Very soon after you were born, you were given a name. There was a time when your parents and their families and anyone who knew about you referred to you solely as the baby. They spoke with joy, anticipation and hope, but still, you were just the baby; in those days they may not even have known if you were a boy or a girl, or if there were two or three of you.
Very likely your parents started compiling lists of possible names at some point during their pregnancy; two columns, one if it’s a girl, another if it’s a boy. Names of moms and dads, aunts and uncles, best friends and movie stars, names that wouldn’t attract cruel teasing in the school yard one day, names that go well with the family name, names that start with the same letter as your parents’ or your siblings’ first names, names that capture kindness, strength, beauty or other characteristics – long lists of names for the baby.
As the due date drew closer, the list got shorter. And at some point they looked at you and they just knew what your name was going to be, and they called you by your name. You were no longer just the baby, but somebody.
There is power in a name. It sets us apart in our individuality and our sacred personhood. It is our name that captures who we are, not our Social Security Number or some other PIN assigned to us.
In the village where my mother was born and grew up, and where her parents and siblings still lived when I was little, I noticed a peculiar custom. When a grown-up would see me at church or at a store, and my mother or grandmother wasn’t with me, they would inquire who I was, only they didn’t ask, “What’s your name?” but, “To whom do you belong?”
Grown-ups would also refer to each other by their last name first. My grandmother’s name was Elizabeth Simon, and everybody called her Lisa, but when her name came up in conversation, people referred to her as Simon’s Lisa; my grandfather was Simon’s Georg, my uncle, Simon’s Hans. Last names came first because apparently what family one belonged to was considered very important.
I must have been born with a strong independent streak. I was only three or four years old, when someone asked me, “To whom do you belong?” – and I remember putting my foot down, “I belong to nobody. I am Thomas.” I remember that moment vividly, and how strongly I felt about being recognized as a person and not just as a member of a family or clan, let alone somebody else’s possession.
As a teenager, I went to catechism class. In preparation for our confirmation, we learned the meaning of our baptism and how to live as followers of Jesus and people of God. The catechism we studied was (and still is) a collection of questions and answers about the Christian faith, and the first question has been, ever since the days of the Reformation, “What is your only comfort, in life and in death?”
Not the kind of question you’d ask a fourteen-year-old, is it? We weren’t expected to come up with our own answers, but we were encouraged to know the church’s answer to that question and to grow into it.
“What is your only comfort, in life and in death?”
“That I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.” Heidelberg Catechism
I was fourteen years old; I believed that I belonged to nobody but myself – and the church wanted me to find comfort in the thought that I did indeed not belong to myself. The church urged me to question my most sacred assumptions: my independence, my autonomy, my radical self-realization, and my immortality.
I learned to repeat the answer, that I belong – body and soul, in life and in death – not to myself but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. I learned to repeat the answer, but I didn’t believe it. I wanted to be myself and belong to myself.
I liked the passage from Isaiah where the prophet says,
Now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.
I liked that promise and I made it my own without blinking, never mind that it was a promise given to God’s people. I liked that promise, because I knew that life could be overwhelming at times and frightening, and I liked the thought that my name was written in the palm of God’s hand. What I didn’t hear, not really, was the part where God says, “I have redeemed you, I have called you by name, you are mine.”
Today I know no greater comfort than that Christ Jesus has made me his own.
Today I know that the radical independence of my adolescent imagination was not only the rejection of any authority but my own, but also the unknowing surrender to other powers and authorities that had trained me well to play by their script and call it freedom.
It took me years to realize how much I was a child of the times, and how much my thoughts and actions had been shaped by my need to conform and fit in and fulfill expectations.
Today all I want is to live as a child of God.
When Jesus was about thirty years old, he came to the Jordan river, and he heard John the Baptist proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. When John warned the crowds of the wrath to come, Jesus was there. When the crowds asked John, “What then should we do?”, Jesus was there. When even tax collectors and soldiers came to be baptized and make commitments to lives of greater faithfulness, Jesus was there. And when all the people were baptized, Jesus was there and he was washed in the river along with us. He stepped into our place, so we would be in his.
Luke is very careful to note that Jesus was praying when the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. Jesus didn’t listen to the crowd or the expectations of his family and friends or anyone else, he prayed. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.”
This is how his ministry began. Not with a commission to go and save the world, but with this beautiful statement of relationship, love, and delight.
In Luke’s gospel, the scene is followed by a long genealogy, name after name, generation after generation – but Jesus’ true identity, his true name was spoken by the water: You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.
Jesus stood in our place, so we would stand in his and hear our true name, and know the relationship that defines us more profoundly than our human ancestry or our past. Together we stand in the river and the voice from heaven declares, “You are my children, my loved ones, my people, my delight; you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you; you are my sons and my daughters, called by my name, created for my glory.”
Who we are is not determined by the accidents of history or by our choices, good or bad, but by this voice from heaven declaring God’s delight in us.
The gospel reading for this Sunday skips a few lines in Luke’s narrative, and who knows why. In those verses we are told how Herod didn’t appreciate the good news John the Baptist proclaimed to the people. In particular, Herod didn’t appreciate how John rebuked him “because of all the evil things” he had done.
When God’s claim on us and on the world is given voice, the rulers get nervous. Herod gets nervous. The fourteen-year-old whom the church urges to question his assumptions of independence and autonomy, gets nervous. The little kid who doesn’t want to belong to anyone, gets nervous.
And what do rulers do when they get nervous about that preaching and baptizing down by the river?
Luke tells us.
Herod, with all the evil things that he had done, added to them all by shutting up John in prison.
Those disruptive voices reminding us of God’s claim on us and on the world? Lock them up, lock them in, lock them out—who cares! As long as they remain shut up and silent, all is well in the little throne rooms of the world.
What happens when the call to repentance and renewal is silenced and shut up?
Luke tells us.
Where Jesus stands, the heavens open and the truth is spoken.
Herod wants to shut up objection and judgment. Herod wants to run things his own way and so he wants to shut up the call to prepare for God’s coming, he wants to shut up the demand for the re-ordering of the world, he wants to shut up the voice in the wilderness – but where Jesus stands, the heavens open and the voice of God is heard.
Every time we baptize a disciple in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, we renounce those rulers and powers that wish to shut up the reign of God and the renewal of the world.
Every time we gather by the water we renounce those voices that drown out the truth by telling us that we must work or shop or eat and drink or cheat our way to fullness of life.
And every time we baptize a disciple we affirm the opening of heaven, the coming of God’s redeeming power into the world, and the new creation where we know ourselves and each other by our true name as God’s sons and daughters.
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.