This sermon was preached on the First Sunday of Christmas, December 31, 2017, at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church, Bangor, PA.
One of the things I appreciate about Christian faith is its honesty and its hopefulness. Take the Twelve Days of Christmas, for example. During this time, we hear stories and readings that are both honest about the world’s pain, and hopeful that suffering will be overcome.
Among the stories of pain are the martyrdom of Stephen, the slaughter of the young boys of Bethlehem, and Simeon’s word to Mary that a sword will pierce her heart. Life is not always good: our faith is honest about that.
And with the honesty hope. Christ is born as good news for all the world, Stephen dies trusting in Jesus, the Holy Family escapes the rage of Herod, and God is at work, says the evangelist John, to show us grace upon grace.
Christian faith speaks honestly about hurt and hope. This honesty is an inheritance we receive from the Jewish Scriptures. Today we heard the prophet Isaiah speak God’s Word to the people of Jerusalem. The people had known great sadness; indeed, more than sadness, catastrophe. Their city had been overrun and destroyed by foreign invasion. And so they were now called ‟Rejected,” and their land called ‟Ruined.” These are fitting names, given what has happened to them.
In using such names, Isaiah is honest about their condition. And he also speaks a word of hope. He says,
‟You’ll get a brand new name straight from the mouth of God.
No more will anyone call you Rejected,
and your country will no longer be called Ruined.
You’ll be called My Delight,
and your land Married,
Because God delights in you
and your land will become like a wedding celebration.”
With new names being handed out, we might call Isaiah 62 ‟God’s New Name” chapter.”
Speaking of ‟New Name” chapters, add Revelation 2 and 3. In these chapters, Jesus encourages his people to remain loyal to him in troubling times. He says, ‟To everyone who conquers (that is, remains faithful to me) I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.”
That’s a mysterious promise, and we’re not exactly sure what it’s all about. But to receive a new name means at least this: You will be changed. You will be transformed with blessing you can only now begin to imagine.
Jesus also says, ‟If you conquer I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, and my own new name.”
Written on us–God’s name!
Written on us–the name of God’s city!
Written on us–the new name of Jesus!
All those names upon us make this claim: we belong to the wonder and the mercy of God. And by that wonder and mercy we will be changed.
New names will be given.
Are we called, ‟Left out?” Jesus says, ‟I name you ‘Included.’”
Are we called, ‟Put Down?” Jesus says, ‟I name you ‘Lifted Up.’”
Are we called, ‟Count for Nothing?” Jesus says, ‟I name you ‘Count for Eternity.’”
Are we called, ‟Alone?” Jesus says, ‟I name you ‘Together with Others.’”
Are we called, ‟Dead?” Jesus says, ‟I name you ‘Alive.’”
As Jesus changed water into wine, so he will change us and the names by which we are called. What a promise! What a wondrous future is coming!
And listen: the change is already beginning. Because when we assemble as God’s people, we are met by the Holy Spirit, and renewed in the name of Jesus. The promises we hear in Scripture are coming alive in the community of faith. Through worship, the promises of Jesus are changing us.
Fred Pratt Green, writing about those assembled for worship, says:
‟Here are symbols to remind us of our life-long need of grace;
here are table, font, and pulpit; here the cross has central place.
Here in honesty of preaching, here in silence as in speech,
here in newness and renewal, God the Spirit comes to each.
Through the gathering of God’s people, the Spirit comes. The name ‟Jesus” is placed upon us. And when Jesus’ name is spoken, we are called Included, Lifted Up, Count for Eternity, Together with Others, Alive.
This good news is offered not only in Sunday worship, but in our daily lives. Martin Luther encourages us to be placed under the name of God every day. In his Small Catechism, he says, ‟In the morning, when you get out of bed, you are to make the sign of the cross and say, ‘In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Then after a few words of devotion, ‟you are to go about your work joyfully.”
Luther gives similar advice for the end of the day. He writes, ‟In the evening, when you go to bed, you are to make the sign of the holy cross and say, ‘In the name of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Then after a few words of devotion, ‟you are to go to sleep quickly and cheerfully.
God’s name is placed upon us. Because that is so, we give thanks for blessings received. These may include good health, a secure job, trusted friends, plenty to eat and drink, clothes to wear, and a host of other good things.
But we don’t have everything we might want. We even go through times when it seems our whole world is falling apart.
Yet even then, we are under God’s care. Listen to the apostle Paul: ‟I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
Paul’s secret of contentment was that he lived in the name of Jesus.
Hymn composer Marty Haugen writes about the significance of gathering for worship in the name of Jesus. He says:
“Here in this place new light is streaming,
now is the darkness vanished away;
see in this space our fears and our dreamings
brought here to you for the light of this day.
Gather us in, the lost and forsaken,
gather us in the blind and the lame;
call to us now, and we shall awaken,
we shall arise at the sound of our name.”
Jesus calls us, and we are given many names: Included, Lifted Up, Count for Eternity, Together with Others, Alive.
For such blessing, thanks be to God. Amen.