Trinity 18 - I have called you by name

A sermon preached at St George's on 19 October in St Georges Campden Hill by Fr James Heard

The Christian writer, the late Francis Schaeffer, used to describe the words, ‘In the beginning, God ...’ as the four most important words ever written. They’re so important because, basically, there are only two possible views about the universe in which we live. It must, at heart, be either personal or impersonal. It must either be the product of a Person, or the unplanned, unintended by-product of the impersonal + time + chance. So that’s the question: Is there a Person behind the universe or not? Because how we regard the universe, how we treat it, how we view our lives and work and relationships and goals - all will be shaped decisively by how we answer that question.

The question is particularly important for us today because we live in what feels very much like an impersonal world. To the health authority, we’re an NHS number; to the Post Office, we’re a Post Code; to the Inland Revenue, we’re a National Insurance number. Gone are the days when our GP would come to our home and have time to talk, someone who knew our family. Or our bank manager would know our financial situation and its ramifications for our family and other commitments. We live at greater relational distance from all but a small (and sometimes fragile) collection of friends and family members. We long for community, but are generally too busy to create it or contribute much to it. And loneliness is, as Mother Teresa observed, one of the most prevalent and depressing features of the western world. And so we need to know that our world is not ultimately a cold, empty, impersonal product of time and chance.

Into this situation, the Bible speaks its ancient message with new freshness, force and relevance. It affirms that there is indeed a Person behind creation. And a person who is loving, a person who knows his creation, a person who knows each of us by name. This comes across throughout the biblical narrative and in sometimes rather unexpected places.

In our first reading from Isaiah, God is speaking to Cyrus, the Persian king he has chosen to deliver the Israelites out of Babylonian captivity. God declares to the anointed monarch, "…though you do not know me… I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places." Why? "So that you may know that it is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who calls you by your name."

Although Cyrus is a foreigner, ignorant of Yahweh and unversed in the religion of the Jewish community, God assures him that he is both known and chosen. He has a role to play in Israel's salvific history, whether he comprehends that history or not.

The phrase, "I know you by name," is so significant. It affirms God’s loving personal care. I’m sure William and & Suzzy thought very carefully when choosing the name of their son Tarka. And knowing and naming matter to a personal loving God. In a world that feels profoundly impersonal and insecure, we need to know that our security lies in God's perfect and total knowledge of us — rather than in our patchy and limited comprehension of him. And if God knows me by name, then he knows my story, my heritage, my beginning, and my end. If God knows me by name, he knows the very core of me.

A caveat is important here because all this doesn’t mean that we won’t experience turmoil, or illness, or many other difficult things in life. This was partly Freud’s critique of religion: that it’s a psychological self-justification, its wishful thinking, a neurotic illness, a way to cope with a chaotic and frightening impersonal world devoid of meaning and purpose.

That God knows us by name doesn’t inoculate us from what life might throw at us. Rather, we are known and loved and held through good times as well as bad.

Today we shall shortly be baptising Tarka. The water we pour on him speaks of, and mediates, new birth, a new way of being, becoming part of the Christian community. In baptism we know that in God there are always new possibilities. This is the world into which we are about to welcome Tarka. A God that offers better, a new hope, the possibility of being fully human. It’s impossible to know what sort of live lies ahead for Tarka, what sort of person he will become. Being brought into being will be full of events for him: exiting, sad, joyful, disappointing, thrilling. He will have many choices to make. He will be happy and he will be sad. He will succeed and he will fail. He will be good and he will be bad. And yet, regardless of how life turns out, he will never be alone. He will know the love and care of a generous God who will love him for what he is and not despite what he is. He will walk with a God who affirms his humanity as something which is to be celebrated and not perpetually in need of correction. He will find God in all things not just religious things. He will have the love of different people in his biological family and in his God family, the church community.

And when he starts asking the big questions about life and faith, we must examine our own faith as we do. I was asked this week by a six year old, ‘Who made God?’ How do you answer that one? I told him that nobody made God, God just is. He responded that if nobody made God then God couldn’t exist. Well, that told me. Children ask some great searching questions that will challenge our faith. Questions that will force us to reflect upon our faith, which might be an unexamined faith, one that we had growing up perhaps but one that hasn’t matured or deepened since then.

We as his God family have a responsibility to teach Tarka a faith which will affirm his experiences as a human being with all of his hopes and dreams. For most people faith has a complicated and confusing process that last a lifetime and is still not complete. It’s a journey we are all invited to participate in and a journey Tarka starts today. It’s a journey towards what is ‘better’. Better than the shallow materialism which wrecks so many lives and the selfishness which may stunt our growth. Better than the cruelty which can grip our world because of suspicion and hatred. Better than the narrow mindedness which separates different kinds of men and women from one another. Better than the pointing finger of blame. Better than the hopeless fear of prejudice. Better than a life which is lived half heartedly.

We have an amazing capacity to strive for something better. It’s time for Tarka to start his journey of faith, to look for and affirm life and life in abundance. A life in which we live and learn; give and take. Love and be loved. My prayer for him is that he might become a human being fully alive, knowing deep, deep down God’s unconditional love for him.

Reference: Mike Lloyd, Café Theology

Holland Park Benefice