Name, Identity and Value

A Sermon Preached by Rev. Osy Nüesch at Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church on January 13, 2019

Isaiah 43:1-7; Luke 3:21ff

“Bring my sons from far away and my daughters from the end of the earth – everyone who is called by my name, created for my glory, formed and made by the Almighty.”

When you heard those verses from Isaiah, did they bring up any images associated with Baptism? They did to me. In the light of what we know about baptism, I hear some of the wonderful promises that this day affirms.

We noticed that in Isaiah, the nation is referred to by their earlier names: Jacob and Israel. The names recalled their history. Those names remembered their ancestors. They evoked the stories of the past. Their names reminded them of their identities. Names still do that. The founders of this church chose to call it PPPC. “Presbyterian” broadcasts a message and transmit a peculiar identity that they thought was important.

When we want to be in relationship with people, the first thing we do is ask for their names. A pet is just an animal, until you give it a name. Then they become part of the family. Our family dog is named Vixen Butler Nuesch. People look at us funny when we say that. So what inevitably follows is the story of her birth. Nine puppies were born between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. The owners gave each of them a little collar with a temporary name. They could have been named temporarily “puppy #1, #2, etc.” Instead they got creative and named them after Santa’s Reindeers: “You know Dasher, and Dancer, and Prancer, and Vixen.” Rudolph was Rudy. So we kept the name.

In not so ancient times, family names immediately identified members by job: Smith, Carpenter, Taylor, Mason, Butler, Beadle, Shoemaker….Or people were identified by their place of origin: Hill, Dale, Brook, Forrest….

My mother’s father was an immigrant from Spain who ended up in Argentina. My mother’s maiden name was Rosario Legarda. Her father was Valentin Legarda. Or so we thought most of our lives, until just a few years ago when the story came to light: His real name was Valentin Martinez. He came from the town of Legarda in Spain. When asked his name upon arrival in Argentina, he answered Valentin Martinez de Legarda. That was that! His last name (Martinez) got lost.

My mother’s name also comes with a story. Her mother wanted to call her Anita. But when the nurse asked my grandfather the name, he couldn’t remember! He saw a calendar on the wall at the nurses’ station and asked the nurse who the saint was for that day: October 4: “Santa Rosario.” Okay, then. Call her Rosario. My grandmother called my mother Anita for weeks until the birth certificate arrived and discovered that her name was Rosario. It really didn’t matter, because, as with all her five siblings, my mother was given a nick name early on and all her life her friends called her Coca. (Coca, Chola, Lola, Porota, Mary, and Pibe [boy for the one male]).

Some people get to choose their names. While we were at worship last Sunday, the Sunday Morning show on CBS had a segment on Michael Caine, the 85-year-old British actor. He loves to tell the story of when he was standing outside a theater that was playing a Humphrey Bogart movie when his agent told him he needed to pick a new stage name. His real name is Maurice Joseph Micklewhite, Jr. He looked up at the theater that was playing the Humphrey Bogart movie The Cain Mutiny. So he said “Cain.” “How do you spell it?” “C-A-I-N-E.” He said it was a good thing he was looking in that direction because in the theater next door the movie playing was “101 Dalmatians”. He said “I could have been Michael 101 Dalmatians.” (CBS News Sunday Morning, 1/6/19).

Most people don’t choose their names. Although they probably should. Would you stay living with a name like: professor Boring? or being the wife of Mr. Dull? or parishioners of the Rev. Mr. Looney? These are real names! (as found in “Premature Obituary” in Homiletics, Jan-Feb. 2004, p. 17)

Names are the first means by which we are set apart. Baptism is still a rite of setting apart. For a long time, Baptism was a rite of naming. There is a point in the sacrament of Baptism when the Pastor turns to the parents and requests, “Please state the full name of this child.” The parents often respond in unison with their child’s chosen name. From this point on in the service the child’s name may be used (technically, until that point the baby is referred to simply and impersonally as “this child”). Religiously, if not practically, that which had no name is given a name at Baptism.

Something like that happens at Jesus’ Baptism. It is tricky to note, but it’s found in those difficult-to-understand words from the voice from the opened heavens (see footnotes in your Bible): “You are my Son, the Beloved.” This harder translation points to Jesus’ name as Son and Beloved. Jesus’ unique name becomes: the Beloved Son of God. (Jack Good, “Naming Names” in The Christian Century, Dec. 27, 2003, p. 19)

Names are special words by which we are individualized. In Baptism, Jesus’ followers receive a new name. When we become Christians we take upon ourselves the name of our savior and become members of his family: children of God, brothers and sisters of Christ. We do not belong to ourselves but we belong to God: “I have called you by name, you are mine” (43.1c).

So, you see, with the name comes an identity. “Who am I? Where do I belong? What makes me worthy?” These questions are not only for adolescents trying to find their way in the world.
These questions are not only for people struggling to come to terms with their sexual identity. These questions stay with us. And we often look for answers in the wrong places: in our roles, our work, our peer groups, or our accomplishments and even our possessions. “Ultimately, none of these can deliver what we need. What we need, according to the prophets, is to hear how God gives us identity and value” (W. Carter Lester “Pastoral Perspectives” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, p. 220).

