What’s in a name?

The sermon from this past Sunday, January 1, 2017 – The Holy Name of Jesus. The audio is better than the written copy and at some point I intend to edit the text to match the sermon. In the meantime, feel free to listen to the sermon here

Holy Name of Jesus (January 1, 2017)

  • First reading
    • Numbers 6:22-27
  • Psalm
    • Psalm 8
  • Second reading
    • Galatians 4:4-7
  • Gospel
    • Luke 2:15-21

Numbers 6:27 So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

Luke 2:21 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. [Luke 1:31]

The name I was given at birth is Christian Mark Brady. My family and friends all called me Chris. People who weren’t friends found all sorts of rhymes for “Chris” that I think you can guess. When I was in elementary school Ms. Nichols refused to teach me how to spell my full, first name, saying that “it might offend the Jewish students in the class.” After my grandfather, John William McNamara, died, survived by his wife and two daughters, I added a second “M” to my middle names to honor him. I am now known formerly as “Christian Mark McNamara Brady.” After Elizabeth and I married and moved to England, everyone there called me “Christian” and I liked the fuller form of my name. I continued to use “Christian” when I arrived at Tulane University as a visiting assistant professor of Jewish Studies. As I was applying for the permanent position (which I was offered) I was encouraged by an adjunct professor and local rabbi to just use “Chris” if I wanted the permanent job. I was named after a German uncle.

What is in a name? Today parents might name their children for all sorts of different reasons. It might be a family name like our children. Others look for something truly different and unique like Moon Unit Zappa, daughter of the musician Frank Zappa, or Sylvester Stallone’s son, Sage Moonblood. Names can be important, powerful, and can often shape us in more ways than the parents or child might know.

In the Bible, Adam is the name of the first male human and the term for all humanity. He is also so-named because he is from the earth ‘adama. And he in turned “named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living.” The name Eve sounds like the term for life, חי. Jacob was so-named because he was born grasping the heel (Heb. ʿāqēḇ) of his brother and later his named was changed to Israel because he had striven (*שׂרה) with God, thus yiśrāʾēl. And we could go on for many other people in the Bible. Not everyone, but many names have significance.1

 

The priests of Dagon in their fishy outfits. In antiquity, the name of a deity often indicated the god’s power or domain. So the Canaanite deities for the sun and the moon were called Semesh and Yareach, the Canaanite (and Hebrew) words for sun and moon. Not coincidentally, that is why in Genesis 1 the Bible states that God created the “greater and the lesser lights” as a statement that these are nothing more than the creations of God and not themselves gods. And my favorite, the Philistine deity Dagon, famous in the Bible from 1 Samuel 5 when his idol comes crashing down before the Ark of the Covenant. Dagon is most likely associated with fish (Hebrew דג), fitting for a sea people’s god, and the comic Bible I had as a child depicted the priests as wearing fish robes. Love it.

In today’s reading from Numbers God tells Moses that he will bless Israel by putting “my name on the Israelites.”

Num. 6:23b Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,
24 The LORD bless you and keep you;
25 the LORD make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
26 the LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
27 So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

But what is God’s name? You might say “the LORD” but what does that mean? In English “lord” means a master, someone who rules over another, not necessarily an inappropriate name for the God of all creation, but it is not actual an accurate translation of the Hebrew. The Hebrew for the name of God are the four letters yod, heh, waw, heh, “Yahweh.” We sometimes refer to it as the “tetragrammaton,” simply meaning “four letters,” and in Jewish tradition, already by the time of Jesus, it was believed that it was inappropriate to utter or say the Name of God. The fact that here in Numbers God commands Moses and Aaron that they should utter the name over the nation of Israel tells us that this was not always the case. But in order to avoid saying the name of God, Yahweh, they would instead pronounce the word for “lord,” Adonai. This was likely because in the Psalms, such as today’s, the name of God and the word Adonai were placed as complements to one another. Thus Psalm 8 actually begins יְהוָה אֲדֹנֵינוּ “O Yahweh our lord.” Today orthodox Jews will not even say that and instead will replace the word with HaShem which means “the Name.”

But again, what is God’s name? What does “Yahweh” mean? Do you remember when God reveals his name? It is at the bush that burns and yet is not consumed.

Ex. 3:13 But 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?” 14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM אֶהְיֶה  has sent me to you.’”

15 God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The LORD יְהוָה, 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.

The name of God is a verb. In fact, it is the verb of existence, the verb “to be.” (And I should point out that in Hebrew and, it happens, in Greek the verb “to be” is not used as we do in English.) The name of God is the verb “to be” and so God’s name is conjugated. When God is speaking he tells Moses that his name is “I AM.” But of course Moses isn’t God so when he speaks to the Israelites he is to say that the God who sent him is יְהוָה. This is where all our English translations let us down. Where they render אֶהְיֶה אֲשֶׁר אֶהְיֶה as “I AM WHO I AM” (or “I AM that which I AM”), which is reasonable since the first person of the verb “to be” is “I am!” But when we get to the 3 person masculine singular they default to the traditional “LORD” (in all caps) and we miss the fact that this is the same word, the same name as in verse 14.

