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The Holy Name
January 1, 2012
The Gospel: Luke 2:15-21
Sermon: "What's in a Name?"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
What's in a Name?
What’s in a name? It’s the first thing given to us at birth. It’s a significant, even crucial gift. We carry it with us all our lives and it will be the one thing that will live on after us. Our name is our most permanent possession. Our names are also among our most important possessions. It is our most prominent feature, and it is our most vulnerable point.
Our system of nomenclature is fairly simple. Each of us has a family name or surname we inherit, and a given name that is bestowed at birth. In addition, 80% of us have a middle name or even two, (and if you’re royal, you have three middle ones), all of which are of relatively little importance, unless we personally decide to go by one of them instead of our first name; such as when we have a Jonathan middle name with a Eustice first name, or a Heather middle compared to a Fannie first name.
In the Bible a name often defines a person. It tells us of their character and predicts their actions. It’s a mysterious correlation that exists between a person and the name he or she bears.
So why am I bringing all this name stuff up this morning? Today is the Feast of the Holy Name. Every January First is a permanently set celebration of the Holy Name of Jesus. When it lands on a Sunday, as it has today, we are required to observe it.
So, again we ask, what’s in a name? As Juliet says of Romeo, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” To which Romeo answers, “Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized…” Now there’s a dating line. That our Lord is also called a rose, the Rose of Sharon, is coincidence for Shakespeare. But our Lord’s name is the one we have come most to associate with love: Jesus.
Since the Bible tells us that a name defines a person, is there something in the name of Jesus itself, that defines the man Jesus himself? Well, you know I wouldn’t have asked the question if the answer wasn’t “Yes!” So if we are to know what our Lord’s name means, we need to get back to its original form. You see, the name, Jesus, is a development of the older English name Jesu (pronounced with a G and spoken Geesoo). You can still hear English choirs using this form “Gesu” in musical performances. “Gesu” is a development of the Latin form of the name Jesu, (Yesoo). Jesu is, in turn, drawn from the Greek, Iesus (Eaysoos), which, in turn, is the Hellenized form of the original of the Hebrew, Yeshewa (Yesh-oo-ah’). Yeshewa is actually a shortened form of the ancient Hebrew name, Yehoshua, from which comes our English equivalent, Joshua.
You remember Joshua from the Exodus stories, of course. He took over as leader of the Israelites after Moses. He was actually the one who led the people into the Promised Land at Moses’ death. Well, Jesus bears the shortened form of Joshua’s name. This leads us to the first point to discover about Jesus’ name: its commonness. The name Jesus, or Yeshewa, was a very popular Jewish name during Jesus’ day. That’s why, when people spoke of him, they always called him Jesus of Nazareth, to distinguish him from all the other Jesuses.
Jesus’ name stayed quite popular as a Jewish male name until it became indissolubly connected with Jesus himself. The short form ceases to be used among the Jews altogether by the 2nd Century. It’s along the same lines as something that happened in New York City. When Hitler came to power in the 1930’s, there were 14 Hitlers in the New York City telephone directory. Before WWII ended there were none.
Here’s the point, though: the very commonness of Jesus’ name identifies him with humanity. He was human. He was, he is, one of us. His very name connects him to the very human life he lived, and it connects him to us in the living of our lives. He truly understands us and sympathizes with us, because he has lived this life with us. That’s the first point to discover in Jesus’ name: its commonness, and how it connects him to us.
Here’s the other point to discover in Jesus’ name: Jesus’ name tells us who he is. Jesus’ name actually forms a sentence. It has a noun and a verb. It says that he is someone who does something.
The first three letters of the full form of his name are an abbreviation of the most holy name of God himself; Yahweh. (That’s where we get the name Jehovah from by the way. Please don’t ask me to explain how we arrived at Jehovah out of that name Yahweh. It’ll take the rest of the morning.) God’s name is the subject noun in Jesus’ name. The verb in his name is variously translated as to help, to restore, to save. Jesus’ name literally translates as the God who saves.
The Rabbis recognized this content in Jesus’ name. In Jewish theological writings from the 2nd Century on, they deliberately shortened Jesus’ name when referring to him; it is rendered as Yashoo, removing both noun and verb. Even so, no one ever lived up to their name as Jesus did. Jesus more than lived up to it; he literally embodied it. He was and is, God Who Saves.
We’ve all known people who lived the meaning of their names. We’ve also known those who were their own opposites of their names. We all know names now synonymous with underworld dealing, crime investigations, and fraudulent operations. Just think of Capone, Bonnie and Clyde, or company names like Enron. Then again, there are other names we associate with integrity, justice, fairness, responsibility. Those names signify these characteristics because people who bore those names lived into those good traits.
Oliver Wendell Holmes bears a name that is forever associated with wisdom and integrity. On the other hand, he was not necessarily always associated with humility. One day, the great justice went for walk near his summer home. A little girl joined him for a time. When the girl said that she had to go home, her distinguished companion said, “When your mother asks you where you’ve been, just tell her you’ve been walking with Oliver Wendell Holmes.” To which the little lady cheerfully replied, “And when your folks ask you where you’ve been, tell them you were walking with Mary Susanna Brown.”
Whatever the original meaning of the names we bear, we make them names of integrity, warmth, fairness, affection, and joy by living those traits. Your name signifies your reputation. You make it whatever you choose. As Jesus did, live into yours well.