Simeon said, “Lord, now you are letting your servant go in peace…for my eyes have seen your salvation…” What did Simeon see? How is it that Simeon knew, in one instant, that something of God was at hand?
Today is the first day of a new year. Sure, in cosmic terms there’s little difference between yesterday and today, but we begin the new year in hope all the same. What do we see? What are your hopes? Your fears? Where might God meet those hopes and fears in this place, at this time, in this life you’re living?
I can remember sitting in the classroom of Bockman Hall on the Luther Seminary campus when this gorgeous brunette walked into the classroom. I didn’t know her name, but wow, did I ever want to. Then we were introduced, and I found out that her name was Kristin Mooneyham. After a few months, Miss Kristin got a new name – girlfriend. Then she added another – fiancée. Finally, Kristin’s name itself changed – Mrs. Kristin Johnson. All the same person – but different names that reflect different circumstances in our life together. But it all started with that first instant.
Today I have other names for Kristin as well, like She-who-leaves-used-kleenex-all-over or She-who-doesn’t-close-dresser-drawers or She-who-won’t-go-see-scary-movies. And Kristin’s names for me have grown, too: He-who-sleeps-through-alarm-clocks; He-who-leaves-his-underwear-on-the-bathroom-floor; or this week’s new name, He-who-keeps-losing-his-cellphone. Our names, Kristin and Scott, mean that much and more in our relationship, because names have a tendency to do that over time. But we shouldn’t forget what names do for us, and we shouldn’t forget the gift that is the name itself.
Names are funny things – they are part of the foundation of our existence. Naming a person, place or thing allows us to communicate with each other. Names have the power to hurt and the power to heal. Children “call each other names” when they want to hurt each other – and some of us never grow out of the practice. “Protecting your good name” or “making a name for yourself” means living in such a way that when people mention your name, it is immediately associated with the positive qualities you admire. We can “drop names” of the important people we know to impress others or to gain an advantage in a discussion. You’ve heard of Stephen King, probably – but maybe you haven’t heard of stories published under his “pen name,” Richard Bachman. Maybe you haven’t heard of Samuel Clemens, but you’ve probably heard of stories published under his “pen name,” Mark Twain. You can even be anonymous – a Greek word that literally means “without a name.” Names are funny things.
But what’s in a name, really? What is it about a name that is so important? Why is it that we focus on particular names here today? Names hold power and names give gifts – let us pray that we may be made worthy of both. Heavenly Father, dearest Abba, Your name is holier than all other names, and yet today you give us that name as a gift. Help us cherish the name you have given to us – the name of Jesus, who gives us new names through our baptism and calls us by name in Your holy church. In His holy name we pray, Amen.
To fully appreciate names, let’s cover for a minute or two what names give to us. First, names give us Identity. I am Scott Alan Johnson. Names tell each other who we are, and who we are not.
Second, to have a name usually implies some sort of Friendship. The level of that friendship is usually reflected by the name we are given. We are generally much closer friends with those we name “Bubba” or “Chef” or “Melvin” than we are those we know as Mr. Johnson, Dr. Smith or Rev. Lovejoy. Your closest friends have nicknames – your most distant acquaintances have titles. Sometimes these things change, and sometimes they are confusing – do we continue to call our high school teachers Mrs. So-and-So, or, now that we are adults, do we use their first names? But generally, names imply the degree of friendship by the form they take.
Names also give evidence to our Inclusion in a community. To have a name is to be known, and to be known is to have a name. Anthropologists have discovered that in many of the great native American cultures, tribes had public and private names – public for trading and dealing with other bands and tribes, private for family discussions and such. If you have a name, you’ve been included – sometimes even to the point of being renamed by the different communities that know you.
Also, being given someone’s name is being given Responsibility for that name. Choosing to neglect the names we’ve been given can result in our own names being rejected or cast out of our communities. There is no quicker way to end a friendship than to use the name of a friend in an evil or hurtful way. Disrespect a person’s name through insult or slander, and you can guarantee they will be a long time in trusting you with that name again. Gossip about a person, and you can guarantee that the one who hears you will be reluctant to share their own secret names with you. We have responsibility when it comes to protecting the names that have been given to us.
But we’re talking about one name in particular today: the name of Jesus. When Simeon hears the child’s name is Jesus, he knows he’s been led to the right place. So, what’s in THIS name? What is it that makes Jesus the “Name above all Names?” To understand, let’s take a look at the history of God’s name itself.
