Called by Name: A Reflection on Isaiah 43.1-7 and The Baptism of Jesus

There was a time a few years ago when I was feeling particularly low. It wasn’t a clinical depression, nor was it just the usual frustrations of work, dating, politics and whatnot. It was more of a pervasive feeling of being isolated, invisible, misunderstood, and anonymous in the world. Then one evening, my spiritual director said simply, “Matt, I see you.” She then went on to name and raise up my values and beliefs and way of life in a way that made me truly feel connected, seen, understood, and named. Those fifteen seconds did more to unravel that pervasive dark cloud I’d been under than pretty much everything else that happened in that year combined. More than simply feeling like we ‘fit in’ to a community, it’s important for us to feel like we truly belong — that we can be ourselves and are understood and truly seen for who we are. Even if this is only by one person. Even if, human relationships failing us, this is only by God. This is a theme that connects today’s readings from the prophet Isaiah and the Gospel according to Luke. In both readings, God says, “I see you, I know you, I call you my own.” And in both readings, the result is a stronger sense of identity and vocation. And this is, I believe, an important lesson for us as well.

The reading from Isaiah finds the people of God in a very low place. They are deep in the darkness and confusion of the Exile, far from home and without the freedom to return. While some hold out hope, many have given up on the old ways and assimilated into Babylonian society. Into this situation, the prophet receives an oracle:

But 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. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour.

Those words, “I have called you by name and you are mine,” are for my money among the most powerful in all of Scripture. There’s something powerful in a name. And not only does God here call them by name — “Hey you, yes you, Israel” — but it also hearkens back to the power of naming in the Bible more generally. Throughout the Scriptures, vocation often comes with a new name. Abram and Sarai were renamed Abraham and Sarah; Simon was called ‘Peter’ by Jesus, and Saul the persecutor of Christians became Paul the Apostle. And from these examples, there was a long history in the Church of every major change in one’s status within the community — baptism, ordination, monastic tonsure — being marked by a change in name. Here, the specific names Isaiah mentions recall the story of Jacob, whose entire life had been defined by his difficult relationship with his twin brother Esau until that moment when he wrestled the stranger and received a new name, Israel, “He who wrestles with God.” So here in this time of desolation, the prophet reminds the people of God of their identity: that old call is still valid; they are still chosen by God for a special purpose; and God is about to do a new thing with them. Things won’t be easy, but God’s promise is still with them and for them. And just a few verses later, Isaiah prophesies their release from captivity and return home.

Turning to the Gospel reading, we have the wonderful story of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, where God publicly acknowledges Jesus as God’s own Chosen, as God’s Son: “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased” (Luke 3.21f). Again we have God pointing to the human person and saying, “You — I see you, I know you.” And, Jesus emerges from this experience with a stronger sense of mission and vocation. He goes out into the wilderness where he beats Satan in a battle of wits and then calls his disciples and begins his ministry of healing of preaching Good News to all who need to hear it.

So what does this mean today? It is a fundamental assumption of the Scriptures — what I have previously called the fractal nature of our faith — that what was true of ancient Israel incipiently (in dream, in potential, in foretaste) and is true of Jesus prototypically or archetypically is also true of us personally and the Church collectively. So, by application, just as God said to the people in Exile, “I have called you by name and you are mine,” and just as God said to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved, in whom I am well pleased,” so too is God telling us today and every day, “I see you. I know you. I love you. You are mine.”

God sees us truly as we are, in our deepest parts, and calls those best and truest expressions of us up and out into the world. And this should give us strength and hope when we find ourselves feeling invisible and lost in the world, when we are caught up in circumstances beyond our control, in times of exile or wilderness or temptation.

If the message of Christmas is “God is with us,” the message for us this first Sunday after Epiphany is “God knows us, sees us, and calls us.” And that ‘us’ includes me and it includes you. (Yes, you.) And that is very good news for us, and for the whole world.

And so, let us pray:

Eternal Father,
who at the baptism of Jesus revealed him to be your Son,
anointing him with the Holy Spirit,
keep us your children, born of water and the Spirit, faithful to our calling;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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