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Wednesday, January 12, 2011
Lectionary Scriptures: Isaiah 49:1-7, Psalm 40:1-11, II Corinthians 1-9, John 1:29-42

Individuals and nations all have identities—ways in which they understand and present themselves or are perceived by others, probably some combination of all those things and more. Names themselves have meanings, something that has had more importance in other times and cultures than it usually does in our own. My name, James, for instance, derives from the Hebrew name, Jacob. It means “supplanter” or “one who replaces.” For me, it is a name which has family significance. My father’s middle name was “James.” My maternal grandfather was “James.”

My oldest daughter was born on the land of the Hopi Nation in northern Arizona, where I was serving as a missionary at the time. She was adopted into the Snake Clan and given a Hopi name—semana, meaning “Little Flower Girl.” In English she is “Jonquil,” which is indeed a little flower, although she is widely known as “JQ”. JQ was given a small kachina (a doll carved from wood, painted and colorfully adorned) known as a flower pot spirit.

Most of us have probably known people who have changed their names at some point in life, sometimes to mark what has seemed to them to be a turning point. Names are important, part of the way in which we identify ourselves and are identified by others. They triggered quite a discussion as some of us gathered for breakfast at Mehri’s this morning. The discussion changed what I had been thinking about writing. Identity and turning points can perhaps give us some perspectives on the readings.

Nations have names and slogans which express an identity. The Israelites knew themselves to be God’s people, but weren’t always clear what that meant. Today’s reading from Isaiah offers one slogan which has been part of the continuing discussion. Notice that the reading begins with the Lord telling Israel, the nation, “You are my servant.” (Isaiah 49:3) Sometimes we don’t feel like we have realized the possibilities in our identity, which is the case here. Israel responds, “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” (vs. 4) Israel still, however, expresses confidence about his place in God’s cause. (vss. 4-5) The Lord challenges Israel to expand its understanding of its identity, offering the slogan, “a light to the nations.” (vs. 6)

Whatever our name or identity, we do not exist just for ourselves and our own ends. We receive from God so that God’s grace may flow through us and become a blessing to others. The phrase “a light to the nations” influenced some of our own founding fathers as they thought about becoming a beacon for the cause of liberty. There can be arrogance in seeing ourselves as God’s special emissaries, whether we are Israel or America, but the notion of being a caring presence in the world rather than living by selfish greed is not to be taken lightly. Most nations, including Israel and the United States, seem to forget it too often, and some nations never seem to learn it at all.

The Psalm celebrates a turning point with the image of being drawn up “from the desolate pit.” (Psalm 40:2) The turning point does not, in this case, seem to bring a new name or slogan. It brings a song and joy. (vss. 3-4) It leads to a turning outward (as a light to the nations?) to share the “glad news.” (vss. 9-10) There is the realization that God is more interested in that kind of response than in right ritual (“sacrifice and offering”). (vs. 6)

The reading from I Corinthians does not specifically deal with names and turning points (identity), except for, possibly, the final verse. “God is faithful, by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (I Corinthians 1:9) Is our identity expressed, at least in part, in being a group of people who are a fellowship brought together around Jesus?

The church in Corinth was filled with conflict, which troubled Paul deeply. He repeatedly tried to move them beyond their polarizations, just as some of us would pray might happen on the American political scene. What’s remarkable is the degree to which this letter opens with words not of condemnation but of encouragement. He gives thanks for them, reminding them of the enrichment they have received from God. (vss. 4-5) He tells them that they are gifted, a topic that becomes part of his central message to them later. (vs. 17) In chapters 12-14 he tells them to use the gifts they have been given, above all the gift of love. Again, what we have received from God is to be applied in the service of others. Our gifts and talents are not just a means to gain glory in some competition. They are meant to enrich not just us but those around us.

The reading from the Gospel According to John deals explicitly with name change, and change of identity, as well as with Jesus’ identity. It is another story of an encounter between Jesus and John the Baptizer. Although it is not a story of Jesus’ baptism, John refers to “the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove,” a testimony we saw last week to Jesus’ identity as God’s Son. (John 1:32---Notice here that John says he saw the dove, whereas in last week’s account from Matthew apparently only Jesus saw the dove.)

Twice John speaks of Jesus as “the Lamb of God,” one of many phrases used to describe Jesus’ identity in the New Testament. (vss. 29 & 36) He is also called Rabbi (Teacher) and Messiah (vss. 38 & 41) No one identity can capture Jesus any more than a single phrase or name can describe all that we are and feel. Each name or phrase is worth exploring, especially “Lamb of God,” which goes back to images from the Exodus—but I’ll not get into that now. Dig into it a bit yourselves if you wish.

The story ends with the calling of the first disciples. (vs. 37) It’s a strange encounter. Jesus asks them what they are looking for and they respond by asking him where he is staying. (vs. 38) His response is “Come and see,” come and get acquainted. (vs. 39) One of the disciples is Andrew; the other is unnamed. (vs. 40) When they conclude that Jesus is the Messiah, Andrew runs to get his brother Simon. (Vs. 41) We see once again the impulse to share profound spiritual moments and discoveries with others. Simon, it turns out, is the one we know as Peter, a new name given by Jesus—“‘Cephas’ (which is translated Peter).” (vs. 42) In English it is Rock, another image that could take our minds down a trail of further reflection.

Names are important. Biblically, to speak a person’s name was to have power over that person. It is a power that can be abused, but names are also a way of opening a door to deeper relationship—with God, with Jesus, and with one another. What is your name, and what new name do you think Jesus might give you?

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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