The First Sunday After The Epiphany

The First Sunday After The Epiphany
January 13, 2019
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 has spoken deeply to my heart is a prayer by St. Francis de Sales. Often prayed at our monthly Contemplative Worship services, the 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.”

     That prayer kept coming to mind as I crafted this week’s sermon and frankly, rewrote it just last evening and tweaked it again this morning. See, a key part of today’s worship service was intended to be the Commissioning of our newly elected Vestry members. So, my intention was to speak directly to today’s gospel lesson and specifically, those words, ‘You are my Son, the beloved: with you I am well pleased’ and bring those words into the context of the ministry of all believers; that all of us who have become beloved children of God in and through our faith in Jesus Christ as Lord, are called by God, called by name, and called with a purpose. But I really struggled with that sermon.

     With last evening’s ice storm and today’s unsafe driving conditions, many cannot be present this morning. In fact, none of our newly elected Vestry members dared travel here today. I understand now why the Spirit directed me to offer a different and far shorter sermon this morning. A sermon that yes, still incorporates our gospel lesson, but offers an even greater truth. A truth found in our Old Testament lesson from Isaiah and summed up in that Prayer of St. Francis de Sales. A truth that offers much hope to this parish, to our community and nation. A truth revealed in those simple and yet powerful words of God, “I have called you by name, you are mine.” 

     Our scripture lessons this morning have much to say about the voice of God and our calling, our purpose as people 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 that voice of God called out to a group of Samaritans: a group believed by the early Church to be outside of 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 engaged in a new way of living marked by service to God and neighbor.

     Our lesson from the Gospel according to Luke speaks of what happened immediately after Jesus’ baptism. We might remember that 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 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 recognized just few weeks ago as the promised Messiah and whom last week on the Feast of Epiphany we celebrated as the Light of the whole World, this Jesus, this Immanuel, this “God with Us,” the voice from heaven reveals, is none other than the Son of God 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 – 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 for a purpose.

     See, these are interesting days in our nation. There is much talk about what divides us whether that division is created by physical walls or simply because of different ethnicity, race, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, economic standing, and even employment. Nowadays, we tend to describe ourselves with hyphenated names: Anglo-American, African-American, Irish-American, Latino-American, and so on rather than simply Americans. Such division is heard even in the Church such as Evangelical-Christians, Mainline, Conservative, or Liberal-Christians, and that list goes on. And all of these labels, rather than weaving a rich tapestry of understanding and celebration of one’s heritage, have become walls and barriers to unity and peace and instead, have sown suspicion and outright disdain for others.

     Our lessons this morning tell us that while we can honor our heritage and diversity, there is one thing we hold in common: one name that we bear, one name that can bring unity in the midst of chaos and dissention. It is the only name that really matters: the name of Jesus Christ and it is with Christ and Christ alone that our identity ultimately lies. For in Christ, as the old hymn goes, there are no barriers, no walls, there is no east nor west, no south or north, but one great fellowship of love throughout the whole wide earth.  

     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. 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 Savior.’”  And that brings me back to that prayer of St. Francis de Sales. A prayer that reminds us of those words of Isaiah and the promises of Christ affirmed in our Gospel lesson and our reading from Acts. A prayer that offers hope in the midst of division. Hear these words:

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, “Thus says the Lord, ‘I have called you by name, you are mine.’” We are God’s people marked as Christ’s own in baptism and called by his name, called with a purpose, called to ministry and mutual service, called to bring and share the light of Christ. That is God’s purpose just as it is God’s promise. May God grant each of us the grace to remember whose we are, to whom we belong, and to whom we have been called to serve. Amen.