Monday, January 02, 2006

What's in a name?

Name of Jesus
January 1, 2005
Luke 2.15-21
Thomas Arth

"What’s in a name?"
That was Juliet’s question as she stood on her balcony.
That evening she had met Romeo
and fallen head over heels in love,
and the feeling was mutual.
The only problem,
the obstacle standing in the way of their love,
was the hate their families had for each other.
Capulets and Montagues didn’t get along in Verona.
Everyone knows the famous line,
"wherefore art thou Romeo?"
A lot of people think she’s calling for him,
"where are you?"
but her question is why not where.
Why did I have to fall in love with my father’s enemy?
But Juliet asks, "What’s in a name?"
"‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy. . . .
O, be some other name. . . .
That which we call a rose,
by any other name would smell as sweet."

What’s in a name?
If you’re familiar with the Harry Potter series of books and movies
you might know "the name which must not be spoken."
Few people speak the name of Lord Voldemort,
a powerful and evil wizard.
Those who do speak his name, like Harry,
seem less vulnerable to Voldemort’s evil powers.

What’s in a name?
Isaiah writes, "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.
Look, the young woman is with child
and shall bear a son,
and shall name him Immanuel."
Is that friend or foe?
It means "God with us."
But can we be sure what’s in that name?
Is "God with us" our friend or enemy?
Is it God-with-us to destroy or God-with-us to save?

What’s in a name?
Names don’t have the same significance in our culture
as they once did.
The closest thing we might get to assigning power to a name
is when we talk about identity theft.
With your name, social insurance number, credit card numbers,
someone can gain some power over you—
even become you.
The ancient Jewish community
had several names and descriptions of God.
El was the common word for deity in the Semitic languages.
In some of the Old Testament traditions
El is sometimes combined with the word Shaddai
meaning Almighty so that you had God Almighty.
When Moses met God at the burning bush
he asked for God’s name and God replied
The divine name is connected with the verb "to be."
Some scholars propose that the name means
"He brings into being whatever comes into being"
designating God as creator.
The name is now pronounced Yahweh by scholars
but the correct pronunciation has been lost.
The commandment
"You shall not make wrongful use
of the name of the Lord your God"
was taken so seriously by the people of Israel that,
in order not to abuse God’s name
it wasn’t used at all.
Whenever the Jews came across the name for God in their scriptures,
it was carefully punctuated
so that they would substitute the word ADONAI
which means Lord.
In some English Bibles, particularly some earlier translations,
the name of God was mistakenly written as Jehovah.
This error came about because the Hebrew language has no vowels
so the Hebrew Bible was written with only consonants.
Later, Hebrew scholars included markings,
certain symbols like dots and squiggles,
to indicate the vowel sounds.
But for the name of God they put in the vowel markings
for the word Adonai, or Lord.
So, early translators took the consonants from Yahweh
with the vowels from Adonai
and came up with the hybrid Jehovah.
The name is still considered holy in Judaism
and they still refer to God in Hebrew as either Adonai,
meaning Lord,
or as Hashem meaning simply "the name."

What’s in a name?
"Name him Jesus," the angel instructs Joseph,
"for he will save his people from their sins."
Now we know.
God-with-us Immanuel does not come to us to destroy but to save.
Jesus’ name has a meaning.
We get the name Jesus from iesous,
the Greek form of Yeshua
which is a later form of Yehoshua.
The name was very common in New Testament times
and means "Yahweh is salvation."
One pastor writes,
"It is that Jesus is named at all that is striking.
It reminds us how committed God is to us, to our existence,
that God would choose to become human, vulnerable,
one of us.
This is not a distant God.
This is not a terrible God
who strikes only fear in the hearts of humans.
This is God loving us at face value
and allowing us to know a name, a face, a life lived among us.
This is God expressing divinity
within the confines of what it means to be human,
within the limits of our existence.
When God chooses a name,
God is choosing to limit how we see
and how we understand who God is."

Now, some would rather keep God distant,
would rather that God was other than us.
I read about a discussion at a conference
gathering people from a number of the major world religions.
One Islamic woman took issue
with the Judeo-Christian understanding of a God
who "rested" on the seventh day,
saying that a God that needs to rest
can’t possibly be God.
A Lutheran theologian offered the answer
that God doesn’t rest because God needs a break,
but rather because God knows that we need to rest.
In a similar way, God doesn’t choose to be named
because of God’s need to have a human face.
Instead, God chooses to be named
because we need to know God face to face,
to have physical contact with God’s love.
God came down to be one of us.
He was a baby lying in a manger,
soiling his diapers,
crying for hunger,
learning to walk and falling down in the process,
scraping his knee
when he was playing with the neighbourhood kids,
mourning the loss of a step-father, a grandmother, a friend.
God chose to be vulnerable
so that we could see the limits of our existence
not as something to resist,
but rather as something that God also knows
and has hallowed.

What’s in Jesus’ name?
Death is in his name. Our deaths.
God-with-us-to-save means he faces the same fate we all face.
Still, he is with us not only to empathize,
which would make him nothing more than a gravedigger God.
Our death—and life—is in his name.
Jesus leaves death behind in his grave.
He rises to new life.
Salvation is in Jesus’ name,
and friendship with God,
and more.

We are in Jesus’ name.
We are baptized into Christ.
We are in Jesus.
We bear his name.
We are called by the name "Christian."
We are in Christ’s death and in his resurrected life.
And more.

Jesus is the name we bear into the world.
The name of hope, love, friendship, confidence, courage;
the name of life that will prevail, that has prevailed.
"God 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 under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father."

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