Wednesday, February 21, 2007

What's In A Name?

Texts: Isaiah 62:1-5; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

I can’t remember exactly when, but sometime between the end of elementary and the first year of middle school, looking up your name in baby books became the it thing. This followed on the heels of collecting trolls, those ugly little toys for some reason everyone wanted, and preceded the phenomenon known as MASH. Everyone wanted to know what their name meant, who had a cooler meaning than others. The group of prepubescent girls I was friends formed a competition of sorts. According to the books, my name means beloved – pretty good if you ask me. Still, my friend who is named Sarah won our odd little competition. Anyone named Sarah knows it comes from the Hebrew meaning princess. When you’re an eleven or twelve year old girl, a princess is pretty much the top of the top.

Had I known what I know now, though, I think I could have won. When I was in college a friend of mine who was taking Greek told me that my name, Amy, though spelled differently surely, means I AM… You know, as in what did God in the burning bush say to Moses when he asked what he should call the divine. Oh, you know I loved that. And while princess is still pretty cool, I think God’s name for Godself beats anything.

Our names have meaning – and it’s not just about the translation. Our names say something about us, about our history, about who we are. Sometimes our names seem to match well with our personality. When I was a kid going through my marathon readings of the Bible, I was always impressed that people’s names seemed to match up with what their personality or their actions. Like wise king Solomon whose name means peace, complete, or sound. Or Noah whose name means both settle down and lead. Both these men’s names match with who they were. Of course, that doesn’t always happen, which is why you find people changing their first names, saying, I don’t feel like a Barbara or a Wilbur.

Even though I’d like to believe my name which means beloved speaks about my personality, I do know it tells the story of my family. If you know my first and middle name, Amy Danielle, you know I was named after my mother’s cousin and my father. You may also learn that I’m Amy Danielle, and not Danielle Amy, because while my father wanted to name me after him, my mother didn’t believe a child should be named after a parent. Knowing that story, and of course my nice hyphenated last name, you can have a pretty could idea about the dynamics of my parents.

Along with our given names, many of us have nicknames that say something about us. Names have meaning and nicknames, our renaming by family and friends, speak to our relationships. I have two main nicknames. One, Ames, is used only by family and dear friends – if someone calls me Ames, you know they’re close to me. My other nickname, now I’m telling you this in trust, is Amy Dan. If you hear someone calling me Amy Dan, you know they are one of my grandparents or great-aunts and uncles. You know they’ve known me since I was born and that their age and relationship to me makes it so I won’t throw things at them when they call me by that nickname.

The nicknames, our renaming, shows that the namer and the namee have a relationship close enough that one wants to and the other allows a name substitute. Unless you’re Rob Schneider in the Copy Guy SNL skit, you probably don’t go around nicknaming everyone you meet. You save nicknames for people you know, people who care about. And LIKE all of Rob Schneider’s victims in the Copy Guy skits, most of us don’t allow ourselves to be nicknamed by someone we don’t know and care about.

Nicknaming, renaming, is a long standing tradition. I remember in my sorority the given of your nickname was a huge deal, complete with ceremony and everything. It’s not just Greek societies that make a big deal over a nickname. In ancient Viking societies, the giving of a nickname sometimes created a relationship between the name maker and the recipient of the nickname. There might even be a formal ceremony and an exchange of gifts to go along with the giving of a nickname.

Nicknames, renaming, is important moment which speaks about relationship as far back as the Bible. God renamed Abram Abraham not because God looked at him and said, you know, you look more like an Abraham or because God thought it would be easier for folks to pronounce. God renamed him, gave him a “nickname” if you will, to reflect their relationship, their change in relationship. Abram’s name was changed because he was changed – he was no longer the aimless nomad, he was in covenant relationship with God. And as sign of his new relationship, he has a new name.

God seems to enjoy renaming people as reflection of relationship. Abram became Abraham, Sarai Sarah, Jacob became Israel. God doesn’t just rename individuals, God renames communities, whole peoples. The text from Isaiah speaks of change in relationship. The people of Israel are given a new name, a nickname, to show that things have changed, for the better.

This part of Isaiah was written after the end of the Babylonian exile. Before and during the exile, the land was known as Desolate, the city Forsaken. These names reflected the relationship between God and the people. The people had forsaken their God, turned to other Gods, got lost in empty rituals, let power enchant and corrupt. They were unfaithful to the Lord, they became Desolate and Forsaken.

And now, after years of suffering through the exile, the people have come back to their land and back to right relationship with God. To reflect this new found relationship, the prophet tells us that God shall give them a new name. No longer shall the city be called Azubah, Desolate, and the land Shemamah, Forsaken, rather the city will be Hephzibah and the land Beulah.

Because there is a new relationship, they receive a new name. This new name speaks of promise, speaks of hope, speaks of wonderful intimate relationship with the Lord. What you once were is passed, you have new life, a new life with God. As a bridegroom with his bride, so does God delight in the people. With God the old has passed a way, a new life has begun. The covenant between God and God’s people has been renewed, and a new name has been given to mark the occasion.

Most of us, I would dare say, will not find our names changed or find ourselves nicknamed by God. At least not names like Hephzibah and Beulah. But most of us have had our name changed by God, have been given a new name even as we were given new life.

In baptism, we celebrate the given name of the person. When John and I take a baby from his or her parents’ arms, we ask “what is the given name of this child.” In some of the older Christian societies, a child’s full name was not given until the baptism or christening.

In baptism we celebrate the work of the Spirit already at work in the child or adult’s life. These gifts as Paul, once called Saul, tells us are different for each of us, and yet all from the same source, the one and the same Spirit. In baptism we celebrate that the person is welcomed into this faith community, the Presbyterian community, but moreover the Christian community. We welcome the one being baptized into this community who has named itself after the one in whom it finds it origins and meanings.

But more over, in baptism we celebrate the name God has given us. We celebrate that we have been claimed by the one who delights in us. Even as we celebrate the given name of the person, we speak a new name, a name given by God – “child of the covenant.” No matter how old, how young, the person baptized is just that – a child of the new covenant of Jesus Christ.

This is our name, not just our nickname. That is the name God has given us. A name that both speaks of relationship AND who we are. As a child of the covenant, we know we belong to God. We belong to a God who longs for relationship, who renews relationship with us even when we stray, who seeks us out for our salvation.

As a child of the covenant, we know that we are called to a way of living that is markedly different just as we are marked as different in our baptism. We are called to serve the one to whom we belong with all of our gifts, all of our lives. No matter what we are called to, whether we be called to ministry as ordained ministers, or as elders, or as lay persons, we are called to serve God with all the Spirit as graced us with. As a child of the covenant, we have a purpose.

Whether we are named Amy, or Sarah, or Hephzibah, we in this community of faith are named and claimed by God. No competition required, we all receive this delightful and demanding name.

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