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A sermon delivered by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on January 20, 2013.

Isaiah 62:1-5

When I immigrated to the United States, one of the first things I had to consider was what name I wanted other people to call me.  In China and Hong Kong, as in America, parents pay a lot of attention to the names they give to their children.  But unlike here, the Chinese do not usually name their children after their ancestors.  Instead, the parents choose names with the characteristics that they hope for their children.  My Chinese name is Cheuk Koon Hung: Cheuk, my family name, means “outstanding”; Koon means “courage” and Hung means “champion.”  I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether my parents named me well!  After moving to Shreveport, Louisiana as a second grader, it became clear very quickly that it wasn’t a good idea for me to be called either “Koon” or “Hung”! 

When we moved to the United States, I had the opportunity to do something very few native-born Americans get to do – I got to choose my own name.  At first, I chose the name “Micro.”  I have no idea why I chose that name; perhaps I wanted to embrace the fact that I was the smallest student in my class.  For the first two years or so, I was known by my teachers and fellow students as “Micro,” until one day, my Aunt set me aside and told me that while she thought that “Micro” was a fine name, as I grew older and bigger, that name might open me up to ridicule and jokes.  My aunt said, “You might consider the name ‘Michael’; it sounds like ‘Micro’ and it is a very popular name in America.”  I thought that was a good idea, and that’s how “Michael” eventually became my Americanized legal name. 

Names are important.  In the Hebrew Bible, a name often reflected the character or a quality of a person or a nation.  In Genesis, God created the first human being from the dust of the ground, and named him “Adam,” which is a play on the Hebrew word “Adamah” meaning “earth.”  Then God charged Adam to name the creatures of creation.  When God made a covenant with Abram in Genesis 12, God changed the name of Abram to Abraham, changing the meaning of his name from “exalted father” to “exalted father of a multitude of nations.” 

In our Old Testament lesson today, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah in pronouncing a new name to the people of God during a pivotal time in their history.  Isaiah’s name means “salvation is of the Lord,” and he, far more than any other biblical prophet, wrote of salvation.  The word “salvation” is found twenty-six times in Isaiah and only seven times in all the other prophets combined.[1]  Most scholars agree that the book of Isaiah is divided at least into two main parts: the first part containing prophecies of warnings and judgment, spanning chapters 1 to 39; the second part containing words of comfort and peace, spanning chapters 40 to 66.  In our lesson today in Isaiah 62, the warnings of the first part of Isaiah had already come true:  Jerusalem had already been invaded and defeated by the Babylonians.  Jerusalem, the holy city of Zion, was desolated by the Babylonians, and deserted by the Jews as most of the best and the brightest of them were deported into exile. 

The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and the deportation of Jews to Babylon was one of the lowest points in Jewish history.  To make matters worse, the Gentile nations savored the misfortunes of the Jews and kicked them while they were down.  They resorted to calling them hurtful names.  The Babylonians mockingly called the Jews by the name “Deserted” because, they figured, that God had deserted His people and driven them away from their home.  The Gentiles also named the promised land “Desolate” because it was in a state of bleak and dismal emptiness.  These were cruel names, but no one could really dispute them.  As a matter of fact, this pitiful state was foretold by the Lord in the first part of Isaiah, when chapter one says: “Your country is desolate, your cities burned with fire; your fields are being stripped by foreigners right before you, laid waste as when overthrown by strangers.”[2]  Later in Isaiah chapter 6, God also predicted that the Jews would not be open to Isaiah’s prophetic message “until the cities lie ruined and without inhabitant, until the houses are left deserted and the fields ruined and ravaged, until the LORD has sent everyone far away and the land is utterly forsaken.”

