God is Calling Us By Name
Scripture: Isaiah 45:1-7
Dear Lord, help us to listen to your quiet voice this morning….calling us by name.
As I was wandering through the lectionary, to prepare for this morning, I found myself a bit mired in the Isaiah passage. It was a time of war upon war in the middle East…(nothing new there!), the Jewish diaspora is still stuck in Babylon, decades after their capture by Nebuchadnezzar, and far away Jerusalem still lay in ruins, like a barren wilderness. Frankly, I felt like a girl looking for love in all the wrong places! But, it was funny how in reading this passage, I was somehow held captive myself, to a certain repetition of phrases that seemed to show up in bold type when I read:
“It is I, the Lord, the God of Israel who call you by your name…and then few verses later, repeating: “I call you by name ~ I “surname” you, (give you my family name), though you do not know me.” Here is God’s voice, spoken through the prophet Isaiah ~ giving his “family” name to someone that doesn’t even know him! I had to go back again and again…to figure out what this meant and why this moved me!
Now, I know I am reading King Cyrus’s mail here! And I know that thing about hermeneutics. I need to, slow down to get the context, the place, the time & the culture straight, before I go gallivanting off. I need to watch the prequel, before I compose a sequel! So…what was God saying to Cyrus? this Great Persian superhero, this genius of a military man who neither knew, nor acknowledged Yahweh ~ the God of Israel.
In our reading ~ “The Lord says, "I have grasped your hand, I myself will prepare your way, leveling mountains and hills. I will break down bronze gates and smash their iron bars. God is basically saying I will leap tall buildings and bend steel with my bare hands ~ well, almost! And God continues in a solemn tone… “I will give you the treasures of darkness, and riches hidden in secret places; so that, You (Cyrus) may know,“It is I, the Lord, the God of Israel, who call you by your name!
God seems to be doing a new thing here: Summoning Cyrus, an unbeliever, to be used as God’s own anointed one, (this is clearly against the rules; this was a term reserved ONLY for chosen Israelite rulers or priests).
Whoa…I needed some help here.
So, I dove into some seminary notes & theological articles until I was “deep in the weeds…of dogma & debate” and way out of my depth. So, I re-typed my google search: “The history of Cyrus for Children!” (I’ve done this before) and continued to slowly unwrap the beautiful “story” of Cyrus. I need a story.
Since Cyrus’ name has been sorely bandied about these last few years, in our political/religious media, it felt good to do some fact-checking for my own mind, and learn more about this person. ~ He was born, in what is now Iran, almost 600 years before Christ. I learned that Cyrus’ grandfather and his father were powerful Kings over his homeland and that the legends say his childhood was full of trauma. But in spite of this hazardous youth, he eventually and brilliantly, rose up to rule and greatly surpass his Father’s kingdom. In time, conquering and subduing the many surrounding warring tribes: conquering those pesky Medes and Lydians, in fact so many people and lands that they called him Cyrus the GREAT whose huge Persian Empire, covered all of Mesopotamia and beyond… the largest empire that had yet existed! He was still a warrior and ruthless, but I discovered also a surprisingly wise statesman and diplomat. Here is just a sample quotes of what I found out:
*After defeating his enemies, he did not seek to torture or to deport them. Once the land was established, he allowed all subjects to participate in governance. He was an astute & teachable leader freely adopting the good customs of other countries. He encouraged diversity in his lands, showing respect to different tribes, languages, customs and religions of those he conquered and who chose to remain under his rule. He was a community builder. He was also famous for understanding infrastructure. He built a vast network of roads to help the flow of communication, supplies and services across his vast Kingdom. He was getting ready for the internet, no doubt.
So it seems here God is saying: I see you, Cyrus! I’ve been watching you! I know you. I see your heart. Before you even believe in me, I am calling you…by name… Now, I need you to get my people out of Babylon ~ and send them home? And sure enough, as Isaiah prophesied, Cyrus’ army arrived in Oct. of 539 BC to free all of Babylon ~ not just the inhabitants, but nearly 50,000 Jewish captives. And the story goes on throughout scripture to tell how Cyrus arranged their safe passage home. I can’t help but wish he were here today! We could use a Cyrus right now!
Well, that’s the end of the short history lesson. I actually had a couple more pages to read but Jack said “CUT!” (you can thank him later!)
So now, I need to return to my point. You know, the part that “got me!” back there, where God calls Cyrus by name! I think that’s how Spirit works…how she “catches us” while we read, with a little ache or longing in our own hearts, or an invitation, barely heard. It might be just through a word or a line, and like today, it could be set in “a story” a time of war, in a country far away, and a time long ago…because scripture can transform itself to read like a poem or like the lyrics of a love song to the receiver. And though, you and I bear no resemblance to the famous and powerful Cyrus this morning, God has always had a reputation for calling his people by name! Especially those who think they are not in the family or are the least in the family or the worst-behaved in the family!
Let’s face it, “names” are a thing with God. God is into taxonomy! In Genesis, right off the bat, we read, that God instructed Adam to name all the species he created! So, naming our pets (and our chickens) is actually a biblical practice! And St. Luke’s gets bonus-points in this area! You know how to celebrate the Feast of St. Francis. Y’all are doing good!
And of course, We love to name our babies, sometimes after our aunts, or grandfathers, (my great-niece just named her baby girl after my grandfather - she’s called Harvey!) I’m not making this up! Or we name our children after famous Bible characters, or movie stars or rock stars - or star-signs in the 60’s! And if we have no babies, we can name our trucks or boats, or RV’s, (like Roll-y!) Like God, we are all little taxonomists! We take after our Father.
But…in all this, there is a dark side as well…as mentioned in Isaiah!
And anyone who endured Elementary school and Jr. High, knew how it felt to have your name changed by an ugly nickname or a slur. Or to be black and only hear your name as “boy” or much worse! And our Native Americans ancestors lost their beautiful names, and songs and languages. How many immigrants had to bear losing or changing their name at Ellis Island. Some of our early scientists, authors, musicians & artists couldn’t even use their names but adopted psedonyms - or got no attribute at all! Only “anonymous” for a name, remaining unknown and unacknowledged because they were women or Black…or both. The list of those robbed of their names and their humanity…is too long to recite here! Not that long ago, we all saw the banners that were lifted by the activists during the George Floyd marches…that read: “Say Their Names!” And we were confronted with a reality hidden to some white folks. Our names represent personhood, our true identity… So much so, that our LGBTQ siblings may choose to change their names, and their pronouns to “become” their true and authentic selves, the one God knows and recognizes, even when others don’t - or won’t.
It is not hard to find, throughout scripture, a long history of a God who gave new names to those who no longer “fit” their birth names ~ often thru a conversion from dark to light…think Saul to Paul…or a new vocation, Abraham & Sara, or a new vision Jacob becoming Israel. And there are more: Hosea, Naomi, Solomon, Peter…
*Here I must insert: my favorite name change: from Cervante’s “Don Quixote de la Mancha” (whether the book, the film or play), is when the crazy knight bestows on the whore, Aldonza, a new name: calling her Dulcinea! (“Sweet one”) I cry, every time I see that part!
Because, here again, is this act of grace, Someone who loves you, as you are, before you’ve changed, gives you a new name, and sees a life for you that you cannot imagine for yourself! You are God’s “intention.” His love calls you to relationship. God is always revealing a story of family, an ancestry, both human and divine….of a continuity that is still unfolding…over millenia and centuries and the Seasons, weeks and days…..right up to this present moment….
Because, like Cyrus…God is calling us by name….
So when we hear the meditation bell ring in a minute….let’s sit very still….sshhhhh….and listen for our names…