Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“God Calls You by Name” (Isaiah 45:1-4)
October 22, 2017
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When I was in fifth grade one of the “it” guys in the grade above me was Walter Goldsby.  Walter was hilarious and smart.  He was also a gifted athlete.  At the neighborhood swimming pool there was a display listing record times for various swim team events and Walter’s name was listed over and over.  On the soccer field he scored goal after goal—it made no difference how many defenders you put on him.  All the girls had a crush on Walter and all the guys wished they were Walter.

To this day I remember walking in a line one afternoon with my class to P.E. and seeing Walter walking down the hallway in the opposite direction.  As he passed by he actually nodded at me, “Hey Dave.”  My astonished classmates looked at me.  “You’re friends with Walter Goldsby?” one asked.  So I lied, “Oh yeah, we hang out all the time.”  The truth was I was simply one of the many other guys Walter routinely destroyed in various sports.  But for some reason he remembered my name and called me by my name, which not only made me feel important but also as an added benefit immediately raised my all-important social standing in the fifth grade.  If Walter Goldsby called you by name, you were good to go.

The famous twentieth century lecturer Dale Carnegie famously observed “a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”  And it doesn’t stop in fifth grade does it?  All through life people appreciate it when others remember their name, especially people of influence.  Unfortunately some like to brag about this—at many a party I have listened to people with finely honed skills in the art of name-dropping.  But on a positive note each of you can probably remember a time when someone important or popular remembered your name, and the difference that made in your life.

Names carry a lot of meaning for people.  Parents often spend hours discussing names for their unborn children.  Some families make great efforts to carry on the family name by naming children after parents or grandparents.  In some cases the black sheep of a family are rebuked for marring the family name.

It is interesting to me how some names tend to be more popular in certain generations.  It seemed like all my parents’ friends were named Barbara or Phyllis or Chuck or Pete, every single one.  As a kid I remember each year having multiple kids in my classes named Kevin or Kelly or Jennifer.  There were literally five David’s on one of my soccer teams, and to my chagrin, in order to differentiate us, the coach insisted on calling me Davy—“Just like Davy Crockett” he said, “how cool is that?”  It was not cool at all, and it was a very long season.

Childhood can also be a time when nicknames emerge—some funny, others not so much.  If you had glasses you might be nicknamed Four-eyes, if you had braces complete with headgear you might be nicknamed Radio Shack, if you were not particularly coordinated your nickname might be Spaz, or if you had bucked teeth (like me) you might be called Bucky.  Some nicknames were cruel.  As a kid, I knew a boy whose older brother nicknamed him Stupid, and refused to call him anything else, ever—and I also knew a girl whose parents actually nicknamed her Mistake.  Can you imagine that?  Maybe you too had a nickname, or still do.

Some people, especially rock stars, change their names: Reginald Kenneth Dwight became Elton John, Paul Hewson became Bono, Gordon Sumner became Sting, and Alecia Moore became Pink.  Some celebrities give their children rather interesting names, but I think the names Frank and Gail Zappa gave their three kids take the cake: Moon Unit, Dweezil, and Diva Muffin.

Sometimes people change their names for more painful reasons.  I know someone who was so devastated by her past that as an adult she changed her name to Nemo, which is Latin for “nobody.”

In scripture names hold deep significance.  Occasionally when God did a new work in a person’s life their name was changed accordingly.  In the Old Testament when God made a covenant with Abram, which means “exalted father,” he changed his name to Abraham, which means “father of multitudes” (Genesis 17:1-5).  In the New Testament when Simon confessed Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus changed his name: “Blessed are you Simon Son of Jonah!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.  And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:16-18).

But in scripture God did more than change people’s names.  God placed his name on them.  In the Book of Numbers, which I am sure all of you have read recently, God gave to Moses the following beautiful blessing for the priests to proclaim to the people of Israel: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”  Why did God command this?  “So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them” (Numbers 6:22-27).

In the Bible we see that the name of God is to be treated with honor and respect.  The third of the Ten Commandments is “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain” (Exodus 20:7).  Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name” (Matthew 6:9).

