December 12, 20211……….Rev. Patrick Mecham………3rd Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3: 14-20; Isaiah 12: 2-6
Much of the population of India is divided (unofficially) into castes—classes of people who have different privileges, different job opportunities, and very specific places in the society’s value system. At the bottom of the social scale—below the caste system, in fact, are the people known as Dalit (often referred to as “untouchables” because touching one of folks is believed to make one unclean). These poor people are so reviled in their society that, even though they are supposed to be loyal to the Hindu religion, they are not allowed to enter a Hindu temple! In fact, their shadow may not even touch the threshold of a temple because that would make the whole temple unclean. Dalit children are required to keep their distance from caste children. If they must come close, they must grovel in the dirt and even allow the other children to strike them with the bottoms of their shoes—the ultimate insult in that society. When they grow up, boys can look forward to hauling away dead animals from the streets and spreading human excrement over the fields for a few Rupees per day. Girls can anticipate cleaning the latrines of the caste people and hauling that filth to a big pit outside the village—and their pay is a handful of leftover chapaties tossed to them by their disdainful employers.
You might ask, “Why are the upper caste people so mean to the Dalit people? Are they evil? Doesn’t their religion teach them to be kind?!” Well, in actuality, their religion teaches them that the Dalit people need to be treated with scorn and humiliation—that it’s actually going to help them to be humble and accept their lowly position of servitude so that, when they die, they will be reincarnated higher up in the caste system.
So they see it as their religious duty to humiliate the Dalit people and, if they get “uppity,” to violently put them in their place. (Sadly, many have been killed for not “keeping in their place.”)
Now, I want you to imagine that you have been raised in this climate as a Dalit, an “untouchable.” One day you meet some people used used to be Dalit, but are now Christians. They have an air of quiet self-respect about them, and they are not afraid to talk to you or to touch you—and they convince you that YOU, also, are a child of the King. Once you have accepted this and have become a Christian, you are no longer a Dalit. You have a whole new Dharma (a new destiny), and a whole new world is opened up to you!
- Instead of hauling rotting carcasses or filth, you can go to school through the United Church of North India, and you can go into any field in which you qualify!
- Many girls go into nursing because upper caste girls avoid the nursing field—they don’t want to risk touching an “untouchable” who might be in their hospital!
- The world has opened up to you, and //:you are a new person!:\\
Now, one other thing: I didn’t mention to you that the name given to you by your parents had to be something awful, something degrading. In order to help with your humiliation, you had to be named “Stupid” or “Ugly” or “Unlovable” or some other such name. Well, now that you have become a new person in Christ, it’s time to select a new name! The Rural Presbyterian Church-India has a ceremony for this—it’s called “The Naming Ceremony.” It is a festive worship service in which your ugly old name is thrown away and your beautiful new name becomes your official name!
Taking a new name has the most profound influence on you—it helps you see yourself the way God sees you, rather than the humiliation of your former place in society.
Changing names has a long and honored history. Abram was changed to Abraham, “Father of Many Nations.” Remember Jacob, the grasping younger brother who wrangled his father’s blessing then ran off to start a new chapter in his life? His name was changed to Israel (Isra-El), “One Who Wrestles with God.” I know that many of you changed your name to reflect a new family when you got married. A change of name signifies a change in a person—in fact, a change of one’s name is often part of personal transformation!
Today’s scriptures are a celebration of God’s work to “change our names.” Let’s take a look at what that means for us (and for those we love) and how that relates to the season of Advent as we prepare for Christmas.
We Need a New Name
“I will change your name.
You shall no longer be called
Wounded, outcast, lonely or afraid.
I will change your name.
Your new name shall be
Confidence, Joyfulness, Overcoming One,
Faithfulness, Friend of God,
One who seeks my face.”
I have a sense that I am mostly okay, especially when compared with so many others! I might be willing to have a MINOR course correction, but I shy away from anything drastic. But, sometimes, God moves in drastic ways.
- When we see Dalit people being transformed into joyful children of God;
- When we see folks who have suffered through terrible personal tragedy becoming whole and healthy;
- We see God’s dramatic work of salvation!
While some of us are being drawn up a more gentle slope, others are being hauled up the face of a cliff in a harness! Either way, the Spirit is always drawing us up, higher and higher into New Life.
The prophet Zephaniah records God saying, “I will remove disaster from you so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. I will save the lame and gather the outcast.”
I Will Make You Renowned
Proverbs 22:1 says, “A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” Of course, this is not maintaining a fake image of perfection, but living a life of upright character and genuine Christlikeness–which is a wonderful testimony.
God promises, “I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth…I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth.” This is a message of hope for those who feel that they have let everyone down, have brought shame to their family and to themselves. And, get this: God says I will do it. We can’t do it! What we CAN do is to hope that our lips and our lives can bring praise to God—the God who can do it!
God Is My Salvation
Our passage from Isaiah says, “God is my salvation; I will trust and will not be afraid.” It’s an act of the will to TRUST. And it is a DECISION to not be afraid in fearsome circumstances!
“With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” Christ has already dug the well. You and I simply draw the water of the free gift of salvation, which frees us to reach out, to live fearlessly, and openly, and generously. I love Paul’s description in Philippians 4: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
I finish with that image of peace—which could be the miracle we seek during Advent. We can ask God to change our name from “Frazzled” or “Overspent” to “Peaceful” and “Content.”
Friends, God wants to renew us in love. That’s the promise in Zephaniah—“He will renew you in his love.” Couldn’t we all use some renewal—whether it’s dramatic and drastic or gradual and gentle. Couldn’t we all use some renewal right now?
After all, Jesus was born so that you and I could experience God’s renewal!