Ancient Jewish writings have many names for God: El Shaddai, Elohim, Adoni, El Sabaoth to name a few. But one name in particular has always held great power: the name Yahweh. This is the Holy Name of God – the name of the Creator. This is the name of God that shall not be taken in vain, the subject of the second commandment. Exodus 3.13-15 - “Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ 15God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.”
Whenever a Jewish person comes on the name Yahweh while reading the Scriptures, they will automatically use the word “Adoni” in its place. For them, the letters YHWH contain a name that is far too holy for us mortals to speak. So this is the first “name of God;” a name so separate from our existence that speaking it improperly can lead to punishment. Not exactly a name we can feel comfortable using, wouldn’t you say?
But in the name of Jesus we are given something different, because in Jesus Himself we are given something different. When Moses asked for God’s name, he was speaking to a burning bush on holy ground – a place set apart from normal human life. When Joseph and Mary gave God’s Son a name, they were naming an infant boy, on the eighth day of his life, who looked no different than any other boy who was circumcised & named that day. In Jesus, the infant child of Mary and Joseph, God gave us a name for Himself that we could use – a name that gives us all the things we’ve been talking about this morning.
The name “Jesus” gives God’s Son an Identity. The Messiah is NOT Joe Smith of Paducah, KY – he is Jesus of Nazareth. The Christ of God is Jesus of Nazareth. The Wonderful Counselor is Jesus of Nazareth. The Prince of Peace is Jesus of Nazareth. God’s Son is Jesus of Nazareth. The name Jesus gives us the identity of God’s Son.
The name “Jesus” allows us to have Friendship with God, also. In Jesus you are on a first-name basis with God – as close as any of us come to any of our own friends. No nickname could ever mean more. Think of the best friend you’ve ever had, the closest friend who has been with you through thick and thin, and think of the name you use that gives the most love to that friend – this is the friendship that the name “Jesus” is meant to give to you.
The name “Jesus” means that you’ve been Inclusion in a community, too. When you gather for worship here, you don’t gather randomly – you gather “in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” You pray in Jesus’ name. You are called “Christians” because you are members of a community that follows Jesus Christ. Without the name of Jesus, this community has no definition to it. We are here because the name of Jesus has been given to us, and it means something to us, and we are determined to help each other remember and honor the name that has given us membership here. No other name is worshipped here – the name of Jesus is the only name to be lifted up inside these walls.
The name “Jesus” gives you a Responsibility as well. Are you marked with the Cross of Christ in your baptism? Are you a member of this Christian church? Then you carry with you in all your daily life the name of Jesus, and all that you do reflects on the name of Jesus that identifies you.
All these things are what happens when God gives us the name of Jesus – but these aren’t what makes Jesus the Name above all Names. What we do with God’s name only shows how well we’ve understood what it means to have God’s name. What makes the name of Jesus so powerful is its meaning. “Jesus” comes from the Jewish name “Yeshua” or “Joshua,” and it literally means “YHWH is my Salvation.” When God takes the name Jesus, God is making a promise: the name Jesus will forever be set apart as the name of Salvation – and God is going to give that name to every corner of the world before God is through. So the name itself reminds us that our identity, our friendship, our inclusion and our responsibility do not save us – only YHWH saves us, and the name under which YHWH saves is the name “Jesus.”
In the moment of meeting, when Jesus was revealed to Simeon, he didn’t know about the life Jesus would lead, the teaching, the disciples, the praises, the betrayals, the cross. That kind of knowledge only comes through sharing life, through walking together, through seeing the promise lived out in time. But because Simeon heard the name, “YHWH is my salvation,” and felt in his heart the nudging of the Holy Spirit, he knew that something new was afoot. He knew what had been promised had come true. And he proclaimed that truth to all who would hear.
So today the hopes and fears of all the years are met in the name “Jesus.” God’s love comes to the world through God’s salvation, Jesus. Peace comes to the world through God’s salvation, Jesus. Hope comes to the world through God’s salvation, Jesus. Joy comes to the world through God’s salvation, Jesus. Life comes to the world through God’s salvation, Jesus. Do we know what that will mean in this new year? No. What we do know is this: you and I, identified as Christians, friends with God, members of the Christian community and responsible for bearing its name, are saved by God and set free to go into the world in the name of Jesus, the name that says that “God is our salvation.” Bearers of the name, be blessed by the power of Jesus name in this new year. Go in peace – for you know the name of God’s salvation. Amen.