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What's in a Name?


My Aunt Beverly was a schoolteacher for many years, and in that time, she had a number of students with some interesting names. There was Female (pronounced Fa-mal-ee) whose mother assumed the hospital had named her baby girl when she was given the birth certificate and it said “Female.”

Aunt Beverly had siblings come through her classroom a few years a part named: Baby A, Baby B, & Baby C. My personal favorite is a child whose parents must have loved sports because they named him “Espn,” as in the TV channel ESPN.

But I’ve heard of parents naming their child Facebook, Google, and Hashtag—though I have yet to meet anyone by that name.

But what’s in a name? Why do we haggle and fight over what the dog will be called, let alone what our child will be named?

My parents, for example, took forever to agree on my brother’s name. For a few days in the hospital, he was just a number, and the nurses came to my parents saying, “You have to name this child now because you are about to be discharged.”

If you didn’t know, you cannot leave the hospital without a name. You cannot enter this world without this all-important indicator of who you are.

So what’s in a name?

In part, our names distinguish us from others: Bill from Bob, Sandra from Sally. But they can sometimes define us in unique ways. Many of us have stories behind our names and how we got them.

I take great pride in my name. My mother was a Methodist who married an Episcopalian; she knew she wasn’t going back to the Methodist church, so she gave me the Methodist stamp of approval by naming me after John and Charles Wesley.

I’ve always had a fascination with them because of it. I doubt my mother realized at the time that the Wesleys never left the Anglican Church, even after creating the Methodist movement. But it’s come full circle, I am a priest in the Anglican tradition just like them.

There are some wild studies that have shown that some people appear to gravitate toward what they’re named. This is called Nominative Determinism. For example:

There's Lt. Les McBurney, a firefighter, and John Burns who is an arsonist. There's Dr. Pam Graves (archaeologist), Andrew Drinkwater (Water Researcher), and Chef Tom Kitchen. All are real names.

Dig through any family tree and soon you’ll find that many names tell a larger story. They tell us something about our past, maybe a connection with a relative, but they can also hint at what we might become.


And so, that got me thinking about Jesus’ name. Of all the names that could’ve been used, why Jesus? If he’s the Second Adam—the one who will not sin, the one who will restore what Adam originally messed up—wouldn’t it have been appropriate to call him Adam?

What about Moses? He led his people out of bondage and slavery, and Jesus too was going to lead people out of the bondage of sin and death. Wouldn’t that have been a great name to show people what he would become?

But no, instead he is given the name Yeshua/Joshua (we use the Greek translation “Jesus”).

But his name wasn’t even up for debate. An angel told Mary and Joseph what he should be called. His name was a divine mandate—no haggling from the parents at all, no nurses wondering days after what the name would be.

It is important to remember who Joshua was in the Old Testament. He was Moses’ right-hand man and was his successor when he died. Moses is the one who led them out of Egypt, but it was Joshua who brought them into the Promised Land.

If Moses was the starter, Joshua was the closer—he got the deal done and settled God’s people in the land.

But it’s not just who Joshua was, but the meaning behind his name. In Hebrew, Yeshua means, “The Lord Saves.”

The name Joshua reminded the ancient Israelites that it wasn’t he or Moses who saved their people: it was God and God alone who brought his people out of Egypt, who fought for them in battle, and who settled them in the land he promised their father Abraham all those years ago.

Israel always got in trouble when they started looking for answers outside of God—when they looked to kings or leaders instead of the One who was always supposed to be their one true king.

Our Psalm this morning puts it so eloquently.

Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? (Psalm 8)

When we look to the heavens on a dark, clear night we are overwhelmed by the utter vastness and sheer beauty of the universe. All at once, we can feel a sense of terror and insignificance, while at the very same moment, we are overwhelmed by a deep sense of awe and wonder, and peace.

“Who am I that you are mindful of me?”

That is why Jesus then gives us a profound gift, one that you and I hardly recognize nowadays. We have become so accustomed to this precious gift that we use it without realizing its true value.