And yet God whose name is holy knows each of you by name, no exceptions.

Today’s Old Testament passage is from the great prophet Isaiah, whose ministry in Israel took place several centuries before Jesus’ birth.  Isaiah prophesied about a King of Persia (modern day Iran) named Cyrus, who as the Babylonian Captivity ended, would be inspired by God to decree the temple in Jerusalem to be rebuilt by the Jews.  This is exactly what happened, and King Cyrus also personally returned many sacred vessels that had been taken from the first temple by the Babylonians.  Listen again to the word the Lord gave Isaiah for King Cyrus:

Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him—and the gates shall not be closed:  I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron.  I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name.  For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me (Isaiah 45:1-4).

Although King Cyrus did not know the Lord, the Lord knew him and called him by name.  And scripture is clear that God does the same with you.  Regardless of what names or nicknames you have been given, or even if other people do not remember your name, God not only remembers your name, God calls you by your name.

Earlier in the Book of Isaiah God spoke these comforting words to all Israel: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1).  In the New Testament Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd who “calls his own sheep by name” (John 10:3).

This is very comforting in an age in which many people often feel treated like a number instead of a person with a name.  Legendary Detroit rocker Bob Seger put it this way:

The boss can’t even recall my name…
I feel like just another spoke in a great big wheel
Like a tiny blade of grass in a great big field
To workers I’m just another drone
To Ma Bell I’m just another phone
I’m just another statistic on a sheet

So how does Bob Seger respond to this?  He continues:

Gonna cruise out of this city
Head down to the sea
Gonna shout out at the ocean
Hey, it’s me
And I feel like a number, feel like a number
Like stranger in this land…
I’m not a number, I’m a man
(From the song “Feel Like a Number” on his 1978 album Stranger in Town)

Have you ever felt that way?  The good news of the gospel is that in God’s eyes you are not a number.  The same God who called King Cyrus by name also calls you by name.

When Mary was told by the angel Gabriel that she would bare the Son of God, she was also told, “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).   The name Jesus literally means “Savior” and reveals who he is, the savior of the world, who through his death and resurrection indeed saves us from our sins.  “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17).

But Jesus was not treated like a savior.  At his hometown of Nazareth Jesus was called hurtful nicknames like Son of Mary rather that the traditional Son of Joseph, because he was considered illegitimate (Mark 6:3), and people wanted him to know that.  Pharisees nicknamed him the Friend of Sinners (Matthew 11:19), which although intended as an insult, is good news for you and me.

On Palm Sunday Jesus entered Jerusalem to the adulation of a crowd that shouted, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Mark 11:9), with some of that same crowd likely chanting five days later, “Crucify him!”  At his sham trial the religious leaders called Jesus a blasphemer.  As he was beaten the soldiers mocked him, “Hail, King of the Jews!”  As he suffered on the cross passersby jeered him as “King of Israel” and other names, until the breathing of Jesus, the Savior of the World, stopped.

And in his death on the cross Jesus did exactly what Gabriel told Mary he would do, he saved you from your sins.  In his death on the cross Jesus made his face to shine upon you, was gracious to you, lifted up his countenance upon you, gave you peace—peace with God, and placed his name on you so that you would be forever blessed, forever forgiven, forever loved.

And on Easter Sunday the Risen Jesus appeared to Mary Magdalene, one of the many sinners the Friend of Sinners had befriended…and called her by name, “Mary!” (John 20:16).

And the same One who called King Cyrus by name and called Mary Magdalen by name calls you by name.  This trumps any bad nickname you have ever been given and means you that indeed you are not a number.  It also assures all the Nemo’s in the world who feel like they are nobody that they are somebody, somebody dearly and eternally loved by Jesus, whose name is “the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

This morning Jesus is walking toward you down the hallway of your heart, and calling you by name.  This makes all the difference in your earthly life, and it gives you hope for eternal life—for after you die, this same Jesus who called Lazarus from the grave by name (John 11:43) will call you by name as well.