BIBLE READINGS:   Jeremiah 1: 4-10     Hebrews 12: 18-29     Luke 13: 10-17


SERMON

Children with unusual names are discriminated against in school. This is the conclusion drawn from a test conducted in 1973 by Herbert Harai, a psychologist, at the University of California at San Diego. Eight essays of identical quality by fifth- and sixth-grade students were handed to eighty elementary school teachers for grading, the only variable factor being the students' names. Four of the essays were signed with common names - Michael, David, Karen, and Lisa - and four were signed with unconventional names - Elmer, Hubert, Berta, and Adelle. The results: Michael and David scored an average of a full letter grade higher than Elmer and Hubert, while Karen and Lisa beat Bertha by a point-and-a-half. Adelle's grades were not significantly lower.

Our name is the first thing given to us at birth. It's a significant, even crucial, gift. We'll carry it with us all our lives and it will be the one thing that will live on after us. Our name is our most permanent possession. It is our most prominent feature, and it is our most vulnerable point.

When Hitler came to power, for instance, there were 14 Hitlers in the New York telephone directory. Before the war ended there were none.

There seems to be a correlation between a person and the name he or she bears. The Bible seems to take strong note of this. Names and naming occupy a lot of space in the scriptures. The word "name" is used 1,085 times, according to Strong's Concordance. The "Name of God" is used as a short phrase to mean the revealed character of God; for all that is known about Him. We use the “Name of Jesus” in the same way.

Paul Tournier in his book What’s in a Name?, asks several questions… Why do children name their toys? Why do some people prefer nicknames and others resent them? Why do some use initials and others their full names? Why do we give names to objects, ships, and residences? What role do names play in therapy?

The key to understanding the pivotal role of names, he says, is the recognition that to name a person has always been to convey an identity. In biblical times, for example, whenever a profound change occurred, it involved a change of name: Abram became Abraham; Jacob, Israel; Simon, Peter; and Saul, Paul. In a real sense, we become our names, reacting to and living in terms of them throughout our lives. So, where we place our name is literally where we place ourselves. The giving of our name to something is, the commitment of our very lives, our personality and our character.

Our name is so important - in effect it encapsulates who we are and what we do. It describes our connection to others. What separates and distinguishes us from other people is the fact that we are called by our names; but what unites us with others is the very fact that they call us by name. The very fact that we are addressed and have to respond signifies a direct connection.

Professor Richard Siebeck, said, ‘It is the calling that creates the person.’ Such was the first human experience described in the Bible: when Adam, seized with remorse and fear, was hiding in the darkest bushes of the garden of Eden, he heard Yahweh's voice calling him by name: ‘Adam, Adam, where are you?’ (Gen. 3.9).

This passage shows that the unique value and dignity of the human being before God, from the fact that God speaks to him as to a partner, a being whom He has created in His own image, and whom He calls on to respond, therefore making Adam responsible before him.

God has not placed us in the world as anonymous, interchangeable units, instead he has called us by our names. As the prophet Isaiah puts it: Yahweh called me before I was born, from my mother's womb he pronounced my name (Isa. 49:1).

God does not call only prophets and believers, but all people. This is expressed again by Isaiah when he attributes to Yahweh these words spoken to Cyrus the barbarian, the enemy of his people: I have called you by your name,…though you do not know me (Isa. 4.4).

The Bible does not put forward abstract theories about people. It is full of stories, it tells of what has happened to real people. And so it is full of proper names, as you will have noticed. There are whole pages of proper names, of genealogies which are carefully printed in every edition, but which we generally skip in reading. Nevertheless, these names have a meaning - that the Bible is concrete and personal and that God speaks to each individual personally. Look at how Paul, at the conclusion of his letters, after pages of teaching and theory, turns to mentioning individuals, calling each by his name.

Jesus had a ministry of renaming people. In the story today he comes upon the woman who has been crippled for 18 years: "She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight" (v.11).

What did society call this woman - crippled, handicapped, dysfunctional, worthless? Had she accepted these terms as definitive of her life - of who she was?

Jesus invites her to stand up straight. He lays hands upon her. In verse 16, He calls her a “daughter of Abraham”. Jesus sees that she is an heir to be blessings of God. She is a daughter of Abraham, called to be a blessing to the whole world. She is meant for more than superficial, cruel, limiting labelling. She, bent over though she is, is part of God's great salvation of the whole world.

Jesus heals her, and that's wonderful. For the first time in her adult life, she is able to stand up straight, to look straight ahead, to be restored to what we call a normal life. But perhaps just as wonderful is the way Jesus speaks to her, what He says about her. He doesn’t call her disabled, or hindered, or a victim of life's unfairness, though from most points of view, she is. Jesus seems to have no need in making her a professional victim, as if her disability defined her whole life.

Jesus rebukes the religious leaders for their insensitivity to the woman. In her case, their insensitivity has to do with the way they have allowed the world to name her, rather than proclaim to her that she has been named by God as a daughter of Abraham.

She stands up straight. Even if her back had not been healed by Jesus, I think she would have stood up straight. Her life had been caught up in God's promises to the world. Her life had been renamed, not as a long story of injustice, victimisation, and sadness, but as part of the great drama of God's redemption.

We’ve all been given names, some we like some we don’t like. Often these names have hindered who we are and what we could do - housewife, uneducated, old, young, stupid, skinny, fat, sick, quiet, noisy. These are labels that when pinned to our lives somehow begin to define us. But Jesus wants to rename us. He will not let us give in to the names the world wants to lay upon us. We are daughters, sons of Abraham. Our lives are meant to count for something, to take their place on stage in God's great drama of redemption.

Therefore, in our church, we are given a very revealing name - “Christian.” This is a name that will take all our lives to grow into, until we come to embody that name, living into God's gracious dreams for us.

You also are a daughter or son of Abraham. Your name, whatever else we may call you, is "Christian." Stand up straight, act like it, and go in peace.