The men in jail with whom I read Scripture are often moved by Jesus’ embrace of the thief dying beside him who pleads: “Jesus, remember me when you enter your kingdom.” Jesus’ immediate response, “Today you will be with me in Paradise,” is a promise of personally being included in his company– the best news the thief could hope to hear.
Being called by name and included is synonymous with being valued, wanted and acknowledged: “His sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name, and leads them out” (John 10:3). Jesus told his disciples to “rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 10:20).
It is very common for the men and women in jail to tattoo the names of their kids on their bodies. So God remembers us to the point of tattooing us on his hands: “I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands” (Jer. 49:16). Being remembered and remembering another indicate that we are known, valued and cherished.
Recently I was driving down to a state prison where I minister to Spanish-speaking inmates. Suddenly I thought of the name of a man I used to visit in that prison, a man whom I have known for 19 years. He had a dramatic conversion while in prison, and we had been in regular contact the last two years of his sentence. I met with him a few times during the summer after his release as he’d expressed interest in getting involved in our ministry. When he stopped returning my calls, I stopped by his house several times but never found him home.
I had stopped pursuing this man, but God who never forgets brought him to mind and gave me a strong urge to call him. A close friend of his answered the phone. She told me she was there with him in the hospital and passed the phone to him. I was shocked to hear that he had survived a serious car accident early that morning and was in bad shape. After the Bible study in the prison that day, I visited him in the hospital. Bashed and bruised, with pain throughout his body, he told me he wanted to get back into regular contact with me and return to God. He happily received prayer.
A few days later I visited him at his home. I shared how his name had popped into my head as I was driving and how surprised I was that I’d called on the day he was hospitalized.
“You mean you didn’t know I’d been in an accident?” he asked, even more surprised. He then went on to share how I’d called him at other crazy times.
“One time at like two in the morning you called me from some airport in Europe or somewhere. I had just put on my ski mask and loaded my gun and was ready to go out to do a job. You asked me how I was and if I was staying out of trouble. It creeped me out, and I called the hommies and told them I wasn’t going out.”
Last Monday while teaching a Hebrew-based exegesis course on Isaiah 49, I was moved by the literal translation of Isaiah 49:1: “Listen to me, O islands, and pay attention, you peoples from afar. The Lord called me from the womb; from the body he caused my name to be remembered” [literal translation].
The servant mentioned here is Israel in Babylonian captivity, suffering the consequences of an “offender” people group. The servant is described earlier as blind and deaf, “a people plundered and despoiled; all of them are trapped in caves, or are hidden away in prisons” (Isa. 42:18–20). Yet the Lord had chosen the servant, putting his Spirit upon him to bring justice, to be “a light to the nations, to open blind eyes and bring out prisoners from the dungeon” (Isa. 42:1,6–7).
The downtrodden (but called) servant addresses the pagan peoples, telling how God had caused his name to be remembered from the time he was born—a sign of God’s persistent and personal love. The servant knew this would be good news that would move the far-away people, just as it moved my friend from the jail.
How does God cause people’s names to be remembered today? Who is remembering the names of those often forgotten: offenders, the excluded, and us– people suffering the consequences of personal or other people’s sin?
God’s coming into the world in Jesus shows us that the primary way God acts in the world is through people. God speaks to us, bringing people to mind for whom we’re called to intercede and possibly visit, call or pursue in some way. Gracie and I often think of people, sometimes in the middle of the night, and pray specific prayers we each feel moved to pray—only to learn later that the timing was really important.
May we attune our ears to God’s voice this Advent and respond, stepping into partnership with God’s outreach to others—a pursuit that concretely demonstrates to people that they are remembered, valued and loved.
On another note: Gracie and I were in Toronto with a team from Paris leading a training on holistic liberation. Here are two of our presentations from October 24 (mine is the first hour, followed by that of my friend from Paris, Gilles Boucomont). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8QA9Rc47FBY&list=UUI2UfDEgXYiMOaMowryN_IQ