The power of names

Presentation of Jesus in the temple – Luke 2:21-38

Growing up, by listening to how my parents said my name, I could instantly tell if I was in trouble. In fact the variation of my name they used was a clear signal to me indicating how much trouble I was in. If they called, “Tommy!” I knew I was in a little bit of trouble. If they called “Thomas!” I knew I was in real trouble. But if they called “Thomas Clyde Jackson!” I knew I was in for it. You see: names matter; names are important. Moreover: who decides what name you are called matters. If my older brothers called me by my full name I knew to run to my Mom and was confident she would protect me – even if I didn’t deserve to be protected.

William Blake Adam gives name for the animals

Naming is an act of power, of prerogative, of privilege. “From the story of the Creation through the rest of Genesis, the giving of names has been a significant part of the biblical narrative. After creating the wild animals and birds, God ‘brought the man to see what he would call each one; and whatever the man called it, that became the creature’s name’”.[1] Let’s hear that whole story:

Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.’ So out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner. [2]

Why does God let Adam name the animals? Before this the giving of names was a prerogative of God. “God gave human beings the ability and power to name. Just as God separates light from darkness and dry land from water, this biblical text affirms that humans–created in the image of God–may seek to bring order to our chaotic and dynamic world through the process of naming.” [3]

William Blake “Adam gives name for the animals”

Here, the author of Genesis is making a point: God is giving human beings dominion over creation. But dominion doesn’t mean the absolute right to despoil and destroy God’s creation. What God does here is make us stewards of creation, empowering us to study and organize our knowledge of creation so we can conserve – or wisely use – the gifts the Holy One has given us.

Human beings have been really good at naming things found in nature. But we have failed miserably at the stewardship part of the dominion promise. That’s why across America air pollution cuts short the lives of people every year; why we need a law to protect Endangered Species, why we need government rules to keep lead out of our drinking water. Our ability to wisely use information has not kept pace with our ability to identify and name things.

Moses speaks to God

So it is a good thing God’s decision to grant us the power to name things didn’t mean God stopped using this power to shake things up, to challenge and change us. Remember when Moses is talking to the burning bush? He asks for God’s name and God refuses.

In the third chapter of Exodus “God said to Moses, ‘I am who I am’ or perhaps the Hebrew could be translated as “I will be who I will be.” God’s reluctance to be named an ancient belief that knowledge of one’s true name allows someone to affect or control another person or being. [4] Such are the ancient beliefs about the power of names.

God uses this power to reshape several important figures in the story of the People of Israel. Remember Abram, the common patriarch of the three Abrahamic religions?[5] In Judaism, he is the founding father of the Covenant, the special relationship between the Jewish people and God.

Christians see him as the prototype of all believers, Jewish or Gentile. Muslims view him as a link in the chain of prophets that begins with Adam and culminates in Muhammad. [6] But none of this happens until God makes a covenant with Abram and changes his name to Abraham. Remember, God says: “And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations…”[7]

Jacob wrestling the angel

Remember Jacob, the scheming son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham and Sarah? Jacob who wrestled with God and then God renamed him Israel – or one who wrestles with God?

Remember today’s Gospel lesson? When he is eight days old the newborn child is – according to Jewish custom – circumcised and named by his parents. Joseph and Mary name this son Jesus, or God delivers or God saves.

Yet there is more to the power of naming than all this. Every day on Twitter and other parts of the internet we are reminded of the power of names and naming. Some – far too many – subvert the power of tech in a futile attempt to project a sense of personal power into the web. These minions of darkness respond to anyone who challenges their view of reality with use name calling.

Even outside the internet, in the real world, the use of names to demean and damage those viewed as marginal or disposable by the patriarchy. Since the last presidential election, hate crimes have increased across America. It is now more common to hear reports of the use of names intended to demean Jews, Muslims, people of color, or LGBTQ Americans.

An example of one revent hate crime

God did not entrust us with the power to name things so bullies could hurl demeaning names at marginalized people. Jesus was not sent to save us by standing with oppression. As Christians in this time and place, each of us has a responsibility to actively oppose those who misuse the gift of naming to hurt others. This is our call to action in these difficult times.

Let us pray. God of glory, you have given us a new name and robed us in salvation. May we like Anna find our home in your presence, and like Simeon recognize Jesus as the Christ, so that, in joy and thanksgiving at becoming your children, we may join with all creation to sing your praise. Amen.

[1] 12/30/2017 1:54 PM & Genesis 2:19

[2] Genesis 2:18-20

[3] 1/1/2018 10:06 PM12/30/2017 1:50 PM

[4] 12/30/2017 1:56 PM

[5] 12/30/2017 5:00 PM

[6] Levenson, Jon Douglas (2012). Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Princeton University Press. Page 8.

[7] (Genesis 17:5,15)


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