In Jesus’ Name

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on the Feast of the Holy Name,  January 1, 2012, at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut.

I don’t usually preach  on the Sunday after Christmas. It’s too soon, usually, so I have often read someone else’s sermon like John Donne or Philips Brooks or we’ve just sung some carols. But today is different.  It’s not too soon – it’s almost eight days instead of seven –  And it’s a special day, not just another Sunday.

Today is the Feast of the Holy Name or what the old Prayer Books called The Circumcision.  It’s the day when Jesus was named, and the Name of Jesus  is so really important in our faith and worship that we ought to take time to think about it.  Most of us, most of the time,  probably take names for granted, but there’s a whole industry that does nothing but think up new names for new products – like “Edsel” and “New Coke.”  Remember those? But you can’t just come out with a new product  and not have a name for it. How would people know what to order?  So you need a name, preferably short and memorable  and something that gives a sense of the product. And, as I said, there are people who earn a living inventing these names.

When a baby is baptized,  the parents have often spent a lot of time thinking about names. Maybe there are family names  or names of famous people: presidents and athletes and movie stars, and we give children those names in hope that they will have  some of that character themselves.

I think people used to put even more time and energy  into giving names than we do. Older societies put a lot of stock in the idea that a name had power, that it really would help shape the child.  And there are some old societies  that keep the name secret because they believe knowing the name gives you power over the person.  And, of course, it does.  If you see a friend in a crowd of people you can control that person by calling their name. They will look around and probably come to where you are.  If you don’t know their name, they’ll ignore you. It’s also true that if you know a certain name  it will get you in where you might not get otherwise. When someone says to you, “Just mention my name,” that opens doors.

Names have power.  They make a difference.

Think back to the early chapters of Genesis.  Do you remember in the Creation story that after making the animals God brought them to Adam to see what he could call them.  And “whatever he called them,” it says, “that was their Name.” Adam was put in charge, in other words,  with power over the rest of created life. And then, remember, God made a woman  and brought her to the man and the man said, “She shall be called woman.” But notice the difference.  Whatever the man called the animals that was their name. But the Bible does not say that when Adam said “She shall be called woman” that was her name. Because it isn’t a name; it’s a distinction.  The man and woman are distinct but one does not have power over the other; not at the beginning anyway.

And then do you remember  how Moses had a conversation with God at the burning bush and at the end, when God sent Moses to Egypt,  Moses asks God’s Name to he can tell the Hebrews who sent him  and God says simply, “I am” – tell them “I AM” has sent you.  God will not give Moses a Name to use  because God is God and Moses is Moses and Moses can’t have the control  that comes with knowing the Name. To know God’s Name, to have God come when you call, that’s not for Moses, or Abraham, or the prophets.  In fact, as you read on in the Old Testament and the Jewish understanding of God grows, the idea of knowing God’s name becomes more and more unthinkable. In fact, as you read on, even to use the noun “God” becomes unthinkable.  Who could presume to say that word? The prophets more and more often used other terms like “the Lord” and finally they even forgot how to pronounce the name for God they once had used because Hebrew was written without vowels and you often can’t tell how to pronounce a word  unless you know it already. When Jews came to the letters JHVH they said Adonai, the Lord, instead.  Jehovah, you know, is a made up name,  a guess at the way the letters JHVH might have been pronounced. Our Prayer Book uses the word Yahweh,  but that’s also a guess.  But the point is that the name of God  became increasingly remote and the gulf between humanity and God  greater and greater.

Now let’s look at today’s readings.  First, the gospel:  The angel tells Joseph what to name the child: “You shall call his name Jesus.” Notice first that Joseph is not allowed to name this child. The name is given. To give a name gives control.  No human being can name this child. This child is not subject to human authority. But a name is provided for us to use. So God, you might dare to say, chooses to place God’s power at our command. And remember how Jesus himself told his disciples  to call in him and goes so far as to say, If you ask anything in my Name,  I will do it. No wonder we end so many prayers, “In Jesus’ Name.”  We have access. We go to God saying, “Jesus sent me. He said I should mention his name.”  That’s a great gift, a Christmas present we can make use of all year.

But then, secondly, if we can use that name we need also to honor that name  because the name is a symbol of God.  And that brings us to the Epistle.  St Paul wrote: “At the Name of Jesus every knee should bow of things in heaven and things in earth and things under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.”   “At the Name of Jesus, every knee should bow: that’s why some people bow their heads every time they hear or say  Jesus’ Name. Now, you may or may not do choose to do that, but what is obviously out of line is the use of Jesus’ name or the name of God just to emphasize what you are saying.  I hear people using the word “God” as casually as apples and oranges.  “OMG” has become a common abbreviation. And that’s impolite at best and blasphemous at worst. It’s more specifically a violation of the Fourth Commandment: “You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain.” If nothing else, it’s stupid.  If your friend Albert says, “You can use my name,” he doesn’t mean for you to use it every time you stub your toe or lose your temper.  If you use the name too often, he’ll not only stop listening but cross you off his list of friends.

So God has given us at Christmas time an amazing gift: a way to come to God in confidence with all our needs and thanksgivings and praise, but a gift like that is also to be treated with respect and care. If you break your gifts,  you lose them.  So give God thanks for the gift of Jesus’  Name and use that gift well.

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