St Luke's Anglican Church in Enmore a lively, inclusive welcoming liturgical community

What’s in a Name?

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.”


Philip Brad­ford