There’s an old saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  In my experience, that saying is not true.  Sticks, stones and words have the ability to hurt.  In fact, when sticks and stones break a person’s bones, others can see either the break or the bruises, and they typically rush in with sympathy to find a doctor to mend the broken places.  But disparaging words and mocking names, when used as weapons, can have the power to hurt us deeply, so deeply that most people don’t readily see the wounds and brokenness caused by those words.  Unfortunately, we live in a society where there is still a stigma for needing professional help for our mental and emotional health.  We call doctors who heal broken bones “surgeons,” but some derisively label doctors who heal broken emotions “shrinks.”  We call people who need surgeons “patients,” but some wrongly label people who need psychiatrists “crazy” or “weak.”  We too, without much thought, often kick hurting people when they are down. 

Sometimes, it is the people who are closest to us who label us.  Other times, people intentionally use hurtful names as a way to intimate and oppress.  As Martin Luther King Jr. day approaches tomorrow, I think of all the names used to intimidate those fighting for civil rights.  In either case, those names hurt.  Names such as:

“good for nothing,”

“idiot,”

“lazy,”

“ugly,”

“loser,”

“stupid,”

“liar,”

“fatso,”

“black sheep.”

These names might merely be pure projection, or they might have some semblance of reality.  But the real tragedy is that, sometimes, when people hear such names, they actually begin to believe that these descriptions accurately define their identity and character.  They no longer need other people to describe them because they begin to define themselves: “My given name is Michael, but you can call me ‘Loser’ (because I am a loser).”  “My given name is Jane, but my real name is ‘Good for Nothing’ (because I am good for nothing).”  When that happens, those descriptions become self-fulfilling prophecies into the kind of people we will be in the future. 

I wonder if that was what’s happening to God’s people, the nation of Judah, during this low point in their history.  God had accurately described what was going to happen to them because of their unfaithfulness, their failure to champion justice for the weak and the poor, their corruption and their sinfulness.  We cannot whitewash the role that Judah played in her own downfall.  But on this new day, God was now trying to communicate that even though “deserted” and “desolate” accurately described Judah’s current situation, those terms do not define her identity, and those terms should not be self-fulfilling prophecies for her future.  

So in Isaiah 62, God had a message to proclaim, and God was not going to rest or keep silent until everyone, including Judah, can see her vindication and salvation.  God was pronouncing an epiphany, a manifestation or revelation of God’s glory that will save and deliver God’s people even as they have hit rock bottom.  In the midst of their dire situation, God will give His people a new name and a new future.  No longer will they be called “Deserted” and their land “Desolate,” but they will be called “Hephzibah,” and their land “Beulah.”  Hephzibah means “My Delight is in her,” and “Beulah” literally means “married woman.”  Like a bridegroom who delights in his bride on their wedding day, God delights in His people.  

When a person or a group comes to believe and internalize a hurtful name or identity, it often takes a while to undo that identity.  Likewise, we see that God, throughout the Bible, has not been resting or keeping silent in proclaiming our new name.  Through Isaiah, God names us, “My Delight.”  During Jesus’ baptism and ours, our Heavenly Father names us “My Child.”  Paul identifies the Church as “the Bride of Christ.”  Jesus called his disciples “My Friends.” 

As we begin 2013, it is time for us to hear and embrace a new name for a new year.  While we are a flawed and sinful people, while we have made mistakes, and while we may still be suffering from the consequences of our sin, the good news is that in Christ, we do not have to be defined by our mistakes, our sins, our flaws, or by what other people call us.   Even in the midst of our failures, God does not call us “My Disappointment.”  Instead, God gives us a new name: “My Delight.”  In the midst of our sin, God does not call us “My Condemned.”  Instead, because of work of Christ, God gives us a new name: “My Child.”   In the midst of our flaws, God does not call the Church “My Unfaithful.”  Instead God gives us a new name: “My Bride.”  And even though He is our Lord, Jesus does not call his followers “My Servants.”  Instead, Jesus names us “My Friends.” 

Friends, in the midst of all the names that other people call us, and all the labels we put on ourselves, hear and embrace this name that God has given to us for this new year: You are “My Delight.”  Amen.

[1] Keith Sharp, “Introduction to Isaiah,” http://www.christistheway.com/2003/a03a05ba.html.

[2] chapter 1 verse 7

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