January 9, 2022

"I Have Called You by Name"

Rev. Scott Landis

Isaiah 43:1-7 & Luke 3:15-17

Our understanding of Christian baptism or “christening” as it is sometimes called is all over the map. Some in the Christian community understand baptism as necessary for the salvation of the newborn child. The idea is that the child was born “in sin” and the sacrament is necessary to wash away the “original sin” thereby guaranteeing the salvation of the infant.

Others see baptism as only possible when the child or adult reaches an age where he or she can decide for themselves whether to be baptized. Baptism in these communities can be participated in as a means of salvation ONLY after a decision is made by the one being baptized. He or she sees the error of their ways and wants to repent of their sins publicly by this outward act witnessing to their faith.

Add to that the variety of practices or methods used in baptism including – immersion in a baptismal font, sprinkling or pouring water from a bowl, or as we like to do here at Keawala`i, a little dip in the ocean down at Maluaka Beach – which, in my experience, delights infants to no end.

So, which one or which way is right? And WHAT are we doing – anyway? I actually think the second question is a much more important one. What ARE we doing when we engage in the act of baptism? [Pause]

Baptism in our tradition is one of two sacraments recognized in the Christian church – the other being the sacrament of communion. We refer to these two as sacraments because they were acts that were commanded by Jesus, that is, “To go and baptize in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,” AND to “Eat and Drink this in remembrance of me.”

But that still begs the question, what are we doing when we baptize a child OR an adult?

To answer that I want to draw your attention to a rather unlikely source. You heard just moments ago a beautiful passage read from the prophet Isaiah. It was not written in reference to baptism, rather it was done to reassure the Israelites of the constancy of God’s love and claiming grace at a very trying moment in their history. Please listen to a couple of the verses once again.

“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name and you are mine.
Because: you are precious in my sight,
and honored,
And, I love you.”

Now, to be sure, these words were not meant directly for us – they were offered by the prophet to bring a word of hope to the Israelites as they longed for deliverance from the hands of their Babylonian captors. Yet, they do express the compassion and grace given to God’s beloved. Today – that is you and me. And on this, Baptism of Christ Sunday, these ancient words help to crystalize an important theological notion often overlooked when we participate in our modern sacrament of baptism. And it all comes down to our humanity. As God recognizes our individuality and calls us by name. [Pause]

Some of you know the origin of your name. Perhaps you were named for a relative – to maintain a family name, or because your parents saw in you, from the very first moments of your life, a quality they wanted described by your name. Maybe you were named after a person who was popular in movies or politics, or music at the time – or perhaps after a saint of the church.

Hawaiians, and many others baptized in our church, notoriously give their children very specific names – often containing many, many syllables to describe hoped for qualities in the child.

While all of that is important in each family constellation, what’s even more important is the affirmation by God, “I have called you by name. I see you. I recognize you. You are mine. And ‘I love you.’”

It’s the reason why we in the United Church of Christ – and many denominations like ours have a preference for “infant baptism” – because God’s love – God’s salvation – God’s redemption cannot be earned. It is given out of God’s love for all God’s children. It’s a promise that is remembered when we come to the waters of baptism. It is announced as the child is sprinkled OR immersed – “Child of God. Disciple of Christ. Member of the Church.”

I cannot overemphasize the importance of this tenet of our faith. It is integral to our understanding of what it means to be in relationship with God. The relationship is not of our doing. It is God who initiates a “covenant” with us. God calls us into the church and that begins very early in our lives. As the psalmist proclaims – “God knew us even before we took our first breath.”

Baptism recognizes the calling of God as we are named and claimed by God. And that is a promise that God will never revoke. We may eschew or ignore this claim. We may even resist or completely reject the grace that is given – but God will NEVER LET US GO!!! [Pause]

This idea of the grace freely given by God is sometimes confusing even to those of us who have been “churched” all our lives. So, I’m often asked, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized? After all, was he not an extension of God? Surely Jesus did not need, nor did he have to be reminded of God’s unconditional love and grace.” I would agree. But notice what is happening even in Jesus’ baptism. It’s not so much an act of redemption - rather it is an act of affirmation. As Luke and the other gospel writers record.

“The heavens opened. The Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, I have called you by name. And, I love you.”

Jesus’ baptism was necessary for one reason, to bear witness to the transcendent, creating God who is continually present in the world (period). God does not simply write the script of a person’s life and hit – “SEND.” No, God was and continues to be an active participant in the lives of all God’s children. That includes everyone. No exceptions!

It’s a promise that was affirmed in Jesus’ birth, baptism, transfiguration, death and resurrection. And it’s a promise that we claim each and every time a child is brought to the waters of baptism, named, and we announce yet again, “God has called you by name. You are mine. And, I love you. Child of God. Disciple of Christ. Member of the church.

The sacrament of baptism is a sacrament of inclusion. It is God’s reminder to humankind. You are mine. I love you. Welcome to the family. And no one is excluded.

I don’t know when I announce that promise whether the beloved gift I hold in my hands will grow up to be another Einstein or sing like Streisand, whether she will be an astronaut or a sweep floors in a hospital, whether he is gay or straight, transgender or cis-gender, whether she is loving and caring, or will be difficult to live with. None of that matters when you are called by name and loved unconditionally.

Brothers and sisters in Christ. There are so many ways this world can beat us down. Chew us up and spit us out. The ways we are told we are not good enough, do not belong, or don’t fit in are endless. But this is NOT the message we receive from God. May you hear this very clearly – and of this I have no doubt. God celebrates who we are and wants nothing more than for us to live fully into that beautiful creation of God and in relation with God.

I have called you by name and you are mine.

Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, And, I love you.”

Mahalo ke Akua,

Thanks be to God,


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