January 1, 2016
Numbers 6.22-27, Psalm 8, Galatians 4.4-7 and Luke 2.15-21
+ Happy New Year. I always sort of revel in the New Year. I really kind of like this time. I love getting up early on New Year’s Day and driving around town. It is so quiet and so serene.
This getting up early on New Year’s Day is a new tradition for me, especially ever since I became a teetotaler a few years ago. It’s nice waking up on New Year’s Day and not having a hangover, or, as my mother calls it, the “bottle flu.” There is always something so hopeful and wonderful about New Year’s Day.
But…I am going to share a story of a time when it wasn’t so wonderful and hopeful in my life. Fifteen years ago, as the new year of 2002 began, I faced a bleak new year. I had just been laid off from a job I really enjoyed because, surprise of surprises, I had some issues with my superiors. If you thought I was rebellious now, you should’ve seen me back in 2001!
It was an unpleasant situation, and two days after Christmas, they informed me that they were letting me go due to a “financial shortfall.” I knew the real reason., We all did.
But I limped toward the end of that year beaten down a bit. I was still three years away from being ordained a priest, and the past year had been a particularly difficult one for me in ministry. I was still transitioning from my pre-ministry life to the stark realities of what real ministry was like. And, let’s just say, it was hard. And it wasn’t always fun.
As that New Year dawned, I, for the first time in several years, had very serious doubts about whether I should be ordained or not. And I was, to put it bluntly, struggling. I was definitely praying for an answer, but no clear answer came.
In fact, rather than a clear answer telling me I should definitely go forward, the new year brought me a bigger devastation than losing my job. In February of 2002, I was diagnosed with cancer. And I spent most of the rest of that year getting better.
It’s not the most pleasant story for us to hear on this New Year’s Eve. But…actually it kind of is. The answers I received to the prayers I was praying on that bleak New Year’s Day in 2002 were answered. They were just not answered in the ways I expected, or even wanted. My zeal for being a priest was renewed. I was healed. I got well. I pushed forward. And look! I endured.
And when anyone asked me then, or even now, what got me through, I say:
The love of my parents, the support of my friends and the Holy Name of Jesus.
In the midst of the stress and turmoil of it all, in those moments, when I couldn’t form a tangible prayer in my head, the prayer I prayed most was simply the Name of Jesus. If any of you have ever been anointed by me in the hospital or at any other time, you will have invariably heard me repeat a wonderful passage that we find in the Book of Common Prayer. It goes,
The Almighty Lord, who is a strong tower to all who put their trust in him, to whom all things in heaven, on earth, and under the earth bow and obey: Be now and evermore your defense, and make you know and feel that the only Name under heaven given for health and salvation is the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
That passage spoke loudly to me back in 2002, especially when I was so sick. And you know what? It speaks loudly to us this morning as we begin this year of 2017.
Today, we celebrated the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. This feast used to be known at the Circumcision of Our Lord. We have kept the feast, but we’ve changed the name, probably for good reason. On the eighth day following Jesus’ birth, he, like all Jewish males born in his time, was brought to the temple, circumcised and named.
His name, Jesus or Joshua, Yeshua in Hebrew, was a common name in his day. There are two differing translation of the name: one is “God with us.” The other is “God saves,” or more specifically “God saves us from our sins.”
Today is an important feast. It’s a VERY important feast. Because, that Name is important to us. It’s important to those of who have been healed by it. It’s important for those of us who have found that it is, at times, the only prayer we can pray.
Today’s feast also reminds us that we do truly have an intimate relationship with God. God is no longer a nameless, distant deity. God has a name. The God who came to us in Jesus has a name.
Names, after all, are important. Our names are important to us. They define us. We have been trained to respond when we hear our name called. We, in effect, are our names. Our names and ourselves are bound inexorably together. Our name is truly who we are.
The same can be said of God. In the Old Testament God reveals the Divine Name as Yahweh. Yahweh is such a sacred and holy word to Jewish people that it cannot even be repeated. In a sense, the name Yahweh becomes so intertwined with Who God is that is becomes, for the Jews, almost like God. And I agree completely.
It is the Name God revealed to Aaron. God said,
“they shall put my name—Yahweh—on them and I will bless them.”
The message here to all of us is that to have a truly meaningful relationship with anyone—to truly know them—we need to know them by their name.
So, too, is this same idea used when we think about our own relationship with God and, in turn, God’s relationship with us. God knows us by name and we know God by name. This is important. God is not simply some distant Being we vaguely comprehend. God is close. God is here, with us. God knows us and we know God. We know each other by name.
This is why the name of Jesus is important to us. That is why we give the Name a certain level of respect. Like the Name that was revealed to Aaron, so has the Name of our God been revealed to us. And like the name Yahweh to the Jews, the Name of Jesus is holy and sacred to us Christians.
Certainly even for us, the Name is a vital and important part of what we believe as Christians. The collect for today recalls that the name of Jesus is the “sign of our salvation.”
Now, I don’t see that as a sweet, overly sentimental notion. I see it as a very important part of who we are as Christians.
As most of you know, I try very hard to take the Name of Jesus very seriously. Coming from a more Anglo-Catholic background, you’ll notice during our liturgy on Sunday or Wednesday night, I bow my head every time the Name of Jesus is mentioned. Again, I don’t see that as an overly pious action. I see it as a sign of respect for Jesus at a time when his Name is widely abused and misused.
We’ve all done it. We’ve all sworn, using the Name in a disrespectful way. I’ve done it. We have not given the rightful respect to God’s name in our lives, even when we know full well that a name is more than just a name.
A Name is, in a sense, one’s very essence. Certainly in the case of Jesus case, it is. Jesus is “God with us.” Jesus is “God saving us.” By this very name we have a special relationship with this God who has come among us. We belong to this God whose name we know. God, in Jesus, has come to all of us. God in Jesus knows each of us by name. We are special to our God. We are, each of us, deeply loved and cared for by our God.
Certainly those of us who are Christian know this in a unique way. When we were baptized, we, like Jesus eight days after his birth, were named. At our baptism, we were signed as Christ’s own forever. We were claimed by God by name. By Baptism, our own names became holy names. By Baptism, God came to know us by name and because of that, our names are sanctified. We bear in us our own holy name before God.
So today—this day we celebrate not only God’s holy name but our own as well—and in the days to come, take to heart the fact that God’s name is holy and sacred. Be mindful of the words you use and be mindful of that name of Jesus in your life.
But also be mindful of your own holy name. When you hear your own name, remember that it is the name God knows you by and, as a result, it is truly holy. In sense our own names can be translated as “God with us.” When we hear our names, let us hear “God saves us.” And let us be reminded that God knows us better than anyone else—even our own selves. Claim the holiness of your name and know that God in Jesus is calling you to your own fullness of life by name. Amen.