What’s in a Name?

Baptism of Our Lord A
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

Isaiah 42:1-9
Psalm 29
Acts 10:34-43
Matthew 3:13-17

Before I was born, my parents, as most parents do, needed to figure out what my name was to be. If I was a girl, they were going to name me Dana, I think. If I was a boy? Well, they had different ideas.

My father proposed that name would be—and I kid you not—Virgil Wyatt Ranos. Anyone have a guess about where those names came from?

That’s right, these guys.

According to popular legend, when he suggested this to my mother, she laughed in his face.

Instead, I was named Kenneth George. It follows naming conventions that are still popular in our culture. Kenneth is a name I share with my mother’s twin brother, Kenneth Pearson (it also happens to mean “handsome”, so I consider myself to have been very appropriately named). And George is the name of my father and my great-grandfather.

My sister was born without a name while my father thought of the perfect name (since my mother got to name me). And though she is named Sheri, after no one in particular, she bears my mother’s name, Lynn, as her middle name.

Picking a name is hard. We experienced this difficulty in a heart-wrenching way when we decided to choose a name for the baby we lost in August. Because we didn’t know our baby’s biological sex or gender, we decided on a gender-neutral name, Taylor, so that whoever our baby was going to be—male, female, man, woman, transgender, cisgender, intersex, their name would fit.

In some cultures, it’s important that names fit their bearers. In many Native American cultures, a person’s name changes over the years; they adopt new names as they grow, becoming new people, either replacing their old names or adding the new ones. Some cultures are keenly aware of the meanings of the names they give to their children; parents who name their daughter “Joy” after waiting so long to meet her, for example. Old Hawaiians deliberated carefully about a new child’s name, because the meaning of the name had power.

Even Jesus’s name was important, powerful. His name, coming down to us through multiple translations and transliterations, “Yeshua”, is the same name from which we get Joshua, and means “he saves”, or “God delivers”. When Mary was visited by the archangel Gabriel, she was told specifically to name her child “Yeshua” because “he will save his people from their sins.” Even before he was born, Jesus was named to describe who he is, and to remind people of why God came to earth in the first place.

When he is baptized by John in the Jordan River, he is given a new “name”, a new title: “Beloved.” He is called “Messiah” or “Christ”, the same word just in different languages, which means “anointed”, chosen by God for a specific mission. All his life, Jesus lived into his name and titles, even to going to a cross to die, God’s love given form and then sacrificed in the court of public opinion.

We live in an age when, more than ever, we bear a multitude of names and titles. You’ve already heard about how I received my three names. But I could also describe myself with any number of labels and titles. I am an ordained minister, a minister of Word and Sacrament, a pastor, a white, cisgender man, a Chicago-native, Wisconsonite, GNU/Linux user, dog-lover, Blackhawks fan, Trekkie, Browncoat, Potterhead, activist, loyalist, INFJ, husband, son, brother, cousin, uncle, nephew, grandson, and others I can’t even remember.

All of these, in some way, describe who I am. They identify parts of my personality and my life and together, paint a broad picture of my identify.

But there’s one name/title that stands above all others, and that is: baptized.

There was a recent discussion among clergy my age asking the question: how would you respond to the question, “Why is baptism necessary?” The church has spent hundreds of years explaining, in great detail, using a variety of theological sources, why baptism is so important. Martin Luther devoted sections of his Small and Large Catechism to the subject. He asks, “What gifts or benefits does baptism bring?” and answers: “It brings about forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe it, as the words and promise of God declare.” He quotes Matthew, Mark, and John to make his case, explaining that the power of baptism has nothing to do with the water itself and everything to do with the faith and trust in God that brings even us to the font.

But there’s something missing in all of this talk about baptism, and it’s the climax of our Gospel story this morning. Jesus is baptized, the heavens are opened up, and the spirit of God descends on Jesus like a dove landing on a branch. And a voice from heaven says, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

When we were baptized, we were often given a white garment, a mark of our new identity. A candle is given, a light to signify the new light of Christ in our lives that shines out for others. And we were anointed with oil, in the shape of the cross on our foreheads, and told, “Child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” Many of us still, to this day, mark ourselves with some sign of the cross or other to remind us of this occasion.

Baptism is more than “just” a washing away of sin. It’s more than just a means of grace, through which God brings us wholeness, fullness of life, and forgiveness, if “just” is a word that could be used to describe all of those things. Baptism is when we are given a new name, a new title, a new identity: child of God, Beloved.

Names are important. They tell people who we are. They mark our identities. We carry them with us our entire lives. Some names even change; but not our name as Beloved. Not our identities as children of God.

You are baptized children of God. You are Beloved. Nothing, no one, can take that away from you. Ever.

Featured Image: “Bautizo” by Hector Melo A. is licensed under CC BY 2.0.


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