In the series “More to Life”

Isaiah 43:1; Isaiah 49:1; Luke 9:18-20

There’s a story told about a robber who broke into a house one night.  As he began to sack up all the valuable electronics, in the darkness behind him, he heard a voice say, “Jesus is watching you.”  It repeated, “Jesus is watching you.”  The robber turned around and shined his flashlight in the direction of the voice, revealing a parrot in a cage there.    

The robber asked the parrot, “What’s your name?”

The parrot replied, “Moses, Moses.”  The robber thought to himself, “What kind of people name a parrot Moses?  Before returning to his thievery, he asked the parrot, “Well then, who is Jesus?”

The bird answered, “150-lb. Rottweiler. 150-lb. Rottweiler.”  It’s important to know a name.

One of my on-again, off-again hobbies over the years has been genealogy.  It’s fun tracing family history and seeing where my name comes from.  My Motter ancestor immigrated to the American colonies in 1751 on a ship from Rotterdam, arriving in Philadelphia and settling in southeast Pennsylvania. A later ancestor owned a plantation in western Maryland, and yes, slaves. One of his sons, who he disowned in his will, my direct ancestor, moved to west central Ohio, where my family has lived ever since.

Birth certificates, death certificates, marriage licenses, in some cases old church Baptism records, as well as online databases with census, property and Social Security records can be key to unlocking family history.

But names aren’t just what you find on your birth certificate or Social Security card.  A bully at school calls other kids names on the playground – or today, over social media.  He or she combines letters and sounds in vicious ways that make another child feel worthless.

Like me, you were probably told as a child, or perhaps you have used the old rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  It’s intended to help, but we all know the truth – words can hurt and do indeed hurt very deeply. When someone calls you names, they assault your identity and sense of self, and there is no getting around that pain.

It’s not just the school or social media bully that calls names.  Too often, we call ourselves names, and these names hurt, too.  Sometimes when we look at ourselves in the mirror, all kinds of names come to mind.  Do you think of your given name?  Or does some other label or tag first come to mind?  Names such as:  Old; too young; skinny; fat; fake; insecure; incompetent; worthless; lazy; failure; dumb; loser; unworthy; unloved. 

Maybe you have never used one of these names. Maybe you look in the mirror and smile.  If you don’t use labels like these now, there may have been a time in your life that you did use hurtful words to name yourself.  You might replay a negative event in your past and continue to play it again and again.  You call yourself names that hurt, and the destructive cycle continues. Soon that’s all you can see about yourself; your self-esteem gets lower and lower.  And often, others pile on, even siblings, parents, family members and peers reinforce those names by their words, their actions, their indifference, or their cruelty.  Names have power. 

Before long, we believe those names we call ourselves – or that others label us – and we forget who we are.  Someone once said that if you don’t know who you are, someone will tell you.  That’s why knowing who we are is important.

Comedian Lily Tomlin once said, “I’ve always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific.”

In our verse from Isaiah 49, the prophet hears God’s response to his question about who and what he is.  He proclaimed, “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb he named me” (Isaiah 49:1).  The prophet has been known and named by God and was called by God into a ministry of prophecy from before birth.

Out of that sense of call, he spoke to his exiled and hurting community these words:  “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:  Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1).

God spoke those words not only to the prophet and his community 2,500 years ago, but God also says them to you, to tell you who and whose you are.  In his book Victory of the Darkness, author Neil Anderson offers a list of scripture-based affirmations – truths God declares about us.  In that spirit, read these two affirmations based on these verses aloud with me:

  • “The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb God named me.”
  • “God created me, God formed me: I will not fear for God has redeemed me; God has called me by name; I belong to God.”

In the creation story, we are reminded that God created human beings in God’s own image and likeness.  That means that everyone you ever encounter, engage with, share life with, agree or disagree with, love or feel indifferent toward, even those bullies who seek to hurt you – we’ve all been created in God’s image.  Even more, in creation, God looked at humans and pronounced them “very good” – not just “good,” as on the other days of creation, but “very good.”

