What’s In A Name?

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
January 15, 2012 - Epiphany (2B)
1 Samuel 3:1-10
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
John 1:43-51

“What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.”

“I take thee at thy word.
Call me but love, and I'll be new baptiz'd;
Henceforth I never will be Romeo.”

So goes the impassioned plea of Juliet into the darkness of night where it finds the response of Romeo in Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2). Their agreement seals their fate as “star cross’d lovers” with a tragic end - to the shock and delight of audiences young and old for more than four hundred years and counting!

In this brief moment - through the risk of their conversation - they reflect the reality of the fact that we are so much more than we appear. The human creature is so very complex! That’s why the Psalms are so important to us - they reflect the visceral qualities of humanity at our best and even at our worst.

Psalm 139 has always been a favorite of mine. It reminds us that God knows every fiber of our being. Not only that, God knows our most intimate thoughts, and God is just as involved in our lives today as God was involved in creating us. I like to tell confirmation students that this Psalm reminds us that you were God’s idea - and a good one, too!

But then we have this idea that God is unknowable - unsearchable. That is becoming harder to imagine the more technological we become. Everything is searchable! We have search engines on our desktops, on our phones, in our laps, and in our ears almost 24/7. We have the ways, means, and the motivation to find things we have never wanted to find in the whole of human history!

Could God be less accessible than say - The History Of Dental Floss? Surely not. Yet texts like the ones we have received today sure can make it feel that way. How great it would be to have God speak your name! Or maybe God has spoken your name. Maybe it was when you were a child. Maybe it was after life had given you enough experiences to realize that you are participating in something larger than yourself. Maybe it was only after someone else heard your situation and said, “I think this is a God thing. You better listen up.”

That’s how it was for Samuel. Not just any boy - Samuel was an answered prayer for his barren mother, who agreed to give him back to the Lord if the Lord would allow her to have him. Samuel was the student of Eli, the old Priest whose son’s were abusing the faithful who came to make sacrifices in Shiloh. Samuel’s name means, “God has heard you.”

The thing that is really important here is not that God knew him by name, or that God used Eli to help him hear. What matters here, most of all, is that God was establishing the Prophetic Office before allowing the people to be ruled by a king. God was establishing the opportunity for God’s voice to be heard before the passions and politics of power could twist the truth out of proportion.

And what is the truth? The truth is that no matter what we do, God is sovereign. The truth is that God knows you. God knows the dear perfection that you owe without title - and you are God’s beloved. The truth is that God calls out to you, inviting you to be present, to listen, and to speak the truth to those who need to hear it most - those who want to believe they can be self-made, self-governed, and responsible to no one but themselves. The truth is that the person I need to talk the most sincerely to about his neglect of the truth is the guy I see in the mirror every day.

The truth is that the Gospel of John tells us that a Rabbi named Yahshua, whom we call Jesus, was walking along the Jordan River after his own baptism. John the Baptizer called out to others, telling them that Jesus was the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Then his own disciple goes to follow this man. Philip gets his brother, and before Jesus takes them to Galilee he grabs his other buddy, Nathaniel.

We have no idea why all of these guys who are from Galilee just happen to be in the Jordan River area outside of Jerusalem. At least one of them was being instructed by John. There is no telling why Nathaniel reacted the way he did - saying, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” It could have been a regional thing. Perhaps there was an old feud over resources.

Philip simply shrugs it off and says, “Come see” - thereby proving that Cajun Culture dates back to the time of Christ. Seriously though, “Come see” is a local delicacy for me. It’s one of those phrases I love to hear but can’t quite get the courage to try to make it feel natural to say. Of course, “Come see” is usually something said to children, but it is a powerful statement. It means, “I have proof.” It means, “I believe this is of value to you.” It means, “I want to share this with you.”

I love Jesus’ response. “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” In other words - this guy is a straight shooter. He may not like me. I may not like him, but I can trust him.

What’s interesting about this is that there actually wasn’t an Israel at that time. There had not been one in generations. Sure, there was a succession of Jewish Kings. But the reality of a Jewish nation state named Israel had not been around for some time. So, calling him an Israelite was a way to cut through the differences. Not only that, Jesus had just been described to him as the one spoken of in the law and the prophets. As far as Nathaniel knew, that can mean only the restoration of Israel - not only the people, but the kingdom.

Even more interesting is the timing. Scholars believe this Gospel to be written around 70 CE - right around the first Jewish War and the destruction of the temple by Rome. That was also about the time that the Jewish King, Agrippa II - the last of the Herodians - was fleeing Jerusalem under the protection of Rome. Do you know where Agrippa went first? He went to Galilee.

So, you have to admit that it is in the least a little peculiar that members of the Judeo-Christian community who have seen the false King flee are now hearing about the true King following the same route. So Jesus tells Nathaniel that he has searched him and known him - when he sat down under a fig tree and when he rose up. Immediately he calls Jesus, “Rabbi, the Son of God, the King of Israel!” Of course John’s Gospel is not simply concerned with the Kingdom of Israel. It is concerned with the Kingdom of God.

And in the Kingdom of God, we understand that we are known not only for who we are but for whose we are. In the Kingdom of God we know that we are called to listen. In the Kingdom of God we are called to invite others to come and see. In the Kingdom of God we are invited to follow Jesus.

What is in a name? In every name there is an opportunity - even in yours, and even in mine. Thanks be to God. Amen!
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