December 29, 2019, What’s in a Name? Luke 2:15-21 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
To listen to this sermon, click here: Z0000171
Carroll and I spent a month hiking around England for our honeymoon. It rained quite a lot, as it is wont to do in England, and one dark, rainy day we spent the whole afternoon in a pub in a little village, thinking of names for all the babies we were planning to have, and writing them down in the little journal we kept of our trip. We always took the naming of our children very seriously. A name is the first gift you give to a child, and it’s one of the few gifts they keep forever. Cribs and toys and baby clothes, are soon outgrown, but a name is something you have for life. So the choice of a name is really a momentous decision.
To begin with, our children would be born into our family, so they would bear our family name – they would all be Boswells. So, names always have to do with belonging. Names bind people together and give them a sense of connection – I think that’s one reason so many people are fascinated by researching their genealogy. Finding your place in a family tree connects you to all those other people and gives you roots. And it is equally true in the case of adoption – through adoption, a child is grafted in to a new family tree when he or she receives the name of this new family. By receiving a new name, a child belongs in this family, just as surely as if he or she had been born into it biologically.
That’s also the reason for the tradition of a wife changing her name to that of her husband’s family when they get married. Whatever else is involved in the politics of that tradition, it is a powerful symbol that these two people are now united in their belonging. In marriage a new connection is made, so the children of that marriage will belong together under one name, the family name.
And then there are the names we get to choose: what we call our given names or our Christian names. People have a lot of ways of choosing names – many people use family names, the name of a grandmother or uncle or cousin we loved and respected, those names we want to pass on to our children like a treasured heirloom. Some people choose names because they like the way they sound. We know families whose children’s names all begin with the same letter, for example. When we chose our children’s names we certainly chose names we liked the sound of, and we did choose a few special family names – Emily’s middle name is Celestine after my mother’s mother, who was a remarkable woman – but we chose names by their meanings as well. We tried to choose names for some character or grace that we hoped and prayed would belong to that child. The name Emily comes from Latin, and means ‘industrious’. Judith comes from the Hebrew for ‘praise’. Gabriel is a Hebrew name as well; it means ‘strong man of God’. Isaac comes from the Hebrew word for ‘laughter’.
People don’t think about names as much these days, maybe, but a name was something that carried a lot of weight in the past – people would say about a person that they were a credit to their family’s name, or maybe they would say they were a blot on the family name. A name really embodied who you were as a person. People used to think that knowing a person’s name gave you power over them, because in letting you know their name, they were allowing you to know the essence of who they were.
And to the Israelites – to ancient people in general – a name had immense significance. In ancient cultures, to name someone was to really call them into being, very much like the Creator did when he said, “Let there be light”. Adam was doing that kind of creative act when he gave names to all the animals in the Garden. God gave Adam dominion over them, not to boss them around, but so that he could give them being, to give them the gift of self. Psalm 147 says that God “determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names.” In ancient thought, a name expressed who a person really was, and that is why, when all through the Bible we read about people calling on the name of the Lord – it doesn’t just mean that they are calling out words, it means they are seeking to know God intimately, to see him as he truly is.
In the passage we read from the book of Numbers today, God is giving Moses a blessing to teach to all the priests who are going to be ministering to his people. “The Lord bless you and keep you. The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.” And God tells Moses that when the priests put his name upon the people, they are blessed by him. God isn’t just wishing his people well, and he isn’t just thinking kindly thoughts toward them by this blessing. He is giving himself – all that he is – to his people. Because the priests speak the name of God over the people, they belong to God – and he belongs to them, which is a huge and incomprehensible thing to say of the eternal Creator of the Universe and a little band of homeless people.
Today we read in the gospel of Luke, “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” The angel Gabriel had given Joseph the child’s name when he came to reassure him: “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son and you will call his name Jesus.” So when the time came for their little boy to be circumcised, Mary and Joseph took him to the Temple, where he was officially given the name “Jesus” which means Savior. Baptism is sometimes called Christening, because, like the rite of circumcision, it is a naming ceremony. But Christian Baptism is different. At our baptisms, God puts his name on each and every one of us. We are baptized in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Spirit. That means that we belong to God, we are adopted as his children. It means that he belongs to us. And it also means that we, his people, belong to one another.
Baptism is one of those things we call a sacrament, which is so much more than just a nice ceremony. A sacrament is an instrument of God’s grace, which means that as we experience it outwardly, as we hear the words and touch the common earthy elements of water and oil, at the same time God is at work within us, blessing us, and receiving us as his adopted children. The water symbolizes the cleansing that he offers us through forgiveness, and the oil symbolizes the grace that he pours out on us in his love and mercy. But the most important sign of Baptism is that we do it in God’s name.
Today, in just a few minutes, we have the joyful privilege of baptizing Loxlin. She is already a treasured part of our church family. But today we baptize her in the name of God the Father, and in the name of Jesus his Son, and in the name of his Holy Spirit. That means that through the water and the oil, by our prayers and our presence, we welcome Loxlin officially into the family of God’s beloved children, the fellowship of all those who bear his name.