Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Name of Jesus
Numbers 6:22-27
Psalm 8
Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 2:15-21

So they shall put my name on the children of Israel; and I will bless them.

The Nazirites were laypeople dedicated to the service of God. Among their ranks are some of the most important Biblical figures like Samson, Samuel and John the Baptist. They dedicated their lives to doing God’s work in the world, although most Nazirites committed to a specific period of time. The benediction in today’s Old Testament lesson is very familiar to us; we often hear it at the end of our worship as we are sent out into the world. We are reminded that our blessings come from God. The benediction seeks God’s favor on His people, not only in the tangible things of this world and protection from that which would do us harm, but also for God’s continued presence in our lives. We ask for God’s grace, that He would look upon us with favor. The blessing seeks peace, not the kind that comes with the absence of war, but the peace that comes from His presence. We are covered by His name; the name we receive is “Child of God.” We are identified as His.

In the Psalm 8, God’s name is exalted. “Yahweh, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth, who has set your glory above the heavens!” There are those who give such honor to the name of God that they will not even spell the word. Instead, the delete the vowel and write G-D. God’s name, whatever it might be, is too holy for human beings to speak with our filthy and sinful tongues. It is hard for us to imagine being identified with someone so holy. But God has covered us with His name, called us children and identified us as His own people.

He did this through Jesus, and we see that promise in today’s Psalm. “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have ordained, what is man, that you think of him? What is the son of man, that you care for him? For you have made him a little lower than God, and crowned him with glory and honor.” God’s name is excellent, but the day would come when a new name would bring salvation. It is not the name of another god, but a new name for God: God in flesh, Immanuel. That is why the name of Jesus is important: Jesus means Savior.

As a young Jewish boy, Jesus would have been dedicated to the Lord on the eighth day, circumcised according to the traditions of the Jews. Luke tells us that it was on this day that Mary and Joseph named Him Jesus, according to the words of the angel.

So why should we be so concerned about His name? By any other name, Jesus would still have been the salvation, the redemption, the promised child of God. I recently did some computer data work for an organization that gives Christmas gifts to thousands of children in San Antonio. It was interesting work, especially when it came to typing the names. Celebrities are infamous for giving odd names to their children. Every day items or strange words become monikers that children have to live with for their rest of their lives or until they are old enough to reject what their parents gave to them. Apple, Banjo, Diezel and Brooklyn are just a few examples. Some people use their children's names to make a statement, political or otherwise like Destiny or Justice. Then there is just the bizarre such as Moon Unit or Moxie CrimeFighter. Unusual names are not limited to celebrities, though. I found several children named Abcde. Would those children be different people if they’d been given different names?

We see in the scriptures, however, how important names are in the story of God. Abram became Abraham and Sarai became Sarah when Abraham was circumcised. Abram received the sign of the covenant and he was changed; the sign meant he belonged to God. Their names were changed to show their new relationship to God. Jacob was changed to Israel, again showing a change in the relationship between God and His people. We can discover the meanings of all the Bible characters and realize that their names had a purpose. Often the name itself has some special meaning. Other names are given to define a purpose or characteristic.

A wise woman once told me, “Your mom and dad gave you the name Peggy, but God has given you a more important name.” This was during a conversation about vocation, but our most basic calling is to be children of God. We are His because He has covered us by His own name.

God is given dozens of names in the scriptures: Creator, Almighty God, Father, the Lord our Righteousness, “I AM.” The Holy Spirit has a special name: the Counselor. Jesus is identified by certain names: the Light of the World, Savior, Redeemer, the Christ, and Son of God. The name Jesus is especially important; it means “the Lord saves.” It is by His name we are saved. Paul writes to the Philippians that the name of Jesus is the name above all other names, that at His name every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. It is His name we take when we are baptized, we become Christians by faith. His name is written on our hearts and on our heads. In His name we are adopted and made heirs of the Kingdom of God.

I often struggle with what to call those people who were adults when I was younger. Do I still call that adult advisor by their surname? What do I call a teacher who has become a peer? I am now an adult, so does the relationship change? It seems strange to keep calling them by such a formal name, but I can’t bring myself to do otherwise. The respect they earned when I was a young person is reflected in the way they are addressed today. I am not sure today’s younger generations will deal with similar issues since many have less formal relationships with the adults in their lives and already call them by their first names. It probably seems like an insignificant problem; does it really matter?

It does matter when we think about the reality of our unworthiness to be called children of God and the grace that makes us so. It may not be necessary to write God’s name with a hyphen, but it is a wonder that we are given such a great gift as God’s favor. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote that life in Christ gives us the right to call God the Father, with a less formal name. Jesus Christ was born that we might become children of God; by faith our relationship is changed and the name we call God is more personal. We need not worry about what name to use because we are invited to call God “Abba.”

The Name of Jesus is celebrated on the first day of January, but it is also the beginning of a new year. Everyone is thinking about resolutions: what should do to make ourselves better? I hope that I can manage more time in my studio and on my mini-trampoline. I want to renew some of the old flame in my relationship with my husband. I have promised to be better about sending snail mail to those who are far from home. These are good promises to make. The texts today remind us, too, that our relationship with God is of utmost important. He is more than just some distant and faraway being; He is our Father. We are more than creatures born to live and die in this world; we are His children. Let us begin this year with the assurance that we have been covered by God’s name, that we are adopted and heirs to His Kingdom. Let us begin this year dwelling in the promise of the benediction, knowing that God is shining upon us and that He sees us with favor because we are His because of Jesus. By His name we are saved, and we are saved to be people who dwell in His presence and experience the peace that He has promised.

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