A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Hilary Pearson on 31st December 2023
Tomorrow everyone will be celebrating New Year’s Day. But tomorrow the church will also be celebrating the Naming and Circumcision of Jesus. Why do we celebrate this? We need to understand the importance of circumcision and naming for the society Jesus was born into. We also need to understand its significance for the Christian faith.
First, circumcision. You will be relieved to learn that I am not going to go into the somewhat gory details. I’m sure you know that this is still a very important step in the life of a Jewish male child. You may also know that it goes back to Abraham. In Genesis 17, God promises the childless Abraham that he will be the father of nations, but in return all males must be circumcised on the eighth day after birth. This marks their flesh with the sign of God’s everlasting covenant to Abraham and his descendants. So Jesus’ circumcision shows that he is part of this covenant; indeed, he is the culmination of that covenant. It is also important to the central Christian belief, the incarnation. Jesus is truly and fully human as well as divine. At the end of today’s Gospel reading, Luke 2:21, we are told that when he was circumcised on the eighth day, he was named.
Second, names. Unlike our society today, when people may choose names for their baby because it sounds nice, or is the name of their favourite celebrity, for the Jewish people names had a meaning and could determine the direction of the child’s life. Luke’s Gospel begins with two angelic announcements that a child will be born; to elderly Zechariah that he and his wife will have a son, and to youthful Mary that she will have a son conceived through the Holy Spirit. In each case, the angel Gabriel includes in the message the name that the child is to be given. Zechariah and Elizabeth are to name their son John, in Hebrew yohhanan which means ‘God provides protection’.
Mary is told by the angel to call her son Jesus, and she did so when he was circumcised. This name has complex origins. In Aramaic, the language Mary probably spoke, the name is Yeshua, which is equivalent to the Hebrew name Yehoshua, which we know as Joshua. This means “Yahweh is salvation.” In the Septuagint, the 2000 year old Greek translation of the Old Testament, both Yeshua and Yehoshua are transliterated as Iesous, and this was followed in the New Testament, which was originally written in Greek. When the Greek Iesous was Latinized it became Jesus. So the name to be given to Mary’s son means ‘Yahweh (that is, God) is salvation’. The significance of this name for Christians is immediately obvious: Jesus is our divine Saviour.
There are other aspects of naming in the Bible that we must consider in order to understand why we celebrate the naming of Mary’s child. The first is who gives the name. Then, as now, the child is usually named by a parent. Abraham named his son Isaac; Isaac named his twin sons Esau and Jacob. The person giving the name has a position of superiority to the person being named. Going back to the beginning, in Genesis 2 God tells Adam to name the animals, having given him dominion over them in Genesis 1. Adam also names Eve. Jesus is named by the divine messenger, Gabriel, showing that God is taking this prerogative of a father. We know from the Gospels that Jesus while on earth knew he had a direct father-son relationship to God, calling him by the intimate name a child would use for its father, ‘Abba’ ‘Daddy’. And he tells us to pray to this same Father in giving us the Lord’s Prayer.
The second aspect is that the name reveals the person and invokes their active presence; this is particularly true of the name of God. Have you ever wondered why we so often end our prayers ‘In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit’ or “In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord’? We are following a practice going back a long way; the first example in the Bible comes very early in the first book: in Genesis 4:26 we are told when Adam’s grandson is born that ‘At that time people began to invoke the Lord by name.’ A key passage which shows this aspect of a name comes in the story of God calling Moses in Exodus 3. Moses encounters God in the burning bush, and God calls him to go to Egypt and free the enslaved Israelites. God first reveals himself to Moses as the God of his father and his ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God who formed Moses’ history. Moses wants more; he is afraid that when he goes to the Israelites and tells them he has been sent by the God of their forefathers, they will ask him the name of this God. In other words, they may want this God specifically identified. The response is “I AM that I am”. The name reveals that God is the source of all being, and being itself. The word used can indicate both the present and the future tense; God is active here and now and for all time. When we pray in God’s name we are invoking that nature and active presence. Our psalm today, Psalm 148, tells us to praise and exalt the name of the Lord, that is, God’s very being.
