What’s in a name?

Focus Scripture – Philippians 2:5-11 (KJV)

In the play Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare asked, “What’s in a name?” And to his question, he responded: “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” What’s in a name? People call us by various things. Our nicknames say something about us. The names we’ve been given, the names we’ve taken on ourselves, the names that limit us by defining us, and the new name God gives each one of us.

In Africa, the naming of a child is a significant event, and the names bestowed on children have definite meanings. A name is an identity of and window into one’s culture and self. The year is 1750, the place a village in West Africa. Excitement fills the town as an infant son has been born to a young Mandinka couple. The Mandinkas believe the name given carries great significance. Thus, a couple takes time-seven days to be exact-for contemplating, pausing, reflecting, before deciding upon a name. During the seven days, there is festivity, feasting, and dancing as the people wait in great anticipation to hear the name.

The center of the village is filled. Where there was once merriment and laughter, now there is silence and anticipation. The couple enters with their newborn son, as does the village elder or priest. The father holds his son and first whispers into the ear of his son. The Mandikas believe every person should be the first to hear its name. After the baby boy has heard its name, then and only then, will others hear it. Following the ceremony, the father takes the little boy to the edge of the village. Alone in the dark of night, lit only by the moon and the stars, he lifts his newborn son and says: “Behold the only thing greater than yourself” (from Roots, by Alex Haley).

In both Hebrew and Babylonian thought, it was believed that existence was wrapped inescapably with a name. It was believed that you did not exist without a name. A name reflected character and personality, one’s essence. A name was given with great care and held significance for both the individual and the community in which the named lived.

An old spiritual song says: “I told Jesus it would be all right if he changed my name?” More importantly, what is it that you call yourself? What is that name you can scarce speak for fear or shame? Scoundrel, cheat, or phony like Jacob? Unworthy, irresponsible, unfaithful? Discouraged or burnt-out? Divorced, deserted, or widowed? Coward or bully? Unloved or unloving? Disappointed or disappointing? Abused or abuser? Ugly or abnormal?

People need to confess their names. Whether silently or by writing them down on a paper, ask them first to answer this one question: Who are you? Really. What is your name? What is it that others call you?  Names, as we know, can limit us, hurt us, or even kill. But so also can they heal and make alive. Name changes are related to identity changes; some people can’t even fix the amounts to call you certain things, because those things don’t fit.

In today’s text, we examine the significance of another name, the name of Jesus. Paul reminds early Christians to focus on Jesus. He tells the Church at Philippi that their lives must change if they wish to be like Christ. Paul exclaims that:

Therefore, God has highly exalted [Christ] and gave him the name, that is the name above every name, so that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 3:9-11). There is power in the name of Jesus!

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