January 17, 2016 Isaiah 62: 1-5, 10-12
I remember when Northminster changed its name to New Life Community Presbyterian Church. (I think the Presbyterian is still in there.) It was after their merger with Brighton-McClure Presbyterian Church. They wanted a fresh start as a united congregation, and they thought that a new name would give them that. As I recall, they let everyone in the congregation propose possible names, and they collected a long list of suggestions. Then everyone voted on the names. After each vote, the name with the least support was eliminated. The whole process took quite a while, but eventually they determined that their new name would be New Life Community. It was all very democratic. Of course, I still think of that church as Northminster, and I expect that many of you do too.
Even so, taking a new name is a significant act for a community of faith. It needs to be something that you can hang your hat on, so to speak. It has to say something about who you are and what is important. Generally speaking, at least in previous generations, Presbyterians were never very creative in choosing names for their churches. In Pittsburgh, for example, a lot of our churches were simply numbered. 1st Presbyterian Church, 2nd Presbyterian Church, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th… I don’t even know how many numbered churches we had back in the day. I can see wanting to be 1st Presbyterian Church; that congregation is still going strong in downtown Pittsburgh. But why would you want to be 3rd, or 4th, or 6th? I know those three are still in operation. I wonder what their numerical names mean to them. Bellevue United Presbyterian Church at least connects us to a place and a community. Perhaps our name means that we are here for Bellevue; our ministry is to and for the people in this borough, and most of our members live here. Fair enough. At least we’re more than just a number.
In our Old Testament text from the prophet Isaiah we read about several new names that were suggested for the children of Israel. Why did they need a new name? What was wrong with ‘Israel’? Nothing was actually wrong with the name ‘Israel’, and it was not being jettisoned in favor of a new name that was more flashy. But Israel’s situation was about to change drastically, in a good way, and the prophet Isaiah was using these new names as a sign of their radical change of fortune. And so he says to the children of Israel, “you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.”
That is significant, because it wasn’t like what Northminster did in collecting ideas for a new name that appealed to them and then voting on them until a winning name was chosen. The process that Isaiah described was in no way democratic. The new name was God’s idea and the change of situation was due entirely to God’s acts on behalf of Israel.
We need to get a little historical context for this declaration of Israel’s new names. This part of the book of Isaiah was written when the Babylonian exile was coming to an end. Apart from some poor and powerless people who had been left behind in the ruined city of Jerusalem, all of the children of Israel were living as captives far from home in Babylon. This exile was God’s punishment because the people had been unfaithful. But now that painful chapter in Israel’s history was ending, and God was preparing to lead the people home. This is what Isaiah was writing about, and he was using the change of names to illustrate what this amazing turn of events would mean for the people.
“You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate,” Isaiah wrote. “You shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married.” So the old names of Forsaken and Desolate no longer applied. Israel’s new names reflected the renewed relationship that God was establishing with his people. This new relationship would be like a marriage with Israel as the bride and God himself as the bridegroom. Now Israel would go by the names Hephzibah, which translated means My Delight Is in Her, and Beulah, which means Married. Then, toward the end of our reading even more new names are suggested. The exiles would now be called The Holy People and The Redeemed of the Lord. And Jerusalem itself would be called Sought Out and A City Not Forsaken.
In the strength and promise of these new names, the exiles would cross vast desert wastes to return home. In the power of these new names even the forsaken ones who had been left behind because the Babylonians had no use for them, those weak and abandoned people are told, “Go through, go through the gates, prepare the way for the people; build up, build up the highway, clear it of stones…” This is the power of the names that describe what God was about to do. God would lead his people home; God would prepare the way for his people to return.
A new name signals a new beginning. The poor and destitute people of Jerusalem were told to lift up an ensign, a flag that would proclaim that God was rallying his people again, re-naming them, and giving them a surprising new future. The new names described that new and hopeful future: My Delight Is in Her, Married, The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord, Sought Out, and A City Not Forsaken. After everything that had happened to them, they never thought that a new name, a fresh start, a renewed relationship with God was possible. But God supplied the new names, and through the powerful acts of God, a new future was begun.
Now we are not in exile; we are not forsaken or desolate. But we are at a point of change. We are all used to things as they are now, but change is inevitable. Who will we be when this change takes place? What will our relationship with God look like? What will we be called to do? What will our new ‘name’ be?
These are questions that you will have to answer before you call a new pastor. You will be asked to reflect on all aspects of your ministry, your relationship with the community of Bellevue, your participation in the work of the broader church, your sense of identity as a congregation, and your hopes for the future. Who are you? And who is God calling you to become?
Now this is not an opportunity for you to go all democratic. There is a limit to how much you can truly discern through a series of votes, or demographic studies of the Borough, or by restating mission statements, or revamping committees. None of that is necessarily unhelpful in the long run, but it will not give you your new name and it will not guarantee your future. Only God can do that. Only God can give you your name and your mission, your fresh start and a renewed relationship with God. “You shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.”
I wonder what new name the Lord might assign to our congregation. God might decide to name you Chosen and Sent, or Blessed in Christ, or Faith Family, or Spirit-Led, or … well, we could imagine all sorts of possible names that God might choose for this church. One thing is certain. This new name will not signify how special we are, but how faithful God is, and how God is choosing to relate to us now and in the future. Just as Israel was still called Israel, our church will still be called Bellevue United Presbyterian Church, but your ‘name’, who God is calling you to be, will be changed. God is not finished with you yet. There is no doubt about that.
Through all of the years of Israel’s exile, God remained faithful to his covenant promises. Israel’s new names and new future were God’s gift to the people he loved, people he would not forsake. Surely, we can trust in those same promises. God will not forsake you. We can be sure that God is waiting to bestow on you a new name, a new purpose, and a renewed ministry. But it’s not our place to vote on that new name that describes who we are and who we are becoming. That is not something that the congregation gets to choose, or build, or manage. It is something that is revealed, something that is received, something that you will discern through prayer, and more prayer, and more prayer. The future is not in your hands. Our new name, the name that reveals the next chapter in the life of our congregation, is a God-given name. The good news is that the future is in God’s hands, and God is faithful.