“What’s in a name? God saves!”

Sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on January 1, 2017

Texts: Numbers 6:22-27; Phil 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21

Clare L. Oatney

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church

January 1, 2017—Holy Name      

Number 6:22-27; Phil2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21


          Today is the Feast of the Holy Name.  At least, that’s what we Episcopalians call it.  If we were perhaps a little less squeamish, maybe we’d call it the Feast of the Circumcision like the Catholics.  But we’re Episcopalian, and that just seems indelicate, so we’ll just politely suggest that the Naming was the more important thing, anyway. 

Because names are important.   There is a connection, an interaction, somehow, between our name and our identity.  Whether it is a family name linking us to our great grandmother, or our husband’s name linking us to our new family, or a name we’ve always loved or one we rather regret our parents choosing, our names shape who we are.  They affect how we see ourselves, and how others see us.  Which is why we look worried when we hear of people naming their children Adolf, or Buffy or Dweezil.

“In the name of Dweezil Christ our Lord.”  Just doesn’t sound quite right, does it? 

The apostles preached, taught, and healed people in the name of Jesus, and Paul proclaims, “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow.”  (Phil 2:10)  There’s something about the name…. And do you know what that is, do you know what this name carries with it, how it connects us with the past and the future, and why it makes a difference, right now?  Because every time it is spoken now, every time it was said then, every time Mary called out that name it was a reminder: God saves!  That’s what the name Jesus, yeshua, means, and that’s who Jesus is: the sign, the living embodiment of that promise.  Of that truth.  God saves.  God reaches out again and again, to show us that we are not alone, to lead us through whatever place of pain, loneliness, fear or destruction we find ourselves in.  God brings hope; God brings strength; God brings healing.  God saves.

When we call on the name of Jesus we ground ourselves in the truth that we need to be saved: set free from our fear, our blindness, our inability to forgive others, our inability to forgive ourselves.  Freed from anger and vanity and greed to live lives of gentleness and humility.  When we call on the name of Jesus, we ground ourselves in the truth that God will indeed save us from these demons.   

God saves.  Not with force, not by magic.  Not with a mighty king, nor even by a fiery prophet telling the people what to do.  But with a baby.  Simeon saw, when they came to the temple to dedicate this new child.  He had been promised that he would see the messiah before he died, and he came to the temple every day, watching for a sign of God’s salvation.  Yeshua, they said, and his ears perked up at the sound of the name:  God saves.  And he looked, and he saw: not a warrior, or a king, or a prophet, but a baby. 

Clearly, there had been a change in plan.  Salvation would not be coming swiftly, accompanied by fireworks and trumpets blaring.  It would come slowly, growing in us as this child grew.  And it wouldn’t come by worldly power or even divine command.  No, it would come through the love this child stirred in those whose lives touched his. 

But as beautiful and gentle as salvation through love sounds, it would not be without pain.  “This child will be the rising and fall of many,” Simeon says, “And a sword will pierce his mother’s heart also.”  Being saved requires change, and individuals and communities do not change easily, even when the movement would lead them deeper into the love of God.   There will be powerful resistance.

David Mazel, a Jewish writer, said that one day his rabbi asked him how things were going. He said, "OK, but it wouldn't hurt if they got a little better."

The rabbi said, "How do you know it wouldn't hurt?"[1]

Salvation just might hurt.  Change often does.  Those in power will resist this child’s message of powerlessness.  Those who are broken might yet resist this child’s message of forgiveness and hope, not daring to try, to trust, to risk.  But every time the name of Jesus is spoken, it reminds, it brings to life the reality of what God is trying to do, longs to do, promises to do: God saves

And I want us to remember that, to know it down deep in our bones, that Jesus isn’t just a name, it is a promise.  It is a living reality, being worked out in each of us.  And so I’m going to ask you to wake up a little for this last part, and every time you hear me say “Jesus,” I want you to say, with all the conviction in your heart, “God saves.”  Got that?

          Mary had a baby, yes Lord.  And the angel told her to name him … Jesus!  God saves.

The hosts of heaven sang about peace on earth, about kindness and compassion between all people.  And the one who would show us the way would be … Jesus!  God saves.

          Mary pondered, pregnant once more with the wonder of having given birth to salvation.  What would it be to watch him grow, to nurture this promise, this Jesus?  God saves.

          And when he was grown, he became known as a healer.  He knew the names of the demons that tormented the people, and he called them by name.  They knew his name, too, and as they spoke it, they were driven forth: Jesus!  God saves.

          His birthing, his growing, his teaching, his healing, his giving of himself.  His living and dying and living again, all caught up in that one word, that name that is God’s promise to all people in all ways: Jesus!  God saves.  AMEN.







[1] Fred Kane, “Look what they’ve done to my song” posted to Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary listserv, 12/29/2005.

Clare Hickman