1st Sunday after the Epiphany

January 13, 2013

Summary

There is a brass plaque set on the wall of Westfield House, overlooking the shared grounds it shares with our congregation in Cambridge. I shall recount its story.

In 2005, an Old Testament specialist, named Deomar was called to be a tutor at Westfield House. In fact he had lived there while doing his PhD at Cambridge some years before. So he arrived with his young family, and taught his students the wonders of the Old Testament. After just a few months, though, Deomar suffered a recurrence of a cancer, but this time treatments were in vain, and eventually he was admitted to hospital and then hospice care for the last short leg of his earthly journey.

Deomar’s specialist subject, and the love of his life (just behind his young family, of course) was the book of Isaiah. And so it came as no surprise that his dying wish should be that a verse from that prophet should be the text for his funeral address when the time came. Furthermore, he asked that his resting place should be marked by the inscription of that verse, in English, in Hebrew, the language in which it was written, and in Portuguese, Deomar’s own native language. And that verse happens to be the first verse of our text today.

So this particular text of the Old Testament has gone down in Resurrection Lutheran Church legend. In the heart of it are the words of God: “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” And his widow carried out that wish, in the form of the plaque attached to the wall of Westfield House alongside where his ashes were committed.

But not quite. I mean that it is not exactly those words recorded in our text. Because Deomar was unhappy with the deficiencies of the English translation. Every English version, it seems, makes the same mistake. Any Hebrew scholar looking at the plaque can see that the original text reads “I will call you by your name.” But the translators failed to recognise the significance of that idiom. “The Gospel”, said Deomar, “is in the word your”. He understood the significance, and that is why he chose the verse. He realised what it meant. It means that God did not, in sending his Son as our Redeemer, simply extend a call for the salvation of humanity. It was not a call in general, neither is it a salvation in general. It means that out of 6 billion people on this planet, God called this one by name, and wrote the word Deomar into the book of life. It means the same for you, that God has summoned you by your very name, not as a more or less insignificant proportion of so vast a humanity. His relationship with you is as personal as that. Christ appeared for you; Christ died for you; Christ intercedes for you; Christ will return to bring you home to himself.

And suddenly, of course, we realise why this passage was chosen for the commemoration of the baptism of our Lord. The very thing it speaks of happens each time a person is baptised. They are baptised into the name of the triune God, but by their name. In the waters of baptism, saturated with the promise of God, they are summoned to the Kingdom of God. One hears stories of misguided missionaries spraying crowds with water while pronouncing the formula “I baptise you…” and so on. But that is precisely not what Isaiah speaks of. I call you by your name. And so each baptism begins with the name of the sinner who is being redeemed: “So and so, I baptise you…”

But there is also something more in this passage, if we read it to its end. There God calls for his people to be gathered from the four points of the compass, saying:
“bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the end of the earth,
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”

Did you hear what he said? Not only does he call his own, “by your name”, he also declares them to be “called by my name”, “bring my sons from afar, and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name.”

And this is also the wonderful reality of baptism. Having summoned the sinner by his or her own name, they are introduced into the name of God: So and so, I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. The unique name of God incarnate in Jesus Christ is attached to the unique name of an individual. No wonder we call our baptismal name a “Christian name”, and call this our Christening. For we are Christ-ened, and united with him in his death and resurrection.

Even more now it is apparent why this passage should be chosen to complement the Gospel that tells of the baptism of our Lord. Recall the voice from heaven that accompanied the baptism of Jesus: “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” So he too, was called by his name, the name of beloved Son. He too was called by the name of God, “my beloved Son.”
Now because we share in his baptism, we share also in his name. The voice from heaven extends to us as well – beloved son or beloved daughter. That is what Isaiah was told:

I will say to the north, Give up,
and to the south, Do not withhold;
bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the end of the earth,
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”

The baptism of Jesus was an event in history. But he did not think of it as an historical event. When he spoke of it, and I think we only know of one occasion when he did, he spoke of it in the present or future tense, not in the past: “The cup that I drink you will drink;” he promised two of his disciples, and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized.” He had in mind specifically his death – the last act of his baptism, or rather the second last.

So too, our baptism is an event in history, past or future. But it is an on-going event:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.”

So in him, we are called by name, called to be His sons and daughters, and called to inherit his eternal resurrection.  Amen.

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Bible References

  • Isaiah 43:1 - 7