The identity and value of the exiled Jewish community are affirmed by the prophet Isaiah and they also come up in the account of Jesus’ Baptism. It is worth noting how different Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism is from the other Gospels. Maybe you also noticed something odd or different. Luke introduces us to the question regarding the identity of John the Baptist – Might he be the Messiah? John, characteristically points to another: One who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. Then our text introduced us to Jesus in an unusual way: “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying” something happened. “When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too” (3:21a, NIV). The picture is one in which all the people are coming, and Jesus is among them. Who were these people who were coming? We were told earlier: they were the common folk along with some of the more – shall we say? – “questionable segments” of the population: There were the despised tax collectors, and dreaded/abusive soldiers (Luke 3:7-14). That was a very diverse crowd that included all types: even some of those dubious members of society. And in that crowd, lost among the ordinary people, we find Jesus. One of the crowd. One among the many standing in line. Just like everyone else. Jesus’ Baptism was with “all the people”.

My first thought was that perhaps Jesus wanted to remain lost in the crowd. For somebody who became very popular, Jesus seemed to be the kind who tried to avoid the spot light as often as he could. Many of us, shy and quiet people, are very happy to remain invisible in a large crowd. It’s difficult to remain incognito in the church. Some people really try. “Just let me come in unnoticed, sit in the back row, bother no one, and leave before the pastor has a chance to get to the front door to shake my hand.” I was one of those once. Happy to sit in the back, sing the hymns, listen to the choir, follow the readings in their ancient Greek and Hebrew (just like so many of you!). Maybe some of our new member were like that (although it’s hard not to be noticed when you’re pregnant). God doesn’t let that happen for very long. At his Baptism, Jesus is singled out. He heard the words that set him apart. “You are my son.” “I know who you are; I notice you; I have called you by name; you are mine; I have plans for you.” With these words we are all set apart for ministry, to show God’s love and mercy to the world through grateful lives and humble service. After hearing that, a woman said to me: “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be that important.” Jesus makes you that important.

As interesting as the notion of Jesus’ trying to pass as an ordinary person, the point that Luke is making is more significant than that. At his baptism, Jesus identified with the damaged and broken people who needed God. This is how one writer put it: “Jesus presented himself for baptism as an act of solidarity with a nation and a world of sinners. Jesus simply got in line with everyone who had been broken by the ‘wear and tear’ of this selfish world and had all but given up on themselves and their God. When the line of downtrodden and sin-sick people formed in hopes of new beginnings through a return to God, Jesus joined them. At his baptism, Jesus identified with the damaged and broken people who needed God” (Robert M. Brearly, “Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol. 1, p. 236). Jesus is one of us. Jesus knows our pain and our brokenness. Jesus shares our experiences.

Beyond that, two important details come through clearly in this Gospel; details which have shaped our understanding of Baptism. Here’s a question for you: Who baptized Jesus? The answer is obviously: John the Baptist. He is called John the Baptizer for a reason. And yet, John is not mentioned in the verses that tell us about Jesus’ Baptism. Luke has purposely left John out of the picture! The crowd is being baptized and Jesus also is being baptized. Baptism is happening. But where is John? Did anyone check out the verses that were left out of our reading this morning? I didn’t leave them out! The scholars/compilers who gave us the RCL did. Where is John? John is in prison! For calling out the unacceptable behavior of the powerful political leader of his day. After telling us that, Luke says that Jesus was baptized. And, of course, Luke is making a liturgical point. Who is acting in this Baptism narrative? There is God’s voice. There is the Holy Spirit in bodily form.

This is an important corrective. Often people ask the pastor: “Would you baptize my child?” The answer I should give is that I don’t baptize. God is the One who is active in Baptism. I celebrate Baptism. Session approves Baptisms. I pray at Baptisms that the Holy Spirit will move upon these waters that they may be a fount of newness and rebirth for the one who is touched by them. God the Holy Spirit touches the person and imparts grace.

It’s the same phenomenon that we affirm at the Eucharist. It’s very natural for people to say “thank you” when they receive a piece of bread. The appropriate response is “Thanks be to God!” Because I don’t give you communion. Communion is what we receive from God and experience with Jesus Christ. We celebrate the Lord’s Supper. I pray that God will pour out God’s Holy Spirit so that these tangible things that we hold – the bread and wine – will be for us the “body and blood of Christ” that then God uses to nourish and strength us.

The Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus in bodily form as Jesus prayed and a voice signaled what Baptism signifies and makes real: you are my child: loved and accepted.

We all need to hear that, as often as possible. I remind you every week after the time of confession when we declare the Good News. And today you know why.

God has given us a new name and a strong identity rooted in our relationship to Jesus Christ. That makes us important/valuable/worthy in the eyes of God. This is the message that today proclaims. This is the good news of the Gospel we believe. Believe the good news and be at peace! Amen.

(If there is no Baptism on this day or no new members are to be received, I have often invited the congregation to come forward to touch the waters of the baptismal font in an act of “remembering” their baptism).