Tuesday, December 08, 2009

What's in a name?

I have several talks to do over the next two weeks for various Christmas events. Here's a draft one I'm think of using for a parents' group talk.

I guess most of us choose our child’s name on the basis of what we like, or maybe a family name or tradition. Rarely do we think about choosing a name that means something. For other traditions names are chosen more carefully. In the Ancient Near Eastern world, names often came from circumstances of birth. The Bible records many such names. One example is Jacob. I have a great nephew called Jacob.

Some of the names dictionaries have tried to soften the original meaning of the name. One dictionary I found online defined Jacob as meaning conqueror, another said it meant “following closely”. The Bible simply tells us that it meant “he grasps the heel” because that is what he was doing when he was born, hanging on to his brother’s heel. But it was more than just a description of how he was born, it carries with it the connotation of being a deceiver, a con-artist.

I’m not sure my great nephew would want to know this about his name, nor that his illustrious counterpart lived up to his name as he conned his brother, his father and his uncle before God took hold of him and changed his name and his attitude.

It’s not easy choosing a name, and in the end most of us seem to grow up wishing that either our parents had given our names a little more thought or looking for an alternative. And it’s not just the name we are given at birth that matters. There are the unwritten names we are given as we grow up. He’s slow and awkward, she’s not too bright, he won’t amount to much, she isn’t pretty.

Such names can have a profound affect upon us as we progress through childhood and teenage years into adulthood. We carry the scars of all the names that have been written on our souls.
But here’s the good news. We don’t have to carry those names forever. Because of one child who came into the world 2000 years ago, who bore two significant names, who carried those names with him throughout his lifetime and beyond, we do not have to be defined by the names we’ve been called.

As Mary and Joseph prepared to become parents to their first child, a child conceived miraculously by the power of God and according to the purposes of God, they received very clear instructions about his name. He was to be called Jesus. Why? Because it means something special. It means he will save his people. Who are his people? Well the Bible makes it clear that anyone who chooses to trust their life into the hands of God becomes one of his people.

There was a day when some members of his family were asking questions about the sanity of Jesus. “Your mother and brothers are at the door”, he was told as he sat in a crowded house teaching those around him. “Anyone,” Jesus said, “who does the will of my father is a member of my family.”

He was also called Immanuel, which means “God with us”. Not just spiritually present, but physically present. Not just pretending to be human but actually being born as a baby, growing up into a man. Fully God and fully human. As one of the gospel writers put it, “he became one of us”

He had other names too. Names given to him that described what he did: teacher, healer, Rabbi. Others that would describe what he would experience. Man of sorrows, for example. Some names were meant as insults. The religious people called him “friend of sinners”. Personally I think he probably liked that one best of all, for that is what he was and that is what he remains, a friend to all those who know they need forgiveness for their mistakes and the opportunity of a new start in their lives.

So, if you are having or planning to have another child, give their name careful thought. And as you look at the Christmas pictures of the baby in a stable, remember that he grew up to fulfil the meaning of the names he was given. And because he did this, you can find freedom from the names that have brought pain and suffering into your life as you discover the power that is in the name of Jesus.

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