Called By Name

Readings: Isaiah 43:1-7     Psalm 29      Acts 8:14-17     Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

Homily for The Baptism of Jesus

by Sherman Hesselgrave

What’s in a name? My mother’s father, Grandpa Larsen, was descended from a Dane names Lars. My grandfather Hesselgrave’s family hailed from a town in Northern England named Hazel Grove, so it is thought that our family name is a variant spelling of a place. Some people bear the names of ancestors’ occupations: the Bakers, Carpenters, Farmers, and Schneiders, for example.  My father told the story of an occasion when he was conducting a baptism in the African bush, and asked the parents the name of the child. They said, “Matata.” Now, thanks to The Lion King, many people know the Swahili phrase ‘hakuna matata,’ means ‘no problem or no trouble.’ So, my father asked the parents why they wanted to name their son Trouble, and they explained that they had had great difficulty in bearing children, and this baby had finally survived. He managed to persuade them to choose another name, and not saddle the child with the memory of their suffering.

Names take on great significance in the biblical story. For instance, in today’s reading from the prophet Isaiah: “[N]ow hear the word of Yahweh who created you, O Jacob, the word of the one who formed you, O Israel.” Let’s stop right there for a moment. Jacob was the son of Isaac and Rebecca and the younger twin brother of Esau. Jacob was a trickster, and as an adult managed to fool his visually handicapped father into giving him the the blessing that properly belonged to his older brother Esau, causing a schism between the brothers, and Jacob fleeing for fear of his life. Many years later, on the eve of a reunion of the two brothers, Jacob has a life-changing experience during the night, described as a sort of wrestling match with a divine being. As a result, Jacob is given a new name, Israel, which means Wrestles-with-God.  Back to that passage from Isaiah: [N]ow hear the word of Yahweh who created you, O Jacob, the word of the one who formed you, O Israel: Do not be afraid, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine.” Jacob and Israel are the same person, only different, because of a transformative encounter with the divine. Wrestling with God will leave a mark, and it will change your destiny.

In my Christmas Eve sermon, I mentioned God’s practice of changing the world by birthing babies. Then, at some point in their life, those individuals respond to God’s call to take on the oppressing powers, or to challenge status quo attitudes, or to bring healing and peace. God called the little boy Samuel in the night; an Angel came to a teenager named Mary; Saul was given a vision, and turned from persecuting Christians to spreading Jesus’ message, and was renamed Paul.

And so it has been through the centuries: the Teresa of Avilas, the William Wilberforces, the Martin Luther Kings, the Mother Teresas—all responding to a vocation that was planted in them at their baptism, and each leaving a legacy that inspired others to carry on the reforms they began. For Christians, all ministry is encoded in the DNA of our baptismal identity. It takes an entire lifetime to decode.

One of the beautiful gifts of baptism is being connected across time and space with all those who have entered into the baptismal mystery. We were never intended to face life and its challenges all alone. Baptism connects us to a community of faith, where everyone who has staked a claim has a place at the table, a place where everyone is known by name, and in a world of bar codes and swipe cards, we can celebrate what it means to be humans who share meaning and purpose. The circle we form around our holy table each week represents the circle of life that surrounded the One who came to be God’s revelation of hope and good news to all people.

Besides being called by name, there is another key theme in today’s readings, and that has to do with the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist makes special mention that there will be a difference between John’s baptism with water and the baptism that Jesus will offer: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire,” John says. The writer is Luke, who is also the author of the Acts of the Apostles, so we will not be surprised when the Holy Spirit and fire motif returns after the resurrection on the Feast of Pentecost. Whenever the Holy Spirit is invoked in scripture, be prepared to be unsettled. The Holy Spirit has a tendency to colour outside the lines. One of my favourite stories to illustrate this is told in the book of Numbers, chapter 11. The Israelites were sojourning in the wilderness, and they were complaining to Moses, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we used to eat in Egypt for nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic; but now our strength is dried up, and there is nothing at all but this manna to look at.” “So Moses said to Yahweh, ‘Why have you treated your servant so badly? Why have I not found favour in your sight, that you lay the burden of all this people on me? …Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they come weeping to me and say, “Give us meat to eat!” I am not able to carry all this people alone, for they are too heavy for me. If this is the way you are going to treat me, put me to death at once—if I have found favour in your sight—and do not let me see my misery.’”

So God said to Moses, ‘Gather for me seventy of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and … bring them to the tent of meeting, and have them take their place there with you. I will come down and talk with you there; and I will take some of the spirit that is on you and put it on them; and they shall bear the burden of the people along with you so that you will not bear it all by yourself. … So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied.

Two men remained in the camp, one named Eldad, and the other named Medad, and the spirit rested on them; they were among those registered, but they had not gone out to the tent, and so they prophesied in the camp. And a young man ran and told Moses, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.’ And Joshua son of Nun, the assistant of Moses, one of his chosen men, said, ‘My lord Moses, stop them!’ But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!’

What a delightful example of how the Holy Spirit messes with our notions of how we think things are supposed to work. It is that same Spirit of God that is breathed into our lives at baptism, and every time we renew our baptismal promises, that same wind of God fill our sails once again to keep us moving in the directions our unique gifts are steering us.

Bon voyage!


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