What’s in a name

A sermon for Holy Name: Numbers 6:22-27, Psalm 8, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:15-21

 What’s in a name? About what we think, and more. You all know my name is Scott. If you have ever seen my signature, well that doesn’t help because, even its long from it isn’t readable, but if you have seen the typed version you may know my full name is John Scott Trotter. Which might raise the question “Why don’t I go by my first name?” Simply put, it is to avoid confusion, because my dad’s name is John. At least it is until we went back to his family home where he was called “Jack” because he has an uncle named John, who was frequently there, and they wanted to avoid confusion. There are all sorts of traditions related to names. Our family lore claims that we are descended from a soldier named Peter who was William the conqueror’s (of 1066 fame) first assistant. He named his son William, who subsequently named his son Peter and so on, it went from generation to generation. You can tell I am rather far removed from the direct line; of the 14 different letters in my name, one of them is the same as the 9 in my ancestors naming scheme. Oh Well. Most namings are not so complex; our first daughter is named after both her grandmothers; and our second is named after a family friend and a derivative of Angie’s last name. I had a colleague, whose first child is named after the place he was conceived.

In the bible, naming is similar to current traditions. It is primarily about distinguishing people, places, and things from each other. At times a name reflects something distinctive about the person’s birth or character. At other times a person’s name is connected to a place. It is not uncommon for a name to be related to a memory. The act of naming can be significant. People can claim authority over another by naming or renaming them. Messengers speak “in the name of” of the person who sent them (Sakenfeld).

This morning we heard the story of, 8 day old, Jesus’ circumcision and naming. It demonstrates Mary’s and Joseph’s piety. First, they follow the Jewish tradition of circumcision which connects Jesus to the covenant between God and Abraham, the patriarch of all Israel, and marks his becoming a part of the community (Baters; Gaventa and Petersen; Culpepper). It also demonstrates their obedience and loyalty to God. They named their child as instructed; the name that was given to Mary by the angel when she is told she will bear the divine child and given to Joseph by an angel, in a dream when he is told to go on and marry Mary even though she is unexpectedly pregnant (Culpepper; Pankey). It is also another way in which Mary and Joseph are part of the salvation scheme because the naming itself is an act of divine fulfillment (Culpepper).

 Jesus’ name is relatively common. It is the Latin form of the Greek Iesous (“yeh-soos”), which is a form of the Hebrew Joshua which comes from Yeshua, meaning “to help” or “to save.” (Pankey; Baters; Sakenfeld). The name is full of significance. Linking the meaning of the name ‘Jesus’ “to save” to the idea of salvation leads to understanding that the name ‘Jesus’ is a sign of salvation, which leads to understanding the name as a verbal sacrament, an outward and perceptual sign of an inward and imperceptible grace (Hoffacker). The meaning of the name implies Jesus is the one who will accomplish the glory of God, by making salvation available to all (Moore). Joshua is the Old Testament hero who leads the wandering Hebrews to freedom in the promised land connecting Jesus to leading all that follow him to freedom in eternity (Hoffacker). That name connection also links Jesus to God’s salvific actions we know through Noah, Abraham, Moses, the Judges, Debra, the prophets, Huldah, and many others (Pankey). Understanding the name of ‘Jesus’ as “God saves,” reminds us

 There is never a point at which God is willing to give up on his hopes of restoring humanity to right relationship (Pankey).

Jesus’ name has significance beyond the person of Jesus. I mentioned that messengers speak “in the name of” the person who sent them. Well, in our baptism and our confirmation we are bound to Jesus. That includes us being a part of continuing Jesus’ ministry to proclaim “that the Kingdom of God has come near.” We hear this idea in the phrase “we minister in Jesus name” (Baters). And that notion is much older than Jesus’ name.

Our Old Testament reading this morning is from Numbers and is the blessing Aaron and all successive priests are to use. It may be very familiar.

The Lord bless you and keep you,
The Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace

What is not so familiar is the last verse, So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them. In the larger context of Numbers, we learn that pronouncing a blessing is not as a casual activity. It is so significant that the responsibility to bless is limited to priests. However, verse 27 makes it abundantly clear that “priests do not possess the power to bless independently of God” (Dozeman; Gaventa and Petersen). This understanding is somewhat masked because, in all of our bibles, the three phrases of the blessing begin “The Lord.” In the original Hebrew script ‘Lord’ is ‘Yahweh,’ God’s unspoken name (Dozeman). We have no way of knowing what Israel’s priests actually said when pronouncing this blessing. I do suspect that those who knew the book of Numbers knew that it was God’s blessing the priests were giving voice to. I do believe that those who heard the blessing heard God’s voice bestowing peace upon them. And more than peace, because shalom imputes not only peace, but also, security, inner harmony, wellness, material prosperity, friendship, justice, salvation, a long life, and a holiness of life, that brings about physical, emotion, social and spiritual health (Dozeman; Harrelson).

What is in a name? Well, in Jesus’ name the promise of salvation for all. So, whenever we hear it, whenever we speak it, whenever we act in it:

  • may it be a gift that makes all human life possible
  • may it shine broadly with warmth, brightness, and life-giving energy on all creation
  • may it be an active, direct acceptance and consecration of a specific person or community in a gesture of reconciliation (Harrelson)
  • may it bring everyone into God’s loving enteral presence


Baters, Barrie. The Name Given by an Angel, Feast of the Holy Name (A) –. 1 1 2017. <http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/stw/&gt;.

Culpepper, R. Alan. New Interpreter’s Bible Luke. Vol. 8. Abbington, 2015. 12 vols. Olive Tree App.

Dozeman, Thomas B. The Book of Numbers (NIBC) Leviticus 27:25. Vol. I. Abbington, 2015. XII vols. OliveTree App.

Fretheim, Terence E. Commentary on Numbers 6:22-27. 1 1 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Hoffacker, Charles. “The name of Jesus on our lips, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2014.” 1 1 2014. Sermons that Work. 1 1 2017.

Moore, Joy J. Commentary on Luke 2:15-21. 1 1 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/&gt;.

Pankey, Steve. Jesus’ other name. 13 12 2015. 1 1 2017.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.