This identification of the name with the person is illustrated by examples in the Bible of people having their name changed by God to show a new status or calling. When we first meet Abraham in Genesis 11, he is called Abram, presumably named by his father Terah. God, when making his covenant with Abram, also renames him Abraham. There is some dispute between scholars of the Hebrew Bible as to the exact meaning of the two names, which may not be very different. However, the renaming by God shows that God, rather than Terah, is now the person with authority over Abraham, who had left his father’s house at God’s calling (Genesis 12:1-5). His wife, who had been called Sarai, is renamed Sarah. Again, there is not much of a change in meaning, as Sarai probably meant ‘my princess’, perhaps named by a doting father, but God calls her simply ‘princess’. This is her new status in the eyes of God. She is also the recipient of God’s promise of blessing and a son. In our reading from Isaiah we have the renaming of the nation of Zion by God: “you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give.”
One Biblical renaming by God was a sign of transformation of character as well as calling. The second of Isaac’s twin sons to be born came out holding onto his brother Esau’s heel, and was named Jacob, which can mean ‘to follow’ or ‘to be behind’, but can also mean ‘to supplant’. While the first meaning was literally true, the second meaning described the Biblical Jacob in the first part of his life. You may recall how he craftily stole his brother’s right as the firstborn by getting the macho (but not very bright) Esau, hungry and tired after a day’s hunting, to give it up in return for some savoury stew. Jacob then, with his doting mother’s connivance, tricked his very elderly and blind father into giving him the blessing for the first born. He then fled from Esau’s vengeance and spent many years in exile, acquiring wives, children, servants and extensive flocks.
The trickster Jacob was transformed by a direct experience of God. He could not stay where he was and had decided to return home. The night before he was due to meet his brother Esau, we read in Genesis 32 that Jacob wrestled with an unnamed man until daybreak. The man dislocated Jacob’s hip, but Jacob hung on and refused to let the man go unless he blessed him. The man asked Jacob’s name and then told him that he was no longer to be called Jacob, but instead Israel “because you have striven with God and mortals and have prevailed.” In Hebrew ‘Israel’ means ‘God contended’. This was the beginning of his new life, which started with reconciliation with his brother and ended with him and his family moving to Egypt to escape a famine, the foundation story of the nation of Israel.
It will not have escaped your notice that tonight is New Year’s Eve, a time of new beginnings. Have you made New Year’s resolutions? Perhaps to lose weight or to exercise more? Or, have you, like me, become cynical, knowing that in the past you have made such resolutions with determination, only to find by the end of January that it is all too difficult and have gone back to your old ways. Spiritual change can be just as hard. It rarely occurs without suffering and determination. Jacob wrestled all night, and ended with a dislocated hip which meant he limped the rest of his life. But he hung on with determination until he received the blessing he sought, as well as the change of character shown by the change of name.
This image of a change of name showing change of character through struggle is in the first book of the Bible. We then find it in the last book, Revelation, which begins with messages from Christ to the seven churches in the eastern part of the Roman empire. The message to the persecuted church in Pergamon ends “To anyone who is victorious I will give some of the hidden manna; I will also give him a white stone, and on it will be written a new name, known only to him who receives it.” Again, change comes from determined struggle.
We face change and new beginnings in 2024 as a church, with our new vicar Clare. Some of us face life-changing challenges, including illness and recent loss of loved ones. Others may be considering whether they are being called to a new job, or role, or ministry. We may be seeking ways in which to help those suffering, here in Oxford or anywhere in the world. Others may be feeling the tug of a longing for a deeper relationship with God. Whatever the challenge we face, we must remember that those who persevere will be rewarded with a new name, a personal and spiritual transformation. And we must remember that God is always revealed as present and active love. Let us call on the name of the Lord, the great I AM.