Numbers 6:22-27 and Luke 2:15-21
Happy New Year! Now that we are well into it, how are your New
Year’s resolutions coming? You’ve now had several hours to not
act on any of them! How many resolutions have you made through the years?
And how often have you kept them?
There was a newspaper comic that showed a man holding his New Year’s
resolutions on a card which read: “Overeat, Never Exercise, Smoke Daily,
Drink Often.” He gave them to his wife saying, “Now these are resolutions I
can stick with!”
We all know that resolutions don’t work. We are already overloaded,
overscheduled and overburdened as a society, so when we pile resolutions on
top of all that we are already doing, those are the first to get knocked off
the list of things we have to do. So, the only resolution that seems to
stick is the resolution that New Year’s resolutions don’t
Several years ago, however, I learned from the great spiritual leader,
Basil Pennington, of something that does work; it is to take a stand and
make a declaration, not resolutions. So, I invite you to consider one thing
this year, and that is to “Live up to your name!”
Let me explain. Names are important. Today, January 1, is New
Year’s Day in the secular calendar, but in the church’s calendar
it is the Feast of The Holy Name of Our Lord. In the gospel lesson from
Luke, a child is given a very good Jewish name by his parents Mary and
Joseph, and that name is “Jesus.” Jesus is the Greek form of the
Hebrew name “Jehosha”—or Joshua for short—which
means “Yahweh” (God) saves. It is the equivalent of the word
“Savior,” or Deliverer.
In the Scriptures, the naming of people was of utmost importance. Boys
were to be named eight days after their birth at the time of their
circumcision, and that name was to reflect some relationship with their
history, and some dedication of their future. The name Jesus was given to
Mary in her vision, and to Joseph in a dream, because this holy child was to
become the embodiment of God’s desire to save all people, and deliver us
from sin and death. Jesus lived into his name.
Today, however, we don’t pay nearly enough attention to the names
we assign to people. There’s a good deal of evidence that a child
named with an odd name will become an odd child. A Chicago high school
teacher once told of twins in one class who were named Orangejello and
Lemonjello, pronounced “orangelo” and “lemongelo.”
God help them to become solid citizens, pun intended. A child named Lee
Harvey Oswald these days would have a stigma attached to him, as would
someone named John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer in Chicago who was
executed in 1994. By the way, there is a newspaper column in the local
weekly City Paper called “News of the Weird” that for
several years now has been tracking the extraordinary prevalence of the
classic middle name “Wayne” in convicted criminals, beginning
with John Wayne Gacy. A sample from one three-month period (1998): Monty
Wayne Lamb, Robert Wayne Shelton, Gary Wayne Etheridge, Morris Wayne Givens,
and Andrae Dewayne Barnett, all convicted of murder. So parents, you might
want to think twice about assigning that middle name.
Names aren’t completely deterministic, however, so even if your
middle name is Wayne you’re not predestined to become an axe murderer.
In fact, sometimes a name backfires on us! I named my oldest son Kyle,
because a generation ago Kyle Rote, Jr., was a famous soccer player. My son
was to accomplish great feats on the soccer field, win titles, fame and
fortune—things that eluded his Dad. It didn’t work, however, and Kyle is
wasting his life away as a successful poet performing in high schools and
colleges across the country. I should have named him Wadsworth so that he
could play soccer. The other children in our blended family are named Ben,
Sophia, and Stefan—not so much because of any great cosmic significance,
although there is some of that, but because they sounded like good names. So
far the strategy has worked; they are good kids.
The point is this: just as in the Bible when people’s names suggested who
they were, so we need to live into the name that God has given us. And what
is that name?
Early in the Book of Exodus (3:1–14) Moses has a little encounter
with God who speaks to him in a burning bush saying, “I am the God your
father, the God of Abraham, the God of your ancestors, and I want you to go
to Pharaoh and direct him to release my people from slavery.” But Moses kept
asking him, “Who are you?” “If I come to the Israelites and say to them,
‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is
his name?’ what shall I say to them?” (v. 13) God said to Moses, “I am who I
am—thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’”
In making that declaration, God wanted to be known simply as the great
“I AM.” When Moses then asked, well, “Who am I that I should go
to Pharaoh?” God replied, “I will be with you.” That is, we, who are all
made in the image of God, are little “i am”s, and thus we are defined: I am
a man, or I am a woman. I am a rational being. I am a kind person. Etc.
Many of the words we use to describe ourselves are just plain fact:
man/woman, rational, old, young, etc. But the descriptors that really make a
difference are the ones we choose. When we take a stand and declare who we
are, we open the space to become the persons we declare we are.
Now, many of us make declarations about ourselves that have the effect of
cementing our feet to the floor. “I am,” you might say, “a
lazy person.” Or,
I am very shy. Or, I am a person who gets angry very easily. But those
declarations about who we are don’t get us to where we want to be. We do not
get very far when we have one foot cemented to the floor. Try it!
Why would we make such declarations? Well, take a look at the payoff. If
I am a shy person, then there are a lot of things people just can’t ask me
to do. If I am a lazy person, then you or I cannot expect very much from me,
can we? And if I get angry pretty easily, then you shouldn’t tell me things
that I don’t want to hear. And so it goes. What we need to ask ourselves,
then, is not only what the payoff is, but what is the cost the declarations
we make? Is the cost to ourselves worth the payoff we receive?
Such declarations are not always consciously chosen; they just seem to
have become part of our self-identification. We probably can easily think of
times we have heard others make such declarations about us, and gradually we
began to think of them as true. “I am.” well, you fill in the blank I am
lazy, angry, stupid, shy, aggressive, slow, ugly, clumsy, and so on and so
on and so on. In moments of quiet, reflection, contemplation and prayer, we
can begin to see and understand some of the declarations about ourselves
that we are hanging on to, but are weighing us down in cement.
If some of our declarations do cement us to the ground, how can we get
rid of them and free ourselves? Here is one practical piece of wisdom:
simply make new, contrary declarations. By taking a stand and re-naming
ourselves, we enlarge the space for God to help us to become who we declare
we are: I am a child of God. I am a kind person. I am a generous person. And
despite everything, I am filled with joy, hope, peace and love.
Once you have taken a stand and made a declaration, then you begin to
spontaneously and unconsciously live according to that declaration. Of
course, you and I will fail. We will fall down at times. But, here is
another declaration: I am a biped, so when I fall down I don’t spend the
rest of my life crawling in the dirt. I get right back up, and go from
there. I am a biped.
You can be whatever you have the courage to take a stand for. Don’t make
resolutions this new year; make a declaration that is true, and that
transforms. Remember: “I am.”
This “I Am” is the same God who says in today’s first
lesson, “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine
upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you,
and give you peace.” So shall God put God’s name upon all who call upon his
name, and they will be blessed.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.