I’ve always wanted a nickname. Most of my friends had one but I never did. I was always a bit jealous. Each time something wild or funny would happen someone would come away with a newly minted name that we would use everywhere. Eventually, there was Greasy, bones, Mikey (who wasn’t Mike), money, shades, and Alan. So you can see my problem.
We tried a few but nothing stuck. That’s the thing with names — they have to fit. I even tried to name myself, coming up with a new name that I thought sounded cool or funny or like everything I wanted to be. Nothing lasted more than a week.
As I grew older I became fond of my middle name. I always used my middle initial but never said my middle name out loud. In college, people would ask what the B stood for and I would simply shrug and say “guess if you like.” I suppose I was being coy but I wanted it held closely. I didn’t make friends easily but I made them fiercely. This simple name became a sign of intimacy and trust because at some point I realized that my closest friends had been calling me by this name all along. I hadn’t even thought of it as a nickname but it was that much better. It wasn’t born in a crazy story but maybe it was better — mine was a story that said that in this small group of friends, I was loved and known.
Some of us have a nickname or a family name. Sometimes these names are ones we try to shed as we grow and change but they seem to be eternal and keep following us. Sometimes we name a child with a large name, maybe again a family name, that becomes something for them to grow into. One of the basic human activities is to name things and people. But even more, naming things is one activity in which we are most similar to God.
In fact, a great many of the stories of the heroines and heroes of the Bible, especially of the Hebrew scriptures are naming stories. God makes a promise with Abram and says that he will now be called Abraham – Father of a multitude. Jacob wrestles with an angel and is renamed Israel – God-struggler or, depending on the spin, God prevails. And one of my favorite stories, Jacob has an encounter with God and renames the place Bethel – Beth-El — House of God….God is here!
These names are descriptions of God’s action in the world. Sometimes they tell a story of the person, but they also name out loud what God is doing. Today we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name. It’s one of those days that falls in sequence after Christmas. Since we have set aside a particular day to remember the birth of Jesus (historically accurate or not!), eight days after that Holy Night we remember that the child would have been circumcised and, just as the angels said, was called Jesus.
Jesus. A form of Joshua. Yeshua. God saves. Wow. If names are both formative and descriptive, this child is named Jesus not simply because he will save his people, but to reflect that God is, through him, already saving God’s people. That is a subtle but important distinction. Jesus isn’t born for a particular action, but the whole of Jesus’s life is a glimpse of what God is already and always doing. God’s action is made clear in this person. God’s saving action throughout history is made clear in the act of giving his child to our care.
Think of it. Much of the narrative of the last forty years has been that Jesus came, why? . . . to die. But that’s NOT what the story tells us. That’s not what the church has believed for centuries. We understand that the eternal child of God was born as a human to live and to be a revelation of God to us. So, and this is key, we have been given of glimpse of how God saves us so that we can live into our own name. So that we can live into what God is doing in our own lives and in our own neighborhoods. So that we can live into God’s action of salvation, drawing the whole world toward God.
I think that God has a name for each of us. I think that God has a name for me that clearly describes what God is doing in and through my own life. But I think that often that name feels just out of reach, like something God whispers to me in my dreams.
But maybe we have an outside name, too. It is like the Old Testament Lesson this morning. We hear the famous blessing formula. God tells the priests to bless the Israelites, the God-strugglers. 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.
In receiving this blessing from God, we’re told that the people also receive God’s name: “So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.” I think that’s true. Receiving the blessing of God, we are changed, we receive an identity that matches how God sees us. A name that makes sense, that can be said out loud and that sticks. When we understand that God gives us GOD’S name, we realize that this is something to live into, that we are a part of what God is doing in the world. Because God’s name is more than a name. It is an activity.
We already know that we share God’s penchant for naming things. But maybe we need to do a little more of this — naming, calling out what we see God doing. Maybe we need to say out loud that God has blessed everyone and everything God has made and point to where we see God moving and acting. Maybe we need to call out the fact that God is always saving and redeeming us, has never stopped saving us. When we look at the world this way we will see Jesus — we will see that Jesus: God-is-saving-us — is everywhere. But a word of caution. It might not be Jesus if it isn’t actually saving us and shaping us into God’s name for us. It might not be Jesus if it doesn’t value the people and things that God values.
We are blessed to be a blessing. We have been given a name so that we might recognize God’s saving action in the world and in ourselves, and name it when we see it. So, here is a resolution for you. Let’s live into what God is doing and what God is earnestly calling us into. Let’s be a blessing and a naming people this year. Too often we look at the world looking for where we want God to show up or what we want God to do. But this year, let’s look at how God is already saving us today. How God is redeeming and healing this community. How God is calling us to be a part of salvation history even now, even here.
Let us realize that we have been blessed to be a blessing, that we have aligned ourselves with God’s saving action in the world, and that God is at work right now in a place called Grace.
Rev. Alan Cowart
January 1, 2017
Feast of the Holy Name