What’s in a name?
Sermon preached at Enmore, The Naming & Circumcision of Jesus, Sunday 1st January 2017
Readings: Numbers 6.22–27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4.4–7; Luke 2.15–21
Those of us who are parents may recall the difficulty we had choosing names for our children. Rosemary and I often discussed names for the entire duration of each pregnancy and sometimes made the final choice in labour ward. Some of us may have lived with names that we regretted but most of us grow to accept and like our names. Friendship usually begins with getting to know someone’s name. Names are important to us and they quickly become part of our identity.
Names are important in every community but in the ancient world and in Judaism in particular names had special significance. In the book of Genesis, God names things as God creates them- including the first human, Adam, who is created out of adamah, the earth. After God creates and names the human, God gives Adam the privilege of naming the animals. Later on Adam gives his wife, the name ‘Eve’, because she was the mother of all living. In Exodus, before Moses can speak to the Israelites about God’s plan for them he has to learn God’s name: ‘YHWH’ – “I am what I am, and I will be what I will be.” We also note that the Third Commandment is “you shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God.” God’s name was to be revered and not used lightly. The author of The Book of Proverbs declares that “the name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are safe.” (Pr. 18.10)
Throughout Genesis and the rest of the Bible, names are sometimes changed to reflect new identities and purposes. Abram becomes Abraham, Sarai becomes Sarah. Jacob, the deceiver, becomes Israel, the one who struggles with God. In the New Testament, Saul becomes Paul and Simon becomes Peter, the rock on which the infant church is built. In the Scriptures a name often conveys a person’s place and purpose in the world.
Today we celebrate the name of Jesus- the name given to Mary’s child on the eighth day after his birth, when he was circumcised and made a member of the covenant and a son of Israel. Luke’s narrative makes it clear that Jesus and his parents are good and faithful Jews who strive to fulfil all the demands of the law. The name Jesus receives is heavy with significance. It is the same as that of Joshua, the Old Testament hero who became leader after the death of Moses and led Israel into the land of milk and honey God had promised. The name Jesus literally means, “The Lord is salvation.” This is the name that the Angel Gabriel told Mary to name her child. In Matthew’s birth narrative it is the name that Joseph is told to name the child when the angel appears to him in a dream and tells him to marry his pregnant fiancé. So the name, Jesus, was given by God, it was not thought up by Mary or Joseph.
The name of Jesus points us to who he is, the Saviour, the one who delivers us, rescues us and leads us as Joshua did into a land of freedom and a different way of life. After Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, his followers came to understand that they were preaching and healing in the name of Jesus. In Acts chapter 3 Luke recounts the story of the paralysed man who asks Peter and John for money, when they are on the way to the temple. Peter replies, “I have no silver or gold but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” The man is healed in spectacular fashion and after being helped to his feet begins walking and leaping and praising God. News of his healing spreads quickly and a crowd gathers giving Peter and John the opportunity of preaching to a large audience in the forecourt of the temple. The religious authorities are notified and have Peter and John arrested. At their trial the next day they are asked the question, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Peter answers, “Let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead.” Peter then continues saying, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.”
From that time on the Christian Church has continued to make the extraordinary claim that all healing, all salvation of whatever kind comes from the same Jesus, the one born of poor parents, cradled in a manger and put to death on a Roman cross. John’s prologue expresses the same truth in a slightly different form when he writes, “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name he gave power to become children of God.”
The name of Jesus is not a magic word or an incantation but when used with faith and reverence it can be a simple yet powerful prayer. In the Fourth Century, John Chrysostom encouraged Christians to carry the holy name as a staff. He wrote, “As you would not go abroad without clothes or shoes, so neither go forth without the Holy Name….speak it as you cross your threshold. It will be for you a staff, armour and a tower of defence.”
In 1432 the plague broke out in Lisbon, Portugal. Many fled from the city carrying the disease far and wide. Thousands of men, women and children died and there seemed no end to the suffering: people lay unburied in the streets. Among those left helping the sick and dying was a Bishop named Andre Dias. He started to urge the people to repeat the Holy Name of Jesus. “Write it on cards” he said, “and keep those cards on your persons; place them at night under your pillows; put them on your doors; but above all, constantly invoke with your lips and in your hearts this most powerful name.” Bishop Andre continued to minister to the sick and dying and people began to feel new hope, the plague abated and finally ceased its toll. News of this spread throughout the surrounding towns and soon everyone was praying the name of Jesus. Before long the plague ceased in Portugal but a spiritual renewal brought about by the prayers of the people continued for years afterwards.
Paul, writing to the church in Philippi encourages them to be of the same mind and to love one another, regarding others as better than themselves. He then uses Christ as an example of sacrificial love and quotes an early hymn of praise to Jesus: “who, though in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness…..he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.”
These words inspired Charles Wesley’s hymn, “Jesus the name high over all, in hell, or earth or sky; angels and earthlings to it fall and devils fear and fly.” So today as Christians facing a new year with all its uncertainties and challenges, we go bearing the name of Jesus. It is a privilege but also carries responsibility. It means much more than putting a fish symbol on our bumper bar or some other outward display. It means to try to follow Christ’s example in our behaviour and attitudes. That is no easy task but we depend on the work of the Holy Spirit to help and encourage us. Another one of Charles Wesley’s hymns puts it well, “Forth in your name, O Lord, I go, my daily labour to pursue, you, Lord alone resolved to know, in all I think, or speak or do. Each task your wisdom has assigned still let me cheerfully fulfil, in all my works your presence find and prove your good and perfect will.”