January 9, 2022, The First Sunday after The Epiphany

The First Sunday After The Epiphany
January 9, 2022
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Lessons: Isaiah 43:1-7 Psalm 29; Acts 8:14-17; Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

From the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, “I have called you by name, you are mine.” I speak to you in the Name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.

     One of the prayers of the Church that continues to speak deeply to my heart and encourage my soul is a prayer by St. Francis de Sales. That prayer begins with these words: “Be at peace. Do not look forward in fear to the changes of life; rather look to them with hope as they arise.” The prayer then goes deeper to say, “God, whose very own you are, … has kept you hitherto, and He will lead you safely through all things.”

     That prayer came to mind as I crafted today’s sermon. It seems so timely given all the changes and, frankly, the fears entire peoples and nations face today. The prayer’s reminder that we are God’s “very own” is affirmation of God’s words at Jesus’ baptism, “you are my son … with you I am well pleased.” And its urging that we not fear what lies ahead, affirms God’s words to the Prophet Isaiah, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine … I will be with you.” These words remind us that we who became beloved children of God through our baptism into Jesus Christ and our faith that he is Lord, have, indeed, heard the voice of God, a voice that has called us, called us by name, to be God’s own people forever.

     Our scripture lessons this morning say a lot about the voice of God. The Psalmist describes God’s voice as strong enough to strip whole forests bare and yet gentle enough to calm and assure the anxious heart. Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles shares how the voice of God called out to a group of Samaritans: a group believed by the early Church to be outside the promises of God and with no hope of redemption. God spoke, Acts tells us, and an entire Gentile community came to faith in Jesus Christ, was baptized, received the Holy Spirit, and committed themselves to a new way of living marked by service to God and neighbor.

     Our lesson from the Gospel according to Luke speaks of Jesus’ baptism. We might remember we heard this same story a few weeks ago but our focus on that occasion was how through baptism Jesus identified himself with the people as one of them and one with them. In today’s reading, our attention turns to what happened when Jesus was at prayer after his baptism: to that moment when the Holy Spirit visibly descended upon him and a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the beloved: with you I am well pleased.” Luke reveals that this Jesus whose birth we both celebrated and affirmed just a few weeks ago as the promised Messiah and whom this past Thursday on the Feast of Epiphany the Church proclaimed as the Light of the whole World, this Jesus, this Immanuel, this “God with Us,” the voice from heaven reveals, is none other than God’s Son who has come to redeem and call all people and all creation as God’s own once again.

    Our lessons this morning bring to mind our own baptisms when we were marked as Christ’s own forever and called by God: called by name and then given a new name: the name of Jesus Christ. And it is that name that we carry with us wherever we go and whatever we do. God, our lessons tell us, has called us by name and just as God has done in every generation since the foundation of the earth, God has called us in this moment in human history for a purpose. That begs the question, “Why this moment and for what purpose?”

   These are troubling and fear-filled days in our nation. Our country, our people, are divided and angry. The ongoing pandemic that has disrupted everyday life, everyday routines, continues unchecked and with it, has all but eliminated any opportunity to sit together and converse and learn from one another. No instead, people are quick to fly off the handle, and with incredible vitriol and malice verbally assault those with whom they just disagree. Politically we are divided by a culture that embraces lies and denies truth. Everyone seems suspect today and is not to be trusted especially those who are of a different ethnicity, race, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, economic standing, and even employment status. Name-calling and blaming has become the norm in American life and, sadly, so often hatred and ill-will and untruth has spewed from pulpits throughout our land – a land that claims to be a Christian nation and people. Rather than our differences weaving a rich tapestry of understanding and welcoming of one’s perspective, we have built walls and barriers to unity and peace and instead, have sown suspicion and outright disdain for others. It is in the midst of this dreadful situation that God has called and continues to call God’s people saying, “I have called you by name” and reminds us,  “I will be with you.” Why have you called God? And for what purpose?

     Our lessons this morning affirm that regardless of our diverse differences there is one thing we have and hold in common that is above all else. It is the one name that we bear, the one name that can and should bring unity in the midst of chaos and dissention. It is  the name of Jesus Christ who urged us to love God and neighbor, to stand and speak the truth no matter how hard it is to hear, to turn the other cheek, to uphold the dignity of every human being and, beloved, it is with Christ and to Christ alone that one’s loyalty and identity ultimately lie. “I have called you by name, you are mine.” We have been called by name to be like him whose name at baptism is grafted into our hearts, called to be like him whose name we bear, and called for a purpose: called to step into, and by carrying and sharing and being the Light of Christ, confront and say to the darkness that surrounds our world today, “Enough!” And go forth to show through how we speak and act that there is a better way – God’s way – God’s way that brings health and well-being, God’s light that the splits the darkness, even the darkness of human hearts.

    The prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” and that is a lovely promise for people of faith. But we must always remember that we have been called for a purpose, called to action. That call to action is alluded to when the Lord continues and says, “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.” God’s people are called – called by name and for a purpose.

     And that brings me back to that prayer of St. Francis de Sales. A prayer that affirms today’s scripture lessons. A prayer that offers hope in the midst of the division and fear of these very days. A prayer that urges us and all people of God to set aside any fear we might have and take action. Hear the words of that prayer:

Be at Peace.

Do not look forward in fear to the changes of life;

rather look to them with full hope as they arise.

God, whose very own you are, will deliver you from out of them.

He has kept you hitherto, and He will lead you safely through all things;

and when you cannot stand it, God will carry you in his arms.

Do not fear what may happen tomorrow;

the same everlasting Father who cares for you today

will take care of you then and everyday.

He will either shield you from suffering,

or will give you unfailing strength to bear it.

Be at peace, and put aside all anxious thoughts and imagination.

     Friends, it is a New Year – a time for new beginnings. A time to examine habits and priorities. A time to look within ourselves and hold up that which divides us – that which scares us and separates us – and hold it up to the redeeming and transforming light of Christ and let go of it. Let it go and hear once again God’s words, “I have called you by name, you are mine.”

Beloved, we are God’s people marked as Christ’s own in baptism and called by his name, called with a purpose, called to bring and share and be Christ’s light in our communities, nation, and world right now. May God grant us the grace to remember whose we are, to whom we belong and serve, and discern for what purpose and in whose name we have been called to speak and act not just today but every day of our lives. Amen.