Due to the inclement weather last Sunday, we had to cancel our service. Here is the sermon that would have been preached. CJH
St. John's, Centreville
January 13, 2019
Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-17,21-22
First Sunday after the Epiphany
Come, Holy Spirit, come. Come as the wind and cleanse; come as the fire and burn; convert and consecrate our lives to our great good and your great glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
"Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine." In our reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah, God says these comforting words to the Israelites who are in exile. They escaped from slavery in Egypt when God sent the seven plagues and parted the Red Sea. They wandered around in the wilderness like nomads, wondering and fearing what would become of them, who they were, where did they belong. And God tells them, "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name and you are mine."
God called Israel to be God's people and made a covenant with them. So why are they now wandering in the wilderness with no place to call their own? Where is God now? It is true that God delivered them out of the slavery in Egypt, but what now? They felt abandoned and fearful, and their faith was deteriorating little by little. Maybe they should go back to worshipping their false gods.
God reminds them that God created them, God loves them, and God calls them each by name. God is their creator and God is not going to abandon them. God will not forget God's people. Could a mother forget her children? We are sickened when we hear of a parent neglecting or abusing their children. Isaiah suggests that we should also be sickened by the thought that God would ever abandon us as God's children.
"I have redeemed you. I have called you by name. You are mine." Still, these words are hard for people who are in exile to hear. If God is with us, how did we end up in Babylon? Today we might ask, if God is with us, why do people in Guatemala or Honduros or Iraq or other countries at war have to flee their homeland? Or if God is with us, why are we overwhelmed by crime, war, poverty and hunger? If God is with us, why do we sometimes feel alienated or abandoned?
Many prophets in the bible and many prophets now continue to remind us that no matter what - crime or war or sickness or death of relationships - no matter what, God is with us and loves us. God created us and calls us each by name. Our questions of "if God is with us, then why did this or that happen" will continue to be with us and challenge us. Our life's struggles and hardships will be with us always, but so will God's love for us.
Starting at adolescence and continuing throughout most of our lives, we struggle to define our identity. Who am I? Where do I belong? What makes me worthy? We often look for those answers in our role, or our work, or in our accomplishments, or in our material success. But these may be the wrong ways to identify ourselves. What we need to hear, again and again, is the identity and value that God gives us as God's children. We don't need anything else. We don't need to prove anything to anybody.
Our core identity is not in our roles as individuals, or in the size or wealth of our congregation, but in God's creation and love for us. The prophet says we are precious in God's sight and honored. We are honored by God! That is where our identity comes from. What makes us worthy is not our relationships, or our wealth, or our jobs, or the size of our congregation's budget, but rather God's gracious love for us. That's what matters. That's our identity.
In baptism, God marks us as God's own forever. Not until we mess up. Not until we do something stupid. But forever. We may give up on God, but God never gives up on us, no matter what we have done. In baptism, we receive the promise of new life, but that does not make us exempt from the struggles and hardships of life. But baptism assured us that God has called us each by name. And God loves us.
In our reading from the gospel of Luke, we hear about Jesus' baptism, or rather, about the moments after his baptism. In Luke's gospel, Jesus receives the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove while he is praying. And God says to him, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."
Before Jesus begins his public ministry, he is given his identity. He is the beloved Son of God and is loved before he even starts his ministry. He is loved for who he is - God's Son. This calling by God will help sustain Jesus through his temptations in the wilderness, through the joys and struggles of his earthly ministry, and finally through his betrayal, trial and death.
I think all of us could use more affirmation in our lives, not just for what we do right, but for who we are. "You are my son or daughter and I love you" can go far in healing old wounds or giving them a boost of self-esteem, of identity and direction. When we experience this kind of affirmation from a parent or other significant person in our lives, we are strengthened in our identity and are more secure in acting from that identity. When we know we are loved, we act from that perspective, and will share that love with others. And the opposite is often true. When we are told we are stupid or useless or no good, then we will act like that, we will live into that role.
The good news is that God loves us all, infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. And if we are tuned into God, we can hear that God tells us that time and time again, perhaps not with words but with our relationship with God, when we see God at work in us and in those around us, the beauty of creation, the love that we have for others and they have for us.
God gives us our identity through the sacrament of baptism, just as Jesus received his identity. We are the beloved children of God, each and every one of us. Because that is sometimes hard for us to acknowledge and understand in our humanness, we need to be told it over and over again. We belong to God forever and God will never, ever, let us go. Amen.