Friday, November 20, 2009

What’s in a name…

I grew up desperately wanting a nickname, and it never happened. Sure, Mom and Dad called me, “Bud,” but Moms’ and Dads’ nicknames don’t count. Sister Shannon dubbed me, “Shane-pole,” in reference to my minute stature. But that was less a nickname then a sibling insult. No matter what I tried- dropping hints, printing names on jerseys- nothing stuck. My barber in Lexington would say, every time I came in the shop, “Hey there, Preacher.” I don’t think he actually knew my name, but it was good enough for me. So feel free to just call me “Preacher.”

Waaay back in the day, there was a theory about naming: a child’s name could predict the kind of person that child would become. So when Isaac named Jacob (which means “supplanter”), it foreshadowed his supplanting Esau, the older brother. In other words, the ancients believed there’s something powerful in the act of naming. Nicknames continue that tradition. My favorite basketball team has a player named DeMarcus Cousins. Teammates say he’s a humorous, kind-hearted guy…off the court. On the court, DeMarcus becomes “Big Cuz,” and Big Cuz is an all-business, rough-playing power forward. It’s like the nickname brings a new personality; it has the power to transform.
Here is the beginning of my post.

Another ancient tradition of naming was that, when you knew another’s name, you held power over that person. In other words, naming has the power both to transform you, or control you. Exodus tells a story of Moses working as a shepherd. One day, he’s out with the sheep alone, when God starts a fire in a nearby bush, and begins speaking, “Moses, set my people free.” Moses says, “Who should I tell them sent me?” God responds, “Tell them the LORD sent you.” “The LORD?” “Yeah, it means, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’” Religious journalist Karen Armstrong contends that’s like a Biblical joke; God telling Moses, “Do what I say; my name belongs to me.” For millennia since, many observant Jews will not pronounce the LORD’s name. For it is so Holy and sacred, and we should never presume to control God.

But whether the faithful would utter God’s name or not, when God claimed, “I AM WHO I AM,” God revealed something powerful. God’s people now had a label to hold onto; God had let down some of the veil surrounding God’s mysterious presence. As Israel’s sages understood, this didn’t mean that everything about the divine was suddenly clear. But they learned it’s in our God’s nature to reveal Godself; God desires to be known. And as the Moses story also contends, in receiving God’s self-revelation, we are liberated, or as Jesus put it, “the truth shall set you free.”

Now I can’t say this from experience, but I imagine that finding just the right name for an expected child is a fun part of preparing for parenthood. What will this name say about my child? Will it inhibit them, or set them free? Will it connect her to her heritage, and still help her feel unique and special? As names are explored, tried on, discarded, traded between parents, they participate in that ageless naming ritual. And even without saying so aloud, we know this act is powerful and profound.

For millennia, the Christian Church has participated in this process. With all due respect for Mary and Joseph’s original decision, we’ve given Jesus many different names- Wonderful Counselor, Righteous Branch, Lion of Judah- and these names shape our understanding of God. Indeed, because Jesus is God’s self-revelation to Christians, how we understand Jesus’ many names impacts the liberating freedom we and our neighbors receive in Christ.

So this Advent, we will explore the “Names of the Expected Child.” Like Mary and Joseph, we’ll prepare for Jesus’ birth by sorting through the many names he’s been given over the centuries. Some will be familiar; some may be new discoveries to you. But they’ve all participated in that basic fact of God’s self-revelation in Jesus- The more we know about the truth of God, the more we, and this world, is set free. That’s what’s in a name when it’s God’s name. In all things,

Grace and Peace,