The gift is a name.

When we speak to the eternal Creator and Judge of all that is, we are not commanded to address him with a list of formal titles like, “Your Majesty” or “Your Holiness.” No, Jesus has invited us to call him our Father.

The prayer he taught his disciples, the prayer you and I pray every Sunday, and that Christians pray every day in every language on the earth begins with this deeply intimate title of Father.

When we read Psalm 8, we are then reading a prayer that is about our Father, who art in heaven.

Because of Jesus—this God-Incarnate who saves—we are not just loyal subjects or faithful disciples, we are children of the Living God.

Paul picks up this idea in Galatians:

When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Children…and heirs…because of Jesus. What an amazing gift that is.

Yellowstone Story

It’s been a while since I’ve told one of my Yellowstone stories. One night I was working at the cash register of one of the cafeterias in the national park. I was studying my Hebrew flashcards when there was no one in line because I was heading to Jerusalem in the fall.

A family came up, and I started putting their order on the screen in front of me. The man looked down and saw my flashcards, and come to find out, they were a Jewish family from Israel.

His wife realized he was going to be there a while, so she took their two kids to a table.

He and I talk about Israel, the language, the culture, and after a few minutes his son ran up to him yelling, “Abba, Abba, Abba!” Meaning “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”

The father embraced his son and said, “Yes, what is it, my child?”

And at that moment Paul’s words in Galatians were given a new depth for me. The Lord’s Prayer, something I had mindlessly said since my childhood, took on a new meaning.

The Promise

So, what is in a name?

What are the names we have been called or that we hold onto? What are the titles that we have allowed to define us and our lives?

They may be something we are proud of, something we worked long and hard to achieve…or they may be our greatest shame.

Titles like: ugly, dumb, unlovable, untalented, a failure, worthless.

We live in a time in history when we (and especially our kids) are uniquely defined by names and titles—and they can follow us for years. What’s my Twitter handle say about me? What will I write in my Instagram bio that expresses who I am? What are people saying about me? Are they saying anything about me?

For others, it may be something our now long-gone parent said to us years ago that has festered for decades or a remark that our spouse said right before the divorce was finalized.

Many times, we have allowed the names we have given ourselves, or the ones people have given us, to shape us in tremendous (and many times harmful) ways, whether we are conscious of it or not.

If Nominative Determinism is true at all, we may then live into the names people have given us. Not only do we hear that we are a failure, but we then start acting like one because we’ve accepted that title as our own—as our true value in this world.

The Promise

But we must not forget that this New Joshua is here to save. He has come to bring us out of our bondage and settle us in the land of his grace and mercy—two things we rarely give ourselves.

Yeshua: The Lord Saves.

Jesus was given a name that he could actually live into—he’s in fact, the only one who could. And because he is the fulfillment of that great name, he has redefined who we are in relation to God, to our neighbor, and even to ourselves.

We are now not stuck with the titles that others have given us or ones that we’ve been unable to shake off. We are first and foremost a child of the King and an heir to his marvelous kingdom. We are…Abba’s child.

In Brennan Manning’s book by the same title, he challenges his readers to consider that God may actually love us just as much as the Bible says—no matter who we are or what we’ve done. At one point in the book, he quotes Henri Nouwen who was writing to a New York intellectual and close friend.

Nouwen said, “All I want to say to you is, ‘You are the Beloved,’ and all I hope is that you can hear these words as spoken to you with all the tenderness and force that love can hold. My only desire is to make these words reverberate in every corner of your being—‘You are the Beloved.’” (34).

And my friends, that is my heartfelt prayer for you today. Because of Jesus, everything has changed. We are children and heirs because of his incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection.

And so, may we run to the One who knows us, who calls us his children, in order that when we are wrapped in his arms we may, without shame or fear, cry out, “Abba, Abba, Abba!”

And to hear his response, “Yes, what is it, my beloved child?”

Holy Name. Luke 2:15-21. Psalm 8. Galatians 4:4-7. Abba’s Child B. Manning. Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash.

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