What’s in a Name?

Pastor Joe Skogmo

St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Lowry, MN

Name of Jesus 01.07.2018 | Luke 2:15-21

What is in a name?

Today we observe the ‘Name of Jesus’ holy day. We aren’t perfectly lining up with the actual time of year we’re supposed to observe and celebrate this holy day, but I have always wanted to do it. So, we are observing the Name of Jesus today.

Technically, we are supposed to observe this day on the eighth day of Christmas. This is because, as we see in our Gospel reading today, Jesus was named when he was eight days old (Luke 2:21). “The observance of the octave (eighth day)…has roots in the sixth century,”[1] where Christians celebrated and reflected specifically on “The Name of Jesus.”

And, what’s in a name? What’s in a name that Christians would set aside a holy day of worship to focus on it?

Well, generally speaking, I don’t think we have to dig or stretch too far to understand that names have power.

I think of the movie Gladiator, specifically the scene at the Coliseum where the emperor is confronted by the man that he had previously tried to have killed. After the competition, the man was commanded to lift his mask and share his identity with the emperor. He lifted his mask and turned to the emperor, the man who once tried to have him killed, with this powerful line:

My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.

Saying his name in the face of the emperor reclaimed his identity, and in no more powerful way could he have communicated that he still lives! That scene still gives me chills.

Names can have power.

I think of my literature teacher in high school, Mr. Kral, telling us to be sure to focus on the names of characters in JD Salinger’s book Catcher in the Rye, that names can indicate the essence of his characters. Mr. Kral pointed out one character in particular who name had an intentionally menacing and sloppy sound; the awkward and homely character was aptly given the awkward and homely name, “Ackley.” (Sorry if you’re related to an Ackley).

Names can reveal things.

I think of the first questions we ask with excitement and anticipation to parents of newborn children—what’s their name? I think of the sacred responsibility of naming our second born. I think of the human compulsion and fascination to ask each other about our names – origins, nicknames, what we’re named after, what we like to be called – all in an effort to more fully know one another.

Names can tell a story.

I think of my cousin, Paige and her husband Jason, who lost their beautiful five-month-old, Bennett, to SIDS. Powerfully, Paige has often said that one difficult and strange thing was that people, as they tried to comfort Paige and Jason in their loss, rarely would say Bennett’s name. Paige notices this, it bothers her, and often she urges people to say his name. It’s as if when Bennett’s name is said aloud, Paige can feel his life, she’s more vividly reminded of his presence; it’s as if when she hears his name it’s healing and hopeful beyond explanation. Bennett is his name.

Names hold the power of memory, connection, they give life, beauty, and comfort.

I think of places in Scripture where Moses asks for God’s name, and God offers, “I am,” or YWHY (Exodus 3:14), which has a meaning beyond our ability to make sense of it, and a name that is so sacred that the Jewish people, and many still, refrain from uttering it.

Names can be so powerful, my friends.

And, here in our Gospel, mother Mary accepts and declares the name of Jesus which the angels had given this child. And this name means everything—Jesus. This name, of the Hebrew, Yeshua, encapsulates all God’s purposes. This name is the fulfilment of who God promises to be. This name literally means, he saves.

This name is power. This name is love. This name is salvation.

We pray in this name—confident in a God who is what God is called. This name gives life, brings good news to the poor, release to the captives, healing to the blind, mercy for the sinner, liberation to the oppressed, and life to the dead.

It is in this name that we are baptized and marked. It is the name we carry with us into our challenges, our joys, our battles, and sufferings. It is the name we invoke in the face of injustice, hatred, and crisis.

Whatever the struggle: guilt, shame, fear, suffering, or distress, the power to withstand or overcome these things is revealed in God’s very name—Jesus. The one who saves, the one who is merciful, loving, and present.

Sisters and brothers, that’s what in a name.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.

     [1] Sundays and Seasons: Year B 2018 (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2017), 34.

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