You are here

What's in a Name?

Rev. John M. Edgerton
Feb 10 2013


Listen, O you who are beloved of God, listen to a story about the messiah. It is not a well known story, it’s one of the stories only Brother Luke was wise enough to include in the good news. Listen to a story that begins when the Son of God had no name.

The child was crying again, waking his mother Mary from the dreamless oblivion of exhausted sleep. The child was seven days old and crying for milk and would only stop if Mary took him in her arms to nurse. At the sharp start of the newly familiar ache at her breast Mary’s mind began to wander. Back to the angel, the one called Gabriel who stands in the very presence of God and spoke words that Mary could never forget: You will bear a Son, the Son of the Most High, of his Kingdom there will be no end. But the angel was not with Mary now, Mary who was alone able to give the child the sustenance he needed to survive, the milk he cried for most every hour of the day and night.

The child’s hunger sated for the moment, Mary bounced and burped the child and laid him down again to sleep away an hour or two, pondering for the hundredth time about the shepherds. Mary remembered that crowd of coarse and uninvited men who had streamed in from who knows where with Mary still sore from labor and beyond weary. They crowded around the child and strained with dirty hands to touch him. They were full of more talk of angels, angels who, they said, proclaimed the child was the Messiah, a new Lord for the land of Israel. But the shepherds too had left, leaving Mary to swaddle and clean and nurse and comfort and worry over the tiny Lord of the land of Israel, the messiah who could not even hold up his head, the savior whose only link to life was mother’s milk from Mary’s breast. The child was helpless, as helpless as all infants are when they are seven days old. His hold on life was as tenuous and contingent as it is for any seven-day old. And worst of all was that just like every other seven-day old boy in Israel, he did not even have a name. The Law of Moses commanded that a boy be circumcised when he is eight days old. Then and only then could he be given a name.

To have no name at all is a dangerous thing because a name is important. A name is your destiny. A name is your pride and your path. I admire and wonder at those who change their names, who leave behind a whole life to embark on a different life of their own choosing. A name is destiny, a name is life, so to be without a name is dangerous. For, how can your name be destined for greatness if you have no name at all? How can your name be written in the book of life if you have no name at all? As the child’s seventh and final nameless day ended with the setting sun, Mary made ready for the circumcision. The circumcision was as they all were. There was blood and tears and Mary held the wailing child close, close, close. And with a mother’s voice full of pride and power she spoke for the first time the child’s name—“God has saved us” that is, Jesus. Mary named her son Jesus, which means “God has saved us”.

That’s the story of how Jesus got his name, and only Brother Luke tells the good news quite that way. Only brother Luke was wise enough to mention that it was Mary who named Jesus. Only Brother Luke was wise enough to recount just how helpless Jesus had been. Brother Luke teaches us that Jesus Christ was born as weak and vulnerable as an ordinary human being. And the fact that Jesus was a completely ordinary infant makes it all the more inexplicable what he would be able to do when he became a man. Because the things that Jesus could do, no ordinary person could do. Brother Luke tells us that the amazing deeds of Jesus began in a city called Capernaum by the sea. There in Capernaum, after synagogue one Sabbath he was brought to the home of a woman who had a fever burning like a wildfire inside of her. But at the mere presence of Jesus, the vile fever that infected her fled from her body like roaches skittering away from a great and sudden light. She was her old self again, as strong as if she had never been sick at all. News of this spread through the town so quickly that before the night was over, every single sick person in Capernaum had been brought before Jesus and sent away right as rain. The dying were made hale again, hobbled limbs were made lithe again, and Capernaum was left free of all illness. No one could do things like that, not even the great prophets of old.

