What Name Does God Know Me By? A sermon on Luke 2:15-21

14188523_1260289087335740_7885670721171133113_oby the Rev. Anna Doherty

What’s in a name?

Today is the Feast of the Holy Name, the day on which we celebrate the formal naming of Jesus.

In Jesus’ time Hebrew law required that male children be circumcised eight days after their birth . . .

. . . and the day was also an occasion for a festive celebration of the child’s name.

Today is the day when we celebrate the name of Jesus.

In today’s gospel, Luke is very specific about how Jesus got his name . . .

. . . it is “the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

The name Jesus means “Savior,” or “Deliverer,” in Hebrew.

This is not an arbitrary name, chosen because Jesus parents liked it, or because it ran in the family.

Jesus’ name says something about who he is, about what Jesus is meant to accomplish in the world, as set forth by God.

There is a lot, it seems, in a name.

There was in Jesus’ time, and there is in our time too.

Even our current culture would seem to support the idea that names are important.

Every year the top ten most popular baby names for boys and girls are released—someone keeps track of this.

Which, in case you were wondering, Sophia and Jackson are the top names for girls and boys respectively for 2016.

And there are stacks of books you can buy, listing first names and what they mean.

I actually love to learn about what people’s names mean.

Or whether people were named for a specific reason, after a certain person, or if there is a story behind their name.

A name can tell you a lot about a person, or about their family, or about what’s important to them.

I think the reason why we spend so much time and energy thinking, or playing with, or planning out names . . .

. . . is because, names can shape how we perceive ourselves and our place in the world.

Names are how we present ourselves to the world.

Before people know anything else about us, they might at least know our name.

And that is just our given name, what is on our birth certificate.

There are scores of other names too, names that we call ourselves by or that other people know us by.

Both good and bad.

And these names form us in profound ways also.

Zelda, an Israeli poet, published a poem in 1985 that speaks to this idea, called “Each of us has a name.”

The original poem was written in Hebrew, but translated into English the poem reads:

Each of us has a name/given by God/and given by our parents

Each of us has a name/given by our stature and our smile/and given by what we wear

Each of us has a name/given by the mountains/and given by our walls

Each of us has a name/given by the stars/and given by our neighbors

Each of us has a name/given by our sins/and given by our longing

Each of us has a name/given by our enemies/and given by our love

Each of us has a name/given by our celebrations/and given by our work

Each of us has a name/given by the seasons/and given by our blindness

Each of us has a name/given by the sea/and given by/our death.

What Zelda’s poem points to, is that each of us, throughout our lives, are known

and know ourselves by a variety of names, both good and bad, true and untrue. . .

. . . and these names shape who we are, how we perceive ourselves, or how the world perceives us.

I’d invite each of us, at the start of this New Year, to think about the different names that we bear.

What are the names that we are proud of, that we want to keep, that we want the world to know us by?

As a hard worker? A loving parent?

A generous soul, A faithful person?

And what are the names that we know are not who we truly are, or are not what how we wish to be known?

As an anxious person? An angry or judgmental person?

As someone who is resentful, or unhappy?

Some of these names we have control over, others we do not.

But the New Year is the perfect time to try to live into the names that we wish for ourselves and to let go of the names we do not.

The irony of today’s celebration is that, when we begin to think about the names that we bear, how we can change them or let them go . . .

It can evoke for us on this day, the Feast of the Holy Name and the first day of a New Year. . .

The question, what name does God know me by?

And what does that name say about me, about my place in the world?

Because, while it is clear that God gives Jesus a special name, for a special purpose, . . .

. . . it is difficult for us to believe that God gives each of us a special name and a special place in the world.

But God most certainly does.

Our second reading from Galatians today describes this special name and special place beautifully:

“Because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’

So you are no longer a slave, but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”

In other words, we are beloved children of God, just as Jesus was.

Our relationship with God, as described by the author of Galatians, is as a child to a parent.

And not an adversarial or distant relationship with our parent, but an intimate, loving relationship.

The word Abba, translated as Father, actually means something closer to “Daddy”, implying intimacy and tenderness.

If this is how God sends the Spirit into our hearts, we can assume that God feels much the same way about us.

Our name, according to God, how God knows us in the world us is as: “Beloved one, child.”

And if that is how God names us and knows us, as a beloved child of God, then that says a lot about our place in the world.

As today’s letter to the Galatians suggests, we are more even than simply children, but also heirs,

Participants and inheritors of God’s work in the world.

While we certainly are not the saviors of the world—that is Jesus’ name, Jesus’ purpose

We do have a part to play in God’s work in the world.

God loves us and knows us as God’s beloved children.

Our place, our purpose in the world, is to show that love of God, to make it seen, known and felt in the world.

There is a lot in this name.

So much in fact, that all the other names we bear, the other ways we know ourselves or are known by others . . .

. . . They take second field to this special name of ours.

And this special way of being in the world.

Yes, let’s celebrate the Holy Name.

The Holy Name of Jesus, and through him, the Holy Name we ourselves bear.

Beloved Child of God, who shows God’s love in the world.