So, I will say it again, the name of God is the verb of existence. “He is.” Contemplate that for a moment, for days, contemplate that for a lifetime.

God is existence. God is being. To borrow John’s phrase from last Sunday’s Gospel, (1:3) “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” God, our God, is not the sun or the moon, the fish or the grain, fertility or death. God is. And God always has been. Did you ever notice that the Bible, unlike all any other religious stories and myths I know of, the Bible does not provide us with an explanation for the origins of God. He was not birthed by the great chaos, he is not the product of some battle or cosmic familial spat, God is not an alien from another planet. God is. (And notice present tense! Not past or future, God Is.)

God Is. And we and all creation are sustained by him. We exist because He Is.

This is not to suggest some pantheistic notion that “God is in everything,” that we all “contain God,” or any other such heretical notions. Rather it is to affirm that all things have come into being through him and without him is nothing. He Is. Full stop. In fact, just as the opening to John’s Gospel makes these statements about Jesus, Jesus himself declares that He Is God. In eight instances in the Gospel of John, Jesus says clearly, “I am,” ἐγὼ εἰμί. In John 8:58, for example, when challenged how he could possibly know Abraham, Jesus replied, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”

Jesus Is. Just as God Is. He Is.

But his name is not “Jesus,” at least not in Hebrew. It is Joshua or “Yehoshua.” Can you hear it in that first syllable, the name of God? Yah. And the second portion is from the Hebrew root *ישע meaning “to deliver or save.” Thus the name of the boy born to Mary, circumcised on the eight day in accordance with the Law, was named “Yahweh saves.” Just as the angel declared to Joseph when he said that Mary “will bear a son, and you are to name him Yehoshua, Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

This is Jesus’ name and his purpose. God so loved this world that he gave his only Son to save the world, through belief in him and his sacrifice for us. The Lord Saves through his Son.

Shortly before Christmas you might have seen the NY Time’s Nicholas Kristoff’s interview with Evangelical pastor Tim Keller.2 One Christian blogger declared that Keller “highlights in a single sentence what is fundamentally deficient in American Evangelicalism.3 What single sentence could be so damning? Kristoff was asking Keller what he considered the most fundamental beliefs of Christianity.

Kristoff: And the Resurrection? Must it really be taken literally?

Keller: Jesus’ teaching was not the main point of his mission. He came to save people through his death for sin and his resurrection. So his important ethical teaching only makes sense when you don’t separate it from these historic doctrines.

This, to the blogger Steve Hackman, was the smoking gun. The problem with Evangelicalism was present in this single sentence, the assertion that Jesus’ “teaching was not the main point of his mission.”

I am not going to be an apologist for American Evangelicalism, I have my own list of concerns and issues, but I think it is Hackman who has misunderstood the mission of Jesus. It is right there in his name, The LORD Saves.

Or to look at it another way around, the ethical and moral teachings of Jesus are completely in line with the Law. Jesus’ teachings affirm that which was given by God to Israel. The most important commandments, as Jesus said, are to love the Lord you God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love your neighbor as yourselves. This is straight out of the Law. And there were many great teachers of the same during Jesus’ own day; the most obvious to Christians is John the Baptist. But Jesus wasn’t just a teacher.

What was unique about Jesus and his teaching was the assertion that he was the Son of God, the Messiah sent by Yahweh to save the world, and that he would do so by offering himself up as a sacrifice for our sins. This is why Rabbi Jesus was not just any rabbi. He was the One who Saves.

As we go through this new Church year, listen to the words of Jesus as we read them each week in the Gospels. Hear his teachings and challenge to us. When you read the Old Testament consider also the example of those saints who sought to follow God as children of Israel, children of the Promise, how the Son has fulfilled the Law, and in so doing has allowed us to be adopted and are now co-heirs with Christ. Listen also to the Epistles as Paul, James, and John give us guidance and direction to understand and live out this new Promise, the new Law, the new Covenant that has been given to us through the Son.

Since…

Phil. 2:7b … being found in human form, 2:8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross. 2:9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 2:10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 2:11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Amen. ✠

 
  1. For the sake of the blog and any linguistically minded people reading, I will point out that many biblical names are considered folk etymologies. That is to say, the relationship with the word and the name are not necessarily linguistically related. It has little bearing, however, for the meaning of the names within biblical and traditional usage. []
  2. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/23/opinion/sunday/pastor-am-i-a-christian.html?_r=0 []
  3. http://www.stevehackman.net/tim-kellers-n-y-times-interview-reveals-american-evangelicals-problem-in-a-single-sentence/ []

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