A New Self – January 14, 2018

We continue with our sermon series, “All Things New” as we begin 2018 with a blank slate. This is one of the seasons we go through – the change of year, the change of the calendar… in that change comes new possibilities and new choices; new chances to be better and do better.

We witness this change of season in many ways – one way is through the advertisements in the newspaper. Before Christmas, the ads shouted deals on luxuries: toys, electronics, jewellery – all the material things to indulge our gluttony. Then on Christmas morning, the ads changed! Suddenly on sale: tread mills, walking shoes, yoga mats and fitness DVDs! All the equipment needed to transform our pre-Christmas gluttony into a post – Christmas makeover!

New Years resolutions are typically GOALS we make that with the intention to re-create ourselves, to make ourselves into someone else: to lose weight, to stop smoking, to do something we’ve always wanted to do or to stop doing something we know we shouldn’t be doing. Each new year we attempt to change ourselves, to re-create ourselves, to transform ourselves into the people we want to be.

In this chaotic world, when we humans feel insecure, when our “unknowns” outnumber our “knowns” – we cling to the aspects of our lives WE CAN control. When our foundation shakes, we feel the fear of our loss of control and so we attempt to control the parts of our lives we CAN: we control what we eat, we order our time, we clean out our closets. “At least, THIS I can affect.” We think. In a storm of chaos, we cling to those things in our control, even when it means changing our very selves.

And YET, even in a time of existential crisis, God doesn’t want us to change WHO WE ARE, God wants us to be more US. One of my favorite sayings is from St. Irenaeus, a bishop in Second-century Gaul, is this: “The Glory of God is the human being fully alive.” God wants us to be fully alive, and we can because we are HIS.

In our scripture lesson today, the book of Isaiah speaks of the love GOD has for each of us, even in chaotic and uncertain times we experience.  In the time of the prophet, 700 years before the birth of Christ, the people of Judah were also experiencing the turmoil of uncertain times, and Isaiah – tasked with being the mouthpiece for God – proclaimed GOD trustworthy and faithful; a firm foundation; a supreme leader upon whom we could rely, whose advice we could count on; whose protection would not disappear with the slipping stock market or wavering interest rates.

“Do not fear,” says the God in Isaiah 43:1, “for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are mine”

To redeem means:

1. To recover ownership of by paying a specified sum.

2. To pay off (a promissory note, for example).

3. To turn in (coupons or gift cards, for example) and receive something in exchange.

4. To convert into cash:  as in to redeem stocks.

The word “redeemed” is used only a few times elsewhere in the Old Testament in reference to God, but it is used ten times in this section of Isaiah (Chapters 40-66) and so it is obviously an important concept for the author of Isaiah and for his audience.

Usually when we hear the word “redemption”, we think of Christ on the cross – the gift of his sacrifice, his death and resurrection. But that is only ONE understanding of the word: an understanding that comes 2000 years after the Crucifixion; after 2000 years of theology and history, 2000 years of writing and thinking about the death of Christ. But to the people of Judah, 700 years before the birth of Christ, “redemption” was something different.

To “redeem” means “to buy back” or “to repossess.” Therefore, to have God say, “I have redeemed you” is to have God declare, “I have bought you back.  No longer are you the property of the Kings of Persia, Babylon and Assyria. You are mine.”

But this is not just a demonstration of God’s politeness: this phrase was used to indicate the establishment of sovereignty over a person.  For a king to “call you by name” means that the king has selected you from his court to bring you under both his protection and his authority.  (1)

Four years ago, I adopted a puppy from the Hawaii Humane Society. And one of the immediate decisions I had to make was… do I keep the name she was given by her previous owner, a name she’s been called for 5 months  ENOLA -… or do I rename her. In her renaming, in her adoption, I will  – like the king – will “call her by name”; I selected her from all the others to bring her into my family. (She is now my Po)

“You are mine.” God says.  I have you in my care, in my control: you are mine: your time, your energy, your gifts and abilities all belong to the King.

Now, the book of Isaiah was written over a long period of time –perhaps as long as 44 years –covering the reigns of several kings of Judah:

  • King Uzzaiah, (a time of prosperity, wealth and power)
  • the evil king Ahaz,  (who worshipped foreign gods and lost much of the military and political power gained in King Uzzaiah’s time)
  • Hezekiah (who worked for the independence of Judah from the Assyrians)
  • Manasseh (Hezekiah’s son, who again worshipped other gods and gave in to Assyrian rulers.)

The people of Judah had experience good kings and bad kings, leaders who led them to victory and into exile, and Isaiah gave them a different vision of a different king. Author Gary Smith, describes it this way:

“Judah needed comfort, paid dearly for her sins (40:1-2), and wondered if God cared for her (40:27). The people were afraid and not sure if God would deliver them. (41:10-14, 20; 43:1,5; 44:8).” (2)

The people of Judah needed a firm foundation in a changing world and God claims them. God redeems them – buys them back and says: You are mine, now. Do not be afraid of your future. Do not fear what will come because you are mine.”

This sentiment – God claiming us as his own – is echoed in the scene of Jesus’ baptism in the book of Mark 1, verse 11

11And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

Here we see Jesus, God incarnate, doing something very human – participating in the “Baptism of Repentance” offered by the John. With this act, Jesus enters the water and dedicates his life to a new life – a life of ministry and mission, a life of caring for the lost and lonely, the sick and marginalized. We don’t know much about what Jesus’ life was like before he stepped into the river that day, but he did, and so we do. We are baptized as a symbol of our entry into a new life, a new way of living in this world, a new relationship with God, the king who claims us. Jesus is “beloved” – and so are we!

Henri Nouwen, the Dutch born Catholic priest and author, in looking at these two texts together, wrote these words,  a message to each of us from the mouth of God:

“I have called you by name, from the very beginning.  You are mine and I am yours.  You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.  I have molded you in the depths of the earth and knitted you together in your mother’s womb.  I have carved you in the palms of my hands and hidden you in the shadow of my embrace.  I look at you with infinite tenderness and care for you with a care more intimate than that of a mother for her child.  I have counted every hair on your head and guided you at every step.  Wherever you go, I go with you, and wherever you rest, I keep watch.  I will give you food that will satisfy all your hunger and drink that will quench all your thirst.  I will not hide my face from you.  You know me as your own as I know you as my own.  You belong to me.  I am your father, your mother, your brother, your sister, your lover and your spouse.  Wherever you are I will be.  Nothing will ever separate us.  We are one!” (3)   

Today, we have to opportunity to say once again: I belong to God. God and I are partners in this journey. After some preliminary words, I will ask you to come forward to be marked with the water of the baptismal font, to remember the vows we make (or others make for us) at Baptism, to dedicate or rededicate ourselves to the service of God and the example Jesus Christ.

God has claimed us and said to us, “You are mine.” Let us embrace this promise and pledge our love, loyalty and service to God, our king. Amen.

1. Found on http://www.piut.org/epiphany1c.htm,

2.  Gary Smith, The Prophets as Preachers, 143.

3. Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (New York: Crossroad, 1992), pp. 30-31. Found on http://www.piut.org/index.htm

~ Rev. Dr. Krista S. Givens, 2018