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Sunday, January 1, 2012

What's In a Name?

We’re given the name of the Triune God in our baptism, marked with “Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” and, adopted as God’s children, we are called to live into that name in the world and be a part of God’s saving work in Jesus.

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen, Feast of the Name of Jesus; texts: Luke 2:15-21; Galatians 4:4-7; Numbers 6:22-27

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen

So here’s a little test on New Year’s Day, the feast day celebrating the name of Jesus.  Do you know what your name means?  Question two: do you know if your parents chose that name for its meaning or for other reasons?  We spent a lot of time thinking about names for our children.  We wanted Biblical names, but not just any Biblical names.  I mean, I’ve always loved the name “Maher-shalal-hash-baz” (Is. 8:1), which means “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens,” but that’s a lot for a kindergartener to learn how to spell.  And actually, part of our choosing was that we wanted the people in the Bible whose names we used to be good people, too, possible role models, as well as having their names mean something special.  With their middle names, we weren’t as concerned about the meaning of the names as much as the people for whom they were named – we used family names in the middle, and again, we had lots of reasons why we chose the ones we did.  There is much to a name.

And so in our world, there is much to a name, especially last names.  In many places in the past, though our nation is supposedly a melting pot, if the name you bore was of a different immigrant nationality than your beloved, his or her parents would not approve of the match.  (My mother’s mother was suspicious of Swedes, among others.  Maybe you have stories from back in your family’s history, too.)  It’s probably less so today, at least in some circles.  But your name still matters.  Who you are, where you came from, what name you bear, is very important.  And your name is also your reputation – especially in small towns.  If your family name somehow was associated with scandal or with some shame, it could be very hard to be taken seriously or respected in certain communities.  And even today there are now websites devoted to making sure your online reputation, your “name,” is kept clean.

Today is eight days after Christmas.  Eight days after birth, Jewish boys are circumcised and named.  So today we celebrate that momentous event in the life of the Son of God: he is claimed as a part of the covenant people, and he is named with the name the angel gave his parents before his birth.  “Jesus,” or in Aramaic, “Yeshua.”  The Hebrew is also familiar, “Joshua.”  Little Yeshi.  It was a common name, a name of a hero of the people.  But it also had a meaning of its own: “Yahweh saves.”  “The LORD saves” – that’s the name this little boy gets.

For us, the equivalent of Jesus’ circumcision and naming happens at our baptism, especially if we are baptized as babies.  We have to wait a week to celebrate Jesus’ baptism, and another naming, this time as he is an adult, beginning his ministry.  At eight days old, it’s not clear that anyone would have read anything into Jesus’ name other than that it was familiar and well-loved.  But that’s the interesting thing: this little boy is named “the LORD saves,” and he will come to live that name in the world.  Even if at this point in his life, it’s more a secret identity.  For us, as we are baptized into the very name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Paul reminds us today we, too, were adopted as children of God and heirs of the promise, we, too, are brought into the covenant people.  The question is, is this also a secret identity for us?  Or will we bear God’s name into the world in a significant way?

The idea of one’s true identity being somewhat hidden is a classic one in literature.

I love fairy tales; I love to read them still.  And naming is very important to a fairy tale.  Who you are, what your true identity is.  There are lots of stories of children of kings and queens being raised in a poor home, who then come into their identity, their true reality, their true name.

But this flows throughout literature.  Think of Dickens’ Great Expectations.  The whole book deals with how the main character, Pip, discovers who he truly is.  He tries to be different things, but he has to discover his true identity, the person he really is, not the image he wishes he could be.

The thing about fairy tales is that, whether anyone else ever knows the true identity of the person, that person often does.  And it affects how they live in the world, even with a hidden identity.  Snow White lives as a princess with grace and kindness, though exiled to a cottage in the forest.  Cinderella is a lovely, kind girl, like the noble-born child she is, even though she is reduced to slavery by her stepmother and stepsisters.  They all live according to their true identity.

This is what Jesus models for us: he lives his identity, his reality, his name in the world.  He embodies “the LORD saves.”

The Jewish man Yeshua, as we will hear next week, is identified in his baptism as the beloved Son of God.  Whatever he did in his first decades of life, from that point he goes on to do the ministry of a child of God – bringing God’s love into the world in his own person.  He was a poor, wandering preacher.  But he was the Son of God.  And it affected all he was, all he did, all he said.

And in dying and rising from death, he fulfilled the promise of this day, of his naming: as the Son of God, named Jesus, he saved the world.  Which makes our calling on this day pretty important, too: we claim to follow this Yeshua, this “LORD saves,” this Jesus.  And so we’re called to live up to our name.

It’s interesting to me that the Numbers 6 passage giving us our benediction is chosen for this day.  But it’s no accident: here the LORD calls Aaron to place the very name of God in blessing on the people.  In doing this, the LORD God is claiming the people, marking them with his name as a blessing, but also as a call.

It’s exactly our reality in our baptism – we are also linked forever to the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  And if we, too, like Jesus, are children of God, named for God, we, too, like Jesus, are called to live that identity.

Christian life turns out not to be about trying to be like somebody, copying Jesus – it’s actually about being somebody: children of the King of the universe.  Whatever name your parents gave you, this name is on your brow, the name of the LORD God.  That is what living your name is all about: living in the joy of knowing you are God’s child, as Paul shares.  Living with the hope that this Jesus not only saves the world, but saves you, loves you.  And living with the reality that your true identity is “child of God.”  You are marked with the name of the Triune God, and for good or for ill you bear that name as a witness in the world.

Ultimately, Jesus lived out his name.  It no longer was a secret, if it ever was when he was a child.  For us, that’s our challenge, to live up to the name given us in such a way that it’s no secret we’ve been adopted by God and given God’s call to love the world through our Lord Jesus.  So that in all we do and all we say, in all we are, we are known to be children of the God who loves the world with an undying love.

Some names seem too big for children to carry.

So we shorten them (although in my family, we never did):  At first a big name like Catherine, or Elizabeth, or William, might sound strange when put on a tiny infant.  Of course, it could be Maher-shalal-hash-baz.  Or one of my favorites, Zaphenath-paneah.  (That was the patriarch Joseph’s Egyptian name.)

But they grow into it, until you can’t imagine them being anything else.  And you and I have been given the name Christian.  Child of God.  We bear the Triune God’s name into the world.  It’s too big for us, perhaps.  But we’re all growing into that name, that precious name which is ours in baptism.  And through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we will grow into the name until it fits us, or we fit it.  In the meantime, more and more, God will help us to live as the children of God that we really are.

In the name of Jesus.  Amen

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