160110 – By Name

Yr C ~ Epiphany 1 ~ Isaiah 43:1-7

I’m so glad you’re here today! You’re going to get to hear something absolutely fantastic! No, I don’t mean this sermon – although, clearly, it’s going to be fantastic! [j/k] – I mean you’re going to hear something that only occurs once in the entire bible but it’s so awesome that once is enough!
Are you ready? Are you excited? You should be!by-name

We’re looking at the prophet Isaiah today. The book of Isaiah is a complicated thing because it records the writing of the prophet over the course of a couple hundred years. Obviously, one guy couldn’t have done that. There are actually three sections to the book that all get attributed to the original prophet. They were continuing in his way and honouring him by using his name.

Today’s reading comes from what we call “second Isaiah” which was written during Babylonian exile. The people “Isaiah” is writing for are dispirited, thinking they’re lost, that they’ve done terrible wrongs to deserve their exile, believing the worst about themselves.
It kind of reminds me of how those TV ads that pop up at New Years’ time make us feel – trying to convince us of how supposedly pathetic we are and how their magic-wonder-product will solve all our problems.

So the people are feeling bad about themselves, but God says…

43:1 Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.

First, a little trivia for you. Do you know how many times the phrase “do not fear” or “be not afraid” appears in the bible? 365! One for every day of the year! (Except this is a leap year so I guess you can be afraid one day this year!)

There are two absolute gems in this passage from Isaiah and the first is God telling us: I have called you by name, you are mine.

Our names are special. Many of us have really interesting stories about where our names came from. Maybe it’s a family tradition, or honouring a favourite person, or having a significant meaning. Our name is a big part of our identity. Our “good name” as in our reputation is a really important part of how we’re known. We love to be called by name. It means we’re known, we’re appreciated, we’re valued. It’s not just “hey you” or “buddy” or “sweetie” – it’s personal. That’s why our name tags are so important at church. Being known by name matters. I really wish I was much better at it!

How awesome is it then that God knows us by name, calls us by name, and claims us as God’s own? – like family.
God says “You’re mine!” – not as a slave or a possession but as an expression of love, of caring.
And God says that because we’re God’s that God will always be Present – no matter what.

43:2 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.

This is not to say that we won’t ever have trouble, or that the trouble won’t sometimes lay us out – it says that we’re not on our own.
And if you’re a church person, if you’re a Christian person who has some kind of understanding of what incarnation means – which is what we celebrate in the birth of Jesus as our prime example of what God’s Presence in a person looks like – if you’re tuned-in to incarnation you’ll know that God isn’t just “out there” but God is absolutely “right here” – present in the people around you – your family, your church family, your friends.

Jesus won’t swoop in like Superman and save you from anything, but the Spirit of Christ is absolutely incarnated in the love that surrounds you. And the more tuned-in to God’s Presence and God’s love you are the more you’ll feel that you are not alone no matter what waters, or rivers, or fires your life leads through.
The message isn’t that you’re Teflon and nothing will ever stick to you or harm you.
The message is that you’re not alone, and you’re known by name! And not only that, it gets even better!

43:4 God says, “You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you.”

This is the ONLY verse in the bible where God directly says “I love you!”

Who do you say “I love you” to?
How does it feel to hear someone say it to you?

How does it feel to hear God saying it to you?
Do you believe it? Does it surprise you? (Who me?) Does it make you feel wonderful? – Give you comfort? Relief? – Make you feel joyful? Special? Maybe all those things at once?!

You are loved. You are valued. You matter.
Don’t take my word for it. Take God’s!

Now, what are we going to do with this mind-boggling revelation? I think the biggest challenge is to accept that it’s really true!

It’s January. Many people make resolutions and set goals for the coming year. I think it’s a great idea as long as you’re gentle with yourself if or when you stumble.
The trick is to celebrate when you do it, and not beat yourself up when you don’t. “Oh well, I blew it today, but what a bonus all those other days were – bring on tomorrow!”

Often resolution-making comes from negativity.
We get to the end of the year and we look back and we find all sorts of things to be critical about and that seemingly need fixing – our weight, our fitness, our habits, our relationships, our productivity – it’s easy to find stuff about ourselves we don’t like.

The same thing can happen with organizations that set goals – like churches. It’s a good thing for a church to set goals for a year. It names what’s important for us. It clarifies where we should put our energy and attention. It challenges us not to ignore some of the harsher realities of being an organization.

