Sermons That Work

What’s in a Name?, Holy Name Day – 2006

January 01, 2006

The celebration of New Year’s Day tends to be a feast of exhaustion, particularly if one stayed up to see the new year in. After the Reformation in Scotland, the old church feasts were abolished. As is often the case, if people are deprived of things to which they are deeply attached, they find other ways to celebrate, and so the old celebration of the Feast of the Circumcision was transformed into a secular day of feasting and sport.

While Anglicans retained the old feast day, we tended not to keep it. The mention of circumcision sounded a bit embarrassing; perhaps made us blush. Now we call New Year’s Day the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. St. Luke records in the verses immediately before the ones chosen for today that when the child of Mary and Joseph was taken to be circumcised, he was given the name Jesus. Certainly to the first-century Jew in Palestine there was nothing earth-shaking about the name. Many male children were given the name Joshua/Jesus, which means “God with us.” Today in Latino culture, Jesus is a fairly common name to give to a baby.

Yet the collect for today states that the name of Jesus is the “sign of our salvation.” The old canons required that we bow our heads at the name of Jesus. In our Gospel reading today, two old people, Ana and Simeon, rejoiced to see the young child. Simeon exclaims that “these eyes of mine have seen the Savior.”

What’s in a name? In our quest for authenticity we often discount the symbolic. We fear that the symbol may be emptied of reality, become something we just say or do without meaning what we say or do. We set a dreadfully high standard. Yet the truth is that saying and doing things, even by rote, may be reminders to us of the meaning they explore and symbolize. Telling our spouse that we love him or her may be an automatic response, but at times we live into its deepest meaning. Even though we may use “Jesus” as an expletive, the meaning of who Jesus is may and often does communicate itself anew by our mindless utterance. There is power in a name and in a symbol.

Jesus is “God with us.” He is “The Savior.” And that means that we belong to Jesus. It does not mean that he belongs to us. That’s an important point to understand. It is so easy for us to decide who Jesus should love or save and who he should not. However, he told us that such matters are none of our business. And that is that.

We were named and signed in our baptisms. In baptism we were claimed, adopted, forgiven, and made members of the priestly body, the Body of Christ. We too are here to be God for others. In other words, people have a right to demand that God is seen in us, as individuals, as members of a church and of the Church. And as God is seen in the face of Jesus Christ, we are called to be Christ-like, or Christians. In the midst of church struggles, divisions, and fights, “God help us,” we exclaim. And that is the point. God helps us, seeks us, finds us, and particularly at the family table we face today, the Name of Jesus, the Word, conjoins with Bread and Wine and transforms us into newness of life.

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Christopher Sikkema


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