with a common history, common ancestors, a common story. They belong to God who, even in the midst of the worst experience of their lives, redeems them, makes them whole, buys them back from the pain they are feeling and gives them worth in divine and human eyes. God calls them by name and claims them for God’s self.
Names are important. We name what is important to us. GOD names what is important to God. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you, God promises, and I know you by name. When the rivers threaten to cover over your head, I will call out your name and lead you through them. When you walk through fire you won’t be burned and the flame shall not consume you because I will personally, and tenderly, and lovingly lead you by your hand, speaking your name to you, out of the terror your face. God will call us by name because very personally, very intimately, we belong to God. Names are important. God names and calls by name what is important to God. Isaiah knows this.
The gospel writers, especially Luke and Matthew in their stories of Jesus’ birth, know it, too. Before the telling of his birth in these two gospels God gives Jesus his name, several names, in fact. “Emmanuel” the child is called, God with us. Son of the Most High. Jesus, he saves. The angels delivered the messages straight from God of what this child would be named, because his name would tell the world who he was.
But now, God says, now that he is grown, now that he is about to move from obscurity to a whole new kind of existence, now that he is ready to move around and about in the world where God placed him to do what God has called him to do, now it is time for a new name. It’s a world full of names. The opening of the chapter, the part that gives us the setting for John the Baptist’s ministry and Jesus’ baptism, starts like this:
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas…” (Luke 3:1)
In that one verse no less than seven men are named. No less than seven men are called by their very important, very powerful names before Luke goes on to talk about how the word of God came to a virtual nobody, some John son of Zechariah, who was, of all places in the wilderness. And of all these people who are mentioned – emperors and governors and rulers and priest – of all these people of obvious importance to the world, the one to whom Jesus comes at the start of his ministry is John, the son of Zechariah.
Jesus has a pretty big name of his own – if not yet in renown at least in meaning. Jesus, “He saves” tells what he has come to do, but at that particular point in his ministry, at the very beginning, when he’s out in the middle of nowhere with John son of Zechariah, while the position and power and prestige of Tiberius and Pontius Pilate and Herod and Philip and Lysanias and Annas and Caiaphas are breathing down his neck, even “he saves,” from the middle of nowhere Galilee, needs a new name when he comes to the water.
Coming to John for baptism, not because he NEEDS the baptism of repentance, but because he wants to join with others, join with us in our need
Coming to John for baptism, not because his skin and his spirit need to be cleansed of his unrighteousness, but because God promised to be with us when we passed through the waters, even the waters of baptism
Coming to John for baptism, not because his submission was necessary, but because it was an act of solidarity with those of us for whom it is
Coming to John for baptism, Jesus, he saves, gets a new name. Jesus hears God’s voice as called out to him in his prayer. You are “My Son.” You are “The Beloved.” Tiberius and Pontius Pilate and Herod and all the rest may have the power of Rome behind them, but Jesus, God whispers in his still dripping ears, Jesus belongs to God. Jesus is God’s Son, the Beloved.
And so are we. So are we the sons and the daughters of God Most High. So are we, dripping with the waters of baptism, the waters that covered Jesus even when he didn’t need them, the waters that cover us because we do, so are we, dripping with these waters of his baptism, called and claimed and named by God. Because names are important. God names what is important to God.
The voice Jesus heard, that called out to him from heaven while he was praying at the side of the river, is the voice that speaks also to us. You are my child. You are my daughter, my son. You are my beloved, and with you I am well pleased. When Jesus joined us in the water, when he waded out into the river, when he was covered by the water and the love and the voice of God, he brought us right out there with him.
But let’s not get too comfortable sitting here with our old, new names. Yes, they are important names. God gives us important names. But let’s not try to fool ourselves into thinking they are safe names. Remember into which waters, remember into what world Jesus’ name came. It came into this world of position, of which he had none. It came into this world of power, of which he shared none. It came into this world of prestige, of which he could claim none. It came into a world that would challenge him and ignore him and resist his wide love. It came, our baptismal names come, in a world that may very well do the same to us when we try to walk in his way and love as he loved.
But even now, but even when the world… no even when WE resist God’s love, God’s grace, and God’s way, but even now God’s promise is still true – When you pass through the waters, I will be with you. When you walk through fire you shall not be burned. For I am the Lord your God, your Savior. You are precious in my sight, and I love you, my Beloved Daughters and Sons.