Jesus was different. There was a light inside of Jesus like the first light of creation. There were three men from Capernaum who saw that light clearly enough to know to follow after Jesus. They were Peter, James, and John, fishermen one and all. Brother Luke tells the story of how these fishermen sailed across the Sea of Galilee with Jesus. And with land out of sight and only merciless water all around, clouds began to gather and the sea grew darker and a windstorm swept down on them. Peter, James and John were no strangers to the Sea of Galilee. They knew its moods. They had made a living on that sea and were raised by parents who had made their living on that sea. So when Brother Luke tells us that the storm was overcoming them, understand that this was no ordinary windstorm. The boat began to fill up with water and they were afraid and called out to Jesus that they were perishing.

But at just the sound of Jesus’ voice the raging waves stopped churning and the whipping wind fell to a dead calm. And if Peter James and John had been afraid before they were terrified now, because the seas and the winds cannot be controlled, fishermen know that. But at a word from Jesus it was as if new and unwavering laws of nature held both air and water still as stone. No one could do things like that, not even the great prophets of old. Jesus was different. There was a light inside of Jesus like the first light of creation and reality bent back like a bow to obey him.

From the stories Brother Luke tells, Jesus was beginning to live up to meaning of his name, which is “God Has Saved Us”. One day, Jesus took the three fishermen he caught in Capernaum and they went up a tall mountain in order to pray. By the time they reached the top they were exhausted and it was nighttime. As Jesus was praying, the sound of his voice and the lateness of the hour and the warm ache of limbs more accustomed to rowing than mountain climbing began to weigh on the young fishermen. They fought sleep and in the night’s darkness and the thin air they were able to see for the first time the light inside of Jesus shining as clear as day. His face looked different somehow, and the light shined out from him and pooled in a circle around him and in that circle of light stood two men who had not been there before. They were speaking with Jesus, and Brother Luke tells us that they were Moses of the burning bush and Elijah whose return foretold God’s coming reign. These dead men, these prophets had gone the way of all flesh centuries before stood and spoke with Jesus as plain as you please. It was as if the curtains of time and place and life and death were pulled back and all illusory things disappeared and the fishermen could see that eternity stood behind all things. And with the curtains pulled back and the light of ages shining, we’re told the fishermen heard a voice. The voice was close, close, close, close and it spoke with a mother’s voice full of power and pride. A mother’s voice said “This is my Son, the chosen, listen to him!”

Yes, Jesus was a miracle worker like no servant of God had been before him. Brother Luke testifies as much in telling the story of Jesus healing all of Capernaum, and Jesus calming the storm, and Jesus shining with glory on the mountaintop. Jesus is full of divine power, yes, Jesus is the Son of God. Because that is not all that Jesus is. Brother Luke tells the good news like no one else. Because in a world and a culture in which only men’s voices were valued, Brother Luke is wise enough to tell women’s stories, not simply men’s as if our eyes saw all there was to see. In a world and a culture where only adults mattered, Brother Luke tells the story of when the Son of God was helpless, how the savior of humanity needed saving, how the Son of God was held up by strong arms before he was strong enough to even bear the weight of a name.

Brother Luke gives us a great gift in telling the story of the savior this way, because we can see that Jesus is not simply the Son of God and Jesus is not simply a child of humanity. Jesus is something new and intermingled. Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the new creation. He is the forerunner for each one of us when we pass into eternity. For Jesus is a human being through and through—flesh bone and blood— but Jesus too is the pure light of the divine, which suffuses all the universe. Jesus is a man born of a certain time and place, who lived and grew and died. But Jesus too is a walker of the ley-lines of infinity, The One for whom here and now is everywhere and always. And in the intermingling of human-ness and God-ness, salvation comes to all humanity. Humanity is saved because God has made human nature a part of God’s own being. Because Jesus Christ is a human being, what is means to be human is a part of what it means to be God.

To be human is part of what it means to be God. That is what it means to be saved, it means that we dwell within God’s own being, and God’s own being dwells within us. And all of this is captured by Brother Luke who told the story of Christ’s glory on the mountaintop, and Christ’s helplessness as a newborn child. So thank God for Brother Luke who told the stories of women, and who told the stories of the helpless child. Thank God for Brother Luke who told us the story of how Jesus Christ got his name, which means “God has saved us”.