A short sermon preached last Sunday, when the service included a baptism. It is a reworking of older material, the original sources of which I have long forgotten.
The angel said to Mary “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.”
The baptism service in which we have shared has a number of different elements. Some of these are symbolic and obvious – the pouring of water, the making of the sign of the cross, the lighting of a candle. One element however is easily overlooked. The minister says to the parents ‘name this child’ and the parents respond with the Christian names they have given. It reminds us that God knows and calls each one of us by name into a relationship with himself.
Name this child; one of the most important responsibilities for any parent is choosing the name for their child. It isn’t always easy, especially when mum and dad disagree – and there may well be grandparents, uncles and aunts offering their opinions too!
I remember one situation, many years ago. Before I was a minister I was a registrar of births and deaths at Westminster Register Office. Parents of newborn babies would come to see me and I would write their names down in a book and give them a birth certificate. The law says that parents have six weeks to register the birth of a child. Sometimes they need to be reminded and it was my job to chase up parents who had failed to register within the deadline. One couple had an unusual explanation – they simply could not decide a name for their child. I would phone them up every couple of days to find out whether they had come up with a name. Jokingly they began to refer to their child as baby “no name”. I don’t recall what they eventually called the child but they told me they were so used to calling the baby “no name” that they were almost tempted to leave it at that!
Different cultures have different traditions about naming a baby. Often names have a particular significance. These may be quite practical and down to earth. For example, in Ghana children are often named after the day they were born or their birth order. Ghana’s first president, Kwame Nkrumah, was so named for being born on a Saturday (Kwame) and being the ninth born (Nkrumah).
Or names may have a more religious or poetic meaning. Many Biblical names are like that. My son is called Nathaniel which means “God has given”.
My name Paul comes from the Latin name Paulus, which means small. You can see how much it suits me! I guess my parents picked it for me not because I was particularly small as a baby- you won’t be surprised to hear I was a chubby, bouncing baby, but because they wanted a biblical name.
Some children have more unusual names. I remember a few years back hearing about a couple from Romania who named their son Yahoo. Apparently they met on the internet and in gratitude named their child after their favourite internet provider.
I wonder: who chose your name – and why?
In 1st century Jewish culture names could be chosen by the mother or the father. The name chosen often expressed some circumstance about the birth, the personality of the baby or the parents’ hopes and expectations for their child. But Joseph and Mary didn’t have to think too hard about a name for their baby because it was given to them by an angel! In other words the name was chosen by God. The name Jesus comes from the Greek Iesous which comes in turn from the Hebrew Yeshua (or Joshua) which means ‘God saves’.
However this isn’t the only name in the story. Did you notice that Jesus is actually named three times? The first time the angel says ‘you are to call him Jesus’; then the angel says ‘He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.’ And a little later the angel says “the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.”
It seems that when it comes to Jesus, one name just isn’t enough. From the earliest days of the church people spoke of Jesus using names or titles which, for them, expressed his significance.
In his book ‘The Names of Jesus’ the Methodist biblical scholar Vincent Taylor listed no less than 47 names and titles! Here are some we have used in our hymns this morning:
Lamb of God
Light of the world
Imagine having so many names! Each says a slightly different thing about Jesus, about the person he is and what he means to us. Next time you sing a hymn, perhaps one of the Christmas carols, think about the names that it mentions and what it is saying about Jesus.
All of these are beautiful names and are worthy of our prayerful contemplation, but the one I like best is the simplest of all, the name given to Mary by the angel. For the Christian, no name is more precious than the name Jesus. In the 12th century the abbot and theologian Bernard of Clairvaux expressed what the name of Jesus meant to him:
“The name of Jesus is both light and nourishment; as honey to the taste, as melody to the ear, as songs of gladness in the heart, so is the name of Jesus.
For when I name the name of Jesus, I call to mind at once a Man meek and lowly of heart, benign, pure, temperate, merciful; and also in the same person the Almighty God – so that he both restores me to health by his example and renders me strong by his assistance. No less than this is brought to my mind by the name of Jesus whenever I hear it”
For this is what we are celebrating this Christmas time – that God himself was born a baby and given the name Jesus. Through Jesus God came – to save and deliver his people from their sins. This Christmas, when you are celebrating with family and friends, reading cards, opening presents, and overindulging on turkey and Christmas pudding – please don’t forget the name of Jesus. All this is in honour of him. And when we call on his name, he promises that he will be born again within us, as he was once born in the stable in Bethlehem.
So we pray, in the words of the carol:
Enter then, O Christ most holy,
make a Christmas in my heart;
make a heaven on my manger:
It is heaven where thou art.