Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Names Have Been Changed

Isaiah 62:1-12
Ordinary 2
January 17, 2015
William G. Carter

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch.
The nations shall see your vindication, and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.
You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.
You shall no more be termed Forsaken,  and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married;
for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.

It was a trick that all the eighth graders thought was hilarious. Get a substitute teacher, and everybody assumes another name. If a seating chart was left in the top drawer of the desk, sit in somebody else’s seat. When attendance is taken at the beginning of class, speak up when your assumed name is call. The unassuming teacher calls on John to do a math problem at the blackboard, and Tony stands up to do. Everybody snickers. In eighth grade, that’s a lot of fun. Pretend you are somebody else when the person up front calls your name.

Sometimes a future bride and groom will come in and chat. On the checklist of chores to complete around the wedding, perhaps one of them wants to change their name. In the old days, the wife took the new husband’s name. Now it can go any possible way. Sometimes the merger leads to hyphenated names. Or they keep their original last names, but every other kid gets one of their last names. In fact, I know a wife who dropped her first husband’s name, went back to her birth name, and then got re-married but didn’t take the new husband’s name. In any case, you can go to and they will handle all the necessary changes for only $59: voter registration, driver’s license, Social Security, IRS, passport, and magazine subscriptions.

These days, of course, a name can be taken from you. A couple of winters ago, my daughters took me to see a movie called “Identity Thief.” They said was a comedy, but I didn’t think it was funny at all. A Denver accountant named Sandy Patterson, a man, had his identity stolen by a con artist in Florida. He gave her all his personal information over the phone as she was supposedly selling identity theft protection. Then she uses his credit card to buy jewelry, clothing, and a brand new TV. Why does she do it? Late in the movie, she confesses she grew up in a lot of foster homes and doesn’t know her real name. Bad breaks have stolen her name.

Today Isaiah gives us a poem about names. Last week, we heard the prophet declare how God says, “I have called you by name, and you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1-7). Today it’s another occasion in Isaiah, and God says, “I’m going to change your name.” Three times, in fact, God changes the names.

Why are names so important? In Hebrew thinking, a name is more than identification. It’s the essence of one’s identity. In the Garden of Eden, Adam (the earth creature) names all the animals. God makes something, brings it to Adam, and Adam names it, “I’m going to call that a cow. I’m going to call that one a blue jay. That one over there looks ridiculous, so I’m going to call it a platypus.”

One day God made something special and brought it to Adam. Adam said, “I’m going to call that an elephant.” God said, “There’s no such thing as an elephant,” and Adam replied, “Well, sure there is.” God said, “Why are you going to call that an elephant?” Adam said, “Look how big it is!” By naming all the animals, Adam could exert authority over them, or so he thought. If you know the name or give the name, you have power over it.

That’s why it is extraordinary that, centuries later, Moses comes along, looks toward God, and says, “What’s your name?” Moses knew this was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God had been around a while, and Moses said, “What’s your name?” God said, “Yahweh,” which means “I am what I will be,” or “I will be what I will be.” It’s kind of an elusive name, mysterious, slippery. But as someone once quipped, once God told Moses his name, “God hasn’t had a peaceful moment since.”[1]

The truth of the matter is that people can nag God all they want, but God has bigger concerns than our small matters. In Isaiah 62, the poet picks up on a long prophetic tradition of referring to Jerusalem as God’s “wife.” She was an unfaithful spouse who chased after others, as the prophet Hosea declared. The prophet Jeremiah (2:1-4:31) described the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians as a broken marriage. The book of Lamentations (1:1-21) describes Jerusalem as an abandoned woman weeping over her fate.

Yet now, in the concluding chapters of the prophet Isaiah, God is going to take her back. The Babylonian Exile is over. The sinful people will be forgiven and restored. And here is how the poet describes it:

     For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you,
     and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.

And to seal the promise, God says, “I’m going to change your name.”

