A new name

When I was a child, I spent a lot of time in the truck with my dad, driving to and fro as we did errands for the farm. I don’t remember much of what we actually talked about on those long drives, but one of the few things I remember is a question that only an eight year old would ask… one of those questions that those of you who are parents probably think about with dread.

“Dad”, I said, “if I was named something other than Amanda, would I still be me?”

If I didn’t have my name, would I still be me?

Now, I have no memory of what my dad said in response. It was probably some attempt to answer what is an actually an impossible question. (sorry, Dad)

If I didn’t have my name, would I still be me? If you didn’t have your name, would you still be you?

Names are important. Just think about that moment when you see the person who is dearest to you in the world after a long absence, that moment when they say your name: so full of joy, of love, of warmth. When someone we love says our name like that, it is a feeling, at least in my experience, that I’m fully known by that person. Speaking my name feels like an acknowledgement that they accept and love me for who I am.

And despite that old rhyme about sticks and stones, words hurt. Names can hurt. Anyone who’s ever been called a horrible nickname by a bully on the playground knows what it’s like to have someone mess with *who we are*, a little piece of ourselves, our identity.

Names matter. What we call people, matters. A name can be weaponized through anger, or it can become the most beautiful music when said by someone we love. Names matter in the Bible too—just a few weeks ago in Advent, we spent an entire Gospel lesson hearing names upon names upon names: Jesus’ genealogy.  

Names matter. And so in Isaiah, we find God promising a new name to a sad and broken land.

“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,

and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,

until her vindication shines out like the dawn,

and her salvation like a burning torch.

The nations shall see your vindication,

and all the kings your glory;

and you shall be called by a new name

that the mouth of the Lord will give.

You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,

and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.”

Isaiah is a book of the Bible where we find the Israelites struggling with their identity. They’ve been wandering away from God for so long that they don’t know how to be God’s people anymore. The readings from this book alternate between God expressing anger at Israel’s unfaithfulness on the one hand, and the promises God makes that say there will be hope and life at the end of all this war and evil.

And all of this promise, this hope for the future, is symbolized by a new name.

“you shall be called by a new name

that the mouth of the Lord will give”

Isaiah is not the only reading this morning that talks about names. The gospel, that famous passage from the first chapter of John, is also about new names. In it, the Word of God, the son of God, takes on a new name.

“the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

The Word became flesh and took on a new name, the name of Jesus Christ.

Christ is, as Paul says, born under the law to redeem those under the law. Jesus Christ, born in a manger, the redeemer of Bethlehem, Nazareth and Calvary.[1] Jesus Christ, who took on a new name so that you and I might know him, love him, and adore him.

So as I conclude, I’d like to return to the question that we started with:

If I didn’t have my name, would I still be me? If you didn’t have your name, would you still be you?

After reading today’s lessons, what I would tell my childhood self is this: the new name which you might be called to: a new vocation, a new orientation—a new way of following God in this world, is not changing your identity. I will still be me. You will still be you. The new name to which we are called is more “us” than we could even imagine.

A new name is the fulfillment of promises hoped for. God has already called us by a new name: his people. And perhaps when God calls us by a new name, (a new call, a new way of being in the world), we will recognize it as the fulfillment of everything we’ve ever hoped for—all of God’s promises to remake and redeem us—fulfilled in the Christ who took on a new name for all of us.

As we approach the beginning of the new year, may we remember that regardless of what resolution we take on, God is always calling us by a new name, drawing us ever closer to himself, and the promise of a world renewed. Will you answer?

[1] See this lovely sermon for reference: https://www.ssje.org/2019/12/24/the-poverty-of-bethlehem-nazareth-calvary-br-james-koester/

Sermon preached on 12/29/19 at Little Fork Church, Rixeyville, VA.

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