Although we used the same discussion questions at the beginning of the talk for this service of Holy Communion as for Morning Praise at St Barnabas, the main section follows quite a different tack …
St Michael’s (Holy Communion), 10th Jan 2010
Who gave you your name? And do you know why they gave you that particular name?
What else do we name besides babies? Toys, cars, pets.
When do we use our names ourselves? Introductions, applications … establishing a relationship.
When might our name change? Nicknames, marriage, change of identity.
Names give us our identity, they reveal possession, and if we know someone’s name we have a relationship with them, however distant.
A brief introduction to context …
Isaiah is prophesying at a time when Israel is under judgement … look at Isaiah 42:19-20,24. So throughout her history, Israel is surrounded by stronger nations intent on conquest, or at least control. Throughout his ministry, Isaiah challenges his hearers to trust in God … yet instead they turn to other nations to defend them, creating alliances against God’s specific command and opposed to his purposes.
But now …
God steps in to bring an end to judgement, to defend his people himself, to bring them to a point of trust, to reassure them of his love …
First of all, God starts by establishing his right to both judge and forgive his people … this is what the Lord says – he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel (vs1). The Lord is the creator, the one who has formed and shaped us … not merely in general terms but as individuals … that’s why he refers to the nation here as both Jacob and Israel … he is reminding them of their history, of their founding father, the schemer Jacob, who, under God’s hand became Israel, the father of the nation. God created us, and knows us intimately as individuals, but his intent is to mould us into a people. And it is to the nation that God speaks here … ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have summoned you by name, you are mine’. When we come face to face with God as our judge, fear is the only possible reaction. We know that we deserve the judgement we face, that we can do nothing to earn God’s favour, just as the nation of Israel knew the judgement they experienced was a just judgement … they had failed to obey, they had followed other gods … yet the God who made them, shaped and formed them, had also redeemed them, a reference to the Exodus from Egypt and a reminder of God’s sovereignty in salvation. And so he claims possession of them … ‘you are mine’ …
Yet they still face all sorts of trials and difficulties … the waters and rivers, fire and flame cover all possible variations of the dangers they face … and act as a reminder both of their escape from Egypt and of future judgement. But there is a wonderful promise here, ‘I will be with you’.
How many of us, when we’re struggling, imagine that we’re on our own? That God doesn’t care or he wouldn’t allow it to happen? That he has deserted or abandoned us? What difference would it make to realise that whatever the depths we encounter, God is right alongside us, sharing our situation, in all his power and majesty? Remember again though, that this passage isn’t addressed to us as individuals … but to the nation of Israel, or in our case, to the church. Individual Christians will suffer for their faith, and may pay with their lives for their obedience (although that’s not the defeat some might imagine it to be), but God will never let the church be destroyed, even if it suffers … I am the Lord your God … you are precious and honoured in my sight … I love you … true of us as individuals, but intended for us as a people … the new Israel of God, the church.
So he says again, ‘Do not be afraid, for I am with you.’ And just in case we’re still thinking in individual terms here, God speaks to us of a gathering in, of a bringing together of all those he calls sons and daughters, from every direction, from every nation, from the ends of the earth. It is a picture of the church … the word church itself means ‘the gathering’ or ‘the assembly’, and it’s not just a New Testament idea … God has always been working towards this vision of a people who choose to follow him, to obey him, living and working together for his purposes, to show his glory to the world … look at verse 7.
Using the same concepts as in verse 1, verse 7 reminds us to whom God is speaking,
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.
But there are some subtle differences … this time the people are called by his name … and he tells us why he created and formed us … for my glory!
We talked about names, didn’t we, and saw how they can change … we are given a name at birth which may have all sorts of meanings and implications. But there comes a time when we may choose to change our name, to reflect a new reality or a new relationship. That’s what’s happened here, God has taken possession of you – you may think it’s your choice, but there are two sides to the coin of salvation … his choice of you, and your obedience. So instead of calling the people by their family name, Jacob or Israel, God now calls them by his own name … there is a new reality, a new relationship now, and it makes all the difference.
Or does it …
Lead out those who have eyes but are blind, who have ears but are deaf.
We read in Ch 42:20 about the servant who is blind, the messenger who is deaf … so here God is calling the leaders of the people to account, in front of all the people, asking, ‘Did you tell them what I told you to say?’, even demanding they produce witnesses … but of course, they can’t.
And now he takes that word ‘witness’ and uses it again and again … look at verses 10 & 12,
You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me …” (vs10)
You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “that I am God.” (vs12)
And what does he want us to know and to tell?
I, even I, am the LORD,
and apart from me there is no saviour.
I have revealed and saved and proclaimed … (vs11,12a)
There is so much in this one verse that I was tempted to use it as my only text this morning … so I’ll try to be brief now!
I, even I, am the LORD … whenever you see the word LORD in capital letters in an English version of the Bible, you know it’s a translation of the name by which God revealed himself to Moses at the burning bush … ‘I am’ (sometimes it’s translated Yahweh, or Jehovah). So we’re back to that idea of names again, aren’t we … which is why I didn’t in the end look just at this verse … it’s a very deliberate allusion to vs1 and vs7 and our change of name, that here God uses the name by which he revealed himself and which he says will never change … from ancient days, I am he (vs13). And it’s a name that means everything about God that you know … that he is a God of promises, love, faithfulness, mercy, who chooses people not because of their merits but simply because he loves them … I could go on and on.
But the one thing he picks out is that he is the Saviour God … apart from me there is no saviour … remember I talked about our only possible reaction to coming face to face with God being fear … this is what makes the difference … this is the one thing that means we can approach God without fear, knowing that we are loved and protected and forgiven. Because just as God had a plan for his people Israel, to redeem them through the Exodus, at a time of specific need, so he had a plan for his people for all time, for all his people … Jesus, at whose baptism God declared ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased’. No need for a change of name, but the confirmation of the relationship that would lead to the fulfilment of God’s love and provision for all his creation.
I have revealed and saved and proclaimed … God always intended that his people should be witness to his love and glory and commitment to all mankind, but knowing they would fail he made other provision … the prophets and the scriptures … he has never left himself without the means of communicating his love to anyone who would listen and obey.
So at the end of this reading we’re left with two questions … by what name do you choose to be identified? Will you take and own the name Christian as your identity and mark of the most important relationship in your life. And will you live as his witness, faithfully passing on the message he gives you?