It’s not the first time God declares this. The Bible is full of names that have been changed. It happens a lot, so many times that we remember only a few highlights:

  • Abram (“father”) becomes “Abraham” (“Big Daddy of a Large Multitude”).
  • Jacob (which means “heel grabber”) becomes Israel (“the one who strives with God”).
  • Simon, son of John, is renamed by Jesus as “Rock,” (Petros, or Peter).
  • Saul, named after the first king of Israel, is knocked off his high horse by the Risen Christ, and later rebranded “Paul,” a Latin name that means “Pee Wee.”
The names are changed because the people have changed. God gets busy in their lives, and they are no longer the same.

It still happens. Down in the red rocks of New Mexico, there’s in a monastery off the paved road. On a Sunday morning after worship, you can talk with the guest master. His name is Brother Andre. He took that name after he committed himself to a lifetime of prayer. I didn’t ask what his name was previously. Doesn’t matter, for he is a whole new person.

Or years ago, when I first struggled with God’s hand on my own life, wondering if I was hearing the call correctly, the Presbyterians assigned a mentor. Her name was Rebekah Elowyn. The first time I met her, somebody nearby said, “Oh, that’s Mary Lowe.” She corrected them gently and said, “My life has been transformed by God and I am a different person.”

Her story is revealing. It seems that some time in her forties, Rebekah came to terms with abuse she had suffered as a child. As a way to survive, she shoved the pain down deep, but eventually it bubbled back up. With the help of a therapist, she named the trauma and was able to move through it. For the first time, she felt healed and whole. She was a new person, and the best way she could celebrate her new identity in Christ was by changing her name.

So God looks at Jerusalem, his bride, and says, “I see you differently. You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. I shall rejoice in you like a young man on his honeymoon.” And then the name is changed:

     You shall no more be termed Forsaken,  
     and your land shall no more be termed Desolate;
     but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married;
     for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married.

But it doesn’t stop there. God’s love for Jerusalem spills out through the land. It is intended for everybody. The healing, the health, the justice, the reparations – it is given as a gift to all the people that God loves. With some urgency, God declares:

     Go through, go through the gates, prepare the way for the people;
     build up, build up the highway, clear it of stones, lift up an ensign over the peoples.
     Say to daughter Zion, “See, your salvation comes . . .”

Then it happens again. God renames the people:

     They shall be called, “The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord”;
     and you shall be called, “Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.”

I hope you realize this is more than poetry. This is transformation. It is what God wants for you and for me, for our families, our loved ones, our church, our community, our commonwealth, our country, our planet. God wants to take full delight in us, to know us and enjoy us forever, to make things right, and to heal what has broken.

That’s the abundant life that God wishes for all of us. Not abundance in having a lot of money, or climbing to a higher rug of power or ability, but an abundance of well being. This is salvation in the largest biblical sense. Salvation is not only a rescue from sin, although it is that. It comes with a clear sense of health in every sphere of life. It’s when people treat one another fairly, it’s when fear is countered with trust, it’s when emotional wounds are made well, and it’s when racism and other injustices are removed. It’s our own arrogance and pride that gets us in so much trouble, and it’s God’s persistent light that chases away the dark.

Salvation is described in that marvelous Psalm 103, which we heard a week ago in Jo Conklin’s memorial service, and which we will sing as our very next hymn. “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and don’t forget God’s benefits…” and then the benefits come like drum beats:  

God forgives all your iniquity, 
God heals all your diseases, 
God redeems your life from the Pit,
God crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
God satisfies you with good as long as you live     
God works justice for all who are oppressed. (Psalm 103:1-4)

In other words, not forsaken!
In other words, not forgotten!
In other words, redeemed . . . and therefore, renamed.

Our work is to live into this, as God’s beloved people, as God’s emissaries to a broken world. God will not rest until all things are rescued and made well. That is the work of saving, begun by God, and undertaken by people who are not who they used to be. The work is not done, but  in Jesus Christ is is under way.

So here’s an invitation for the redeemed of the Lord to look a good bit more redeemed.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, “Buechner” (New York: Harper and Row)

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