The God who calls us by name

Sermon Date: 
26 Sep 2010
Bible Base: 
Romans 9

David Jeans

Names are very important to us, and I wish I was better at remembering names. When I had just become Acting Principal of the Church Army College I had to go down to Lambeth Palace for a meeting of Theological College Principals chaired by the then Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey. Some 14 years earlier George had been the Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, where I trained for ordained ministry. Now to my embarrassment, because the train I was supposed to catch was cancelled I turned up late for the meeting. But George came over to me at lunch and said ‘Great to see you David, how are Viv and the children?’. That made me feel a lot better!
The fact that someone knows us by name is always a great encouragement. It makes us feel valued and appreciated. It makes us feel that we have in some way registered with people, that our being here matters.
I love that song ‘I have a maker’ – he knows my name. Isaiah 40 speaks of the great God of the universe who calls the stars by name and not one of them is missing. But the Bible goes beyond that, and Jesus goes beyond that. The great God of the universe not only knows the stars by name – he knows us by name – he knows you by name, he knows me by name. A couple of weeks ago we heard Jesus comparing God to a shepherd who loses one of his sheep and searches for it until he finds it. When we go missing he notices – whether that’s a physical absence or just an absence in spirit. When we neglect our relationship with him he notices – he knows we have gone missing, and he searches for us until he finds us.
In his search for us he calls us by name. He is the shepherd who knows his sheep by name – he calls them and they recognise his voice. Possibly mostly, when we have lost our way. Certainly for myself, the times I have been most aware of God calling me have been times of change when I needed to take a different path. Though of course, God continues to speak to us and to call us in the ordinary times - through a Bible verse coming in to our minds, through the words of a song, through the words of a friend.
He knows us by name – he cares about us , he values us. In our reading from John, he cares about us so much that he lays down his life for us. There is a line in a hymn we will have later which says ‘my name is written on his hands, my name is hidden in his heart’. Our names are written on his wounded hands because he lay down his life for us.
So God calling us by name says that God knows us, God cares about us, God loves us, God accepts us. We matter to God.
But there is more to the God who knows us by name than that. For the God who knows us by name also gives us new names. This happens quite often in the Old Testament. Abram (which means ‘exalted father’) is given the new name of Abraham by God in Genesis 17. Abraham means ‘father of many nations’ – the name demonstrates God’s new purpose for Abraham. His wife Sarai is given the new name of Sarah – which means she laughs – she laughs because having thought she could not have children she has a son Isaac in old age – part of God’s plan to bless her and to bless the whole world.  Jacob is given the new name of Israel – which means ‘he struggles with God’ – which was true of Jacob himself and also of the nation of Israel which he fathered.  Jesus gives Simon the new name of ‘Peter’ (which means ‘rock’) because his expression of faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God is the rock upon which Jesus will build his church. God gives new names which express his relationship with people, and which look forward to the person they will become.
One of my favourite examples of this new naming is in Romans 9, where Paul quotes the Old Testament prophet Hosea. In Romans 9 Paul is discussing the changed situation that God is calling Gentiles, that is non-Jews, to become his people whereas in the Old Testament the Jews are seen as the people called to be God’s people.  The language Paul uses is difficult for us (and I suspect has been much misunderstood and misinterpreted). At its heart is the idea that God is willing to call those called ‘not my people’ ‘my people’. He is willing to call those called ‘not loved’ ‘loved’. (For those interested in such things my own view is that the vessels of wrath in v 22 are the same as the vessels of mercy in v 23 – they might be fit for destruction but God wants them to receive mercy and glory. Their destruction is not inevitable and is not God’s will. )
So God does not want people to remain ‘not his people’ or to feel ‘not loved’. God calls them to become ‘his people’ and to become ‘loved’.  If you feel far from God, not loved by God, that you are not the sort of person God would want to know – think again! God deals in calling those not his people to be his people; God calls those who do not feel loved by him to become his beloved. In v 26 of Romans 9 God calls those not his people to become children of the living God.
God calls us by name – he knows us as we are in the present (and of course knows and forgives our past). But he also wants to give us new names because he knows the people he wants us to become. He wanted Abraham to be a father of many nations, he wanted Sarah to have the joy of a son through whom all nations would be blessed, he wanted Simon to become Peter the rock. And he wanted Jesus to be called Jesus because he would save his people from their sins. What does God want you to become? What new name does he want to give you?
One of my favourite verses in the New Testament is in Revelation chapter two in one of the letters to the churches that the early part of Revelation contains.  At the end of each of these short letters Jesus gives a promise to those who overcome. In Revelation 2:17 the promise is this:- ‘To the one who conquers I will give a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no-one knows except the one who receives it.’ Has anyone here had a pet name or a nick name– from their parents, their husband/wife, perhaps from school? (Anyone willing to share it?)  
Pet names are usually a sign of love – nicknames are a bit more ambiguous! I love the idea that God has a pet name for me and a pet name for you. A name that is about the person he wants you to become. When I was at Trinity someone had a prophecy about me. This person said I would become an evangelist – and I thought yeah right, because most evangelists I know are very black and white people whereas I have always had lots of questions and lots of grey areas. But he went on to say I would become an evangelist of love. Which is about right because the heart of what I always want to say about God is that he is a God of love, a God of mercy and compassion a good who is always more ready to forgive than we are. I hope that my new name is something to do with God being a God of love, mercy, compassion and grace.

So - God loves you; God calls you by name, knows you through and through and cares for you. And God knows what he wants you to become, and will help you to become it. He has a new name and will delight to help you grow into it. What might your new name be?