What’s in a name?

Although this was a service of Morning Praise, it had originally been scheduled as Café Church, so I tried to make the talk as interactive as possible, knowing that we would have some children with us throughout the service …

St Barnabas (Morning Praise), 10th Jan 2010

Readings – Luke 3:15-22; Isaiah 43:1-7

Who gave you your name? And do you know why they gave you that particular name?

What else do we name besides babies? Toys, cars, pets.

When do we use our names ourselves? Introductions, applications … establishing a relationship.

When might our name change? Nicknames, marriage, change of identity.

Names give us our identity, they reveal possession, and if we know someone’s name we have a relationship with them, however distant.

Now read Isaiah 43:1-7

Before we talk about chapter 43, we need a little of the background. In Chapter 42 Isaiah tells us that Israel is in trouble … the nation is surrounded by more powerful nations intent on conquest. But Isaiah also tells us that’s because God is punishing his people for disobedience and for worshipping other gods. So bear that in mind as we look now at our reading.

We’ve been talking about names … so I want to look at the two verses in this reading that mention names, being called by name …

But now, this is what the LORD says –
he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.” (Isaiah 43:1)

“Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth – everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made.”
(Isaiah 43:6b – 7)

When you look at this passage in your Bible, can you see that they are written in verse? But they don’t sound like poetry, do they? The words don’t rhyme. They didn’t rhyme in the original language in which this was written, either, because Hebrew poetry was very different .. it’s called parallel poetry, because it uses repetition of ideas as it’s pattern, not sounds. Sometimes the same words are repeated, but most of the time, the repetition uses slightly different words, like in verse 1 … he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel … created and formed are similar words, aren’t they? Jacob and Israel were the same person, and the nation of Israel was named after him. But the skill of Hebrew poetry is that by repeating the same idea in slightly different words you build up layers of meaning … so, by using both names, Jacob and Israel, the poet prophet is telling us something.

You might know the story of Jacob … he’s often described as a cheat or a schemer … but, to cut a long story short, God never gave up on Jacob, and eventually Jacob changed from being a self-centred, money grabbing character, to someone who knew what it was to need and receive forgiveness, to someone who inspired love in others rather than spite or envy. So God gave him a new name, to represent his new character. So by using both names here, Jacob and Israel, Isaiah the prophet is telling us something about the people God is calling … they have changed … God is calling those who have learned their lesson, who now regret their disobedience and their faithlessness.

So God speaks to them and says, ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you, I have summoned you by name, you are mine’. God claims possession of them … ‘you are mine’.

Now, in most Hebrew poetry the repetition, the pattern is in one line after another as in verse 1 or in many of the Psalms. But sometimes, and it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it, the pattern repeats itself some time later … so let’s look now at verse 7 … which deliberately repeats the pattern of verse 1. In verse 1 God says, ‘I have summoned you by name, you are mine’, but at the beginning of vs7, reading from the end of the previous verse,

Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the ends of the earth – everyone who is called by my name … (Isaiah 43:6b-7a)

God now calls them by his own name … there is a new reality, a new relationship now, and it makes all the difference.

But look at the rest of the verse too … everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made. This time God reveals his purpose in creating and forming them … for my glory. God always intended that his people should reveal his glory to the rest of the world.

So the question is, have you changed?

When we were talking about names at the beginning, there’s one question I didn’t get round to asking … ‘Who else’s name do you use to describe yourself?’ For example, we’re often introduced as so and so’s wife or husband … or ‘somebody’s Mum (or Dad)’. We often describe ourselves by our relationships, using the name of another person that’s important to us.

So, what name could you use to best describe the most important relationship in your life? I wonder how many of us would choose the name, Christian?



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