Read this affirmation, this truth based on scripture about who you are: “I am created in God’s own image, and God says I am very good.”

Let that sink in for a moment.  Someone listening to this may be thinking, “But that’s not true for me, because of what I’ve done or what’s been done to me.  Doesn’t God know that?”

Yes, God knows about that, but that doesn’t change the truth of God’s word.

In our reading from the New Testament Gospel of Luke, we heard about a moment when Jesus asked his disciples who the people thought he was.  They said, “John the Baptist, Elijah or another ancient prophet.”  Then Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?”  His disciple Peter responded, “The Messiah of God” (Luke 9:18-20).

Now did Jesus really need to find out from others who he is?  Not at all.  In fact, if he had listened to the peoples’ voices, he would have been less than he actually was.  At his baptism, a voice from heaven said to Jesus, “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well-pleased” (Luke 3:21-22).  At the start of his ministry, Jesus already knew who and what he was.  He was God’s own Son, the Beloved, and before he’d ever done anything, God was already pleased with him. His identity was confirmed for him.

I wonder how often Jesus thought back to his baptism, especially when faced with challenges and adversity.  Right after he was baptized, Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights.  It was there that he was tempted to take on a different identity and be less than he was.

Because Jesus knew who he was, he understood what God called him to accomplish. He made it through the wilderness experience.  He made it through all the times the religious leaders challenged him. Even as Jesus suffered on the cross, Jesus was able to go through it all because he knew who he was truly was.

If that’s true for Jesus, then it’s true for us, too.  As we go through life, we can be pulled in so many different directions. Our world is more than willing to name us and to tell us who we are if we don’t already know who we are.

Tara Woodard Lehman is a Christian blogger, Presbyterian pastor and former chaplain at Princeton.  In one of her blogs, she describes a conversation with a college student who was spiritual but suspicious of organized religion. (And friends, about a third of all adults and a majority of adults under age 30 hold that view.)

He asked her, “I get why you’re into being spiritual and helping people, but why bother with church? I just don’t get that part. Do you really think you need it?”  He went on to talk about how irrelevant the Church is.  From his perspective, everything the Church once provided is available in secular life.

As Tara reflected on his question about why bother with church since you can find much of the same things in other places, she offers this thoughtful response.

“After giving it much consideration, I’ve decided that there is at least one very good reason why I need Church: I have a really bad memory.

     It’s true. I have a terrible memory. Especially when it comes to remembering who I am as a child of God. Especially when it comes to remembering what God has done, and continues to do, in and through Jesus Christ.

     I forget who I am. I forget who God is. I forget God’s epic story of redemption and liberation and renewal and beauty and hope.

     I forget. A lot.

     On top of that, there are a gazillion other demands and voices that are vying for my attention all the time.

     So I admit it. I get tired. And I get distracted. And more often than not, I forget.

     I need church, because church reminds me of everything that’s important.”[1]

In the movie The Help, a black maid named Aibileen cares for a little white girl whose name is Mae Mobley Leefort. Aibileen sees the child hurt over and over again by the child’s mother. Aibileenn decides to do something about it.

Every day, she tells the young child something good about herself. In one scene, Aibileen is holding the baby girl and saying these words to her: “You a smart girl. You a kind girl, Mae Mobley. You hear me? You is kind, you is smart, you is important!”

As soon as the girl learns to talk, Aibileen has her repeat this self-affirmation.  When Aibileen is forced to leave the household, she reminds Mae Mobley of these words one last time.  “You is kind, you is smart, you is important!”

The world around us tries to define who we are, often in negative, hurtful terms, or at least in naming us less than we are.  Do you know your name?  God does.  In 1 John 3, the writer offers this affirmation to his community. He writes: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now (emphases added).

As a follower of Jesus Christ, this is your true name:  Child of God.  When you start to call yourself by those old negative names the world calls you, remember who you really are – Child of God. 


[1] “Do You Really Need Church?”, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/do-you-really-need-church_b_3751147, 08/14/2013, updated 12/06/2017. Accessed 09/14/2019.

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