But if our goals are things like: we need more people – we need more money – we need more volunteers – we need to be more active in our community – then these are all built on negativity disguised as possibility.
The last thing churches need is to focus on being more successful.
What does successful even mean for a church?
Instead, I think the best goal a church can set for itself is to commit to being deeper.

Last week and today in children’s time I challenged the kids to take up the resolution to look for love and when they see it to say “there’s love!” You can certainly adopt that as your goal too if you’d like. But I’d like to suggest another one to you.

For the last couple of years we’ve been focusing on the phrase “Surely God is in this place! Help me notice!” I don’t want to set that aside, but I would like to add another phrase for us to memorize.
For 2016 I’d like to offer you a new verse of affirmation:

Isaiah 43:4 – God says, “You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you!”

“You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you!”

Turn and look at someone in the congregation.
Do you know what? That person you are looking at is precious in God’s sight, and honoured, and God loves them – just like you.

Close your eyes and picture someone you are having some trouble with.
Believe it or not that person you are looking at is precious in God’s sight, and honoured, and God loves them – just like you. [You can open your eyes]

I think it’s easy to imagine God loving the person beside us, and with a little faith we can hopefully imagine God loving that person we’re having trouble with.

Now the hard one. Close your eyes again.
This time imagine yourself looking in a mirror.
Keep looking.
Now hear God’s voice gently speaking these words to you:

man-serene-gratefulYou are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you!”

You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you!”

You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you!”

[You can open your eyes]

I know some of us may have a hard time believing that.
Maybe we’ve been told otherwise by someone.
Maybe we’ve compared ourselves to some impossible standard of beauty, or accomplishment, or action and feel bad about it.
Maybe we have just enough religion in us to make us feel like crap.

Whatever we may feel about ourselves our undeniable, bedrock truth and reality is that we are loved by God. God is love and God can do no other than love.
And this God who is somehow transcendent and far beyond anything we can imagine, the ground of being encompassing and enlivening the universe, the Something More that we intuitively perceive to be all around us and permeating and pervading all of reality– this Holy Mystery we call God who utterly confounds our intellect such that we can only relate by giving personal attributes to – this ever-present Presence intermingles with each and every one of us in an unfathomably personal way.

This Ultimate Reality, this Source of life and love knows you intimately, by name.
And the ‘judgment’ of this God toward you is not that you’re not good enough,
or not beautiful enough,
or not successful enough,
or not making a big enough difference,
whatever you may have done or neglected to do, no matter what – God’s appraisal of you is that you are precious, and honoured, and God loves you! Wow!

We believe that we are created in the image of God. That means at our deepest core there is God’s essence, God’s being, God’s sacredness – in you!
God is not apart from us – God is in us.
Jesus showed us this when he said in John 14:20 “I am in God and you are in me and I in you.” It is a wondrously profound and interconnected, incarnated relationship.

We may lose sight of that from time to time but God never does because God is love and like seeks like.
We feel out of sorts when we forget and become misaligned from that loving core.
I wonder how many of our other resolutions are born from our forgetting about God’s love for us.
Maybe if we really, really believed that God really, really does love us and that we really are precious and honoured we might not need so many of those other resolutions.

So here’s our goal for this year. Here’s the resolution I’d like you to consider adopting for this New Year. It’s easy to keep. When you came in you got a couple little pieces of paper with Isaiah 43:4 on them. There’s plenty more if you didn’t get any.

I want you to take them and put one on your fridge at home, and one on your bathroom mirror, and wherever else you think you might look a lot.

Every time you look at that little piece of paper you’ll be reminded of something fundamentally true about yourself.
As far as God is concerned:

You are precious in my sight, and honoured, and I love you!”

It’ll take you less than a minute to put a piece of tape on the back of that slip of paper and stick it on your fridge and your mirror.
And that investment of one minute just might change the way you look at yourself.
And if we can accept and embody God’s love for us we stand a much better chance of loving everyone we encounter, like Jesus.

It’s the season of Epiphany. An epiphany is a sudden insight, a revelation, an ‘aha,’ a profoundly wondrous realization of God’s Presence. Here’s a fantastic epiphany for you:

You are not alone. God is always with you. God loves you. God knows you by name.

This year, let’s resolve to really embrace that.

Amen.