What’s in a Name?

Isaiah 42:1-9,
Matthew 3:13-17

Reverend Stephen Caine


3:13 “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17, NRSV)


Let us pray: Creator God, our soul’s delight, your voice thunders over the waters, liberating the future from the past. In the Spirit’s power and the waters of rebirth, Jesus was declared your blessed and beloved Son; may we recall our baptism, and be disciples of the Anointed One. Amen.


What is in a name? When our first child was about to be born we were living in a small town in South Carolina, where I was the pastor of the Presbyterian Church.  People began to ask what we were going to name him or her.   We did not want to know if we were having a boy or a girl so we did not tell anyone what names we had picked out.  When the big day arrived and he was born, we named him Winston.  As I went around town, people would ask me what we named him and I told them Winston.  It was interesting to see the puzzled looks on their faces…Oh so you named him for Cigarettes.  I responded, No, no we didn’t.  Others would say, oh so you named him for the NASCAR Winston Cup Series? Again, I responded, No, no we didn’t. Thankfully, some people, asked, did you name him for Winston Churchill? Again, I responded, No, no we didn’t. For the record, we named him for my father, his grandfather.


Names can give us identity.  Names can give us place and purpose and power.  Names are important. Some names are given to us when we are born. Other names we earn, like doctor or reverend, or lawyer or professor or judge. And still others we take when we are married. Then there are nicknames, big daddy, slim, slick, dabeast, and so on… And then there are the names that we are called. Names can bring pride or shame. Names can lift us up: others tear us down. Whatever the case, names have power.


Some of the more difficult names you may have been called during your life those names, no matter how long ago you were called them, they are stuck in your memory, haunting you, consuming your memories and affecting your self-image. Names like “Stupid” or “Geek,” “Fatso or “Ugly.”  Names like “Loser” or “Wuss” “Know-it-all” or “Wimp.”  As painful as some of these names are for you I want you to let them go for a moment so that you can hear what God has to say to you. Because, that is not your name!  God says, “You are my beloved child, and with you I am well pleased!”


Fred Craddock, a wonderful story teller and preacher, tells the story of going to visit the Smokey Mountains in East Tennessee one summer.  He was on a short vacation with his wife, when they stopped into a little restaurant. It was one of those places where the owner was also the waiter, the cashier, and the greeter.

“Where you folks from?” the owner asked.


“I never been there but I hear it is a splendid state. What do you do for a living?”

“I teach preaching in a seminary.”


“Oh, so you teach preachers. Well, I’ve got a story for you.” And with that he started, “See that mountain over there?” He pointed out the restaurant window. “There once was a boy born to an unwed mother.  He had a hard time growing up because every place he went, he was always the only child without a father. Whether he was at school, in the grocery store or drug store, he felt that everyone was judging him and wondering: “Who’s your daddy?”  So, He would hide at recess and lunch time from other students. He would avoid going into stores because he was so ashamed.  Even when he went to church, he would always go in late and slip out early to avoid being asked who his father was.


One particular Sunday when he was about 12 years old, a new preacher came to his church. On this Sunday the new preacher used a different benediction and he was caught off guard and he had to walk out with the crowd.  Just about the time he got to the back door, the new preacher, not knowing anything about him, put his hand on his shoulder and asked him, ‘Son, who’s your daddy?’ The people around him got quiet.  He could feel their eyes looking at him.  Now everyone would finally know the answer to the question, ‘Who’s your daddy?’ Before he could answer; the new preacher said:  ‘Wait a minute! I know who you are.  I see the family resemblance now.  You are a child of God.’  With that, he patted the boy on his shoulder and said, ‘Boy, you’ve got a great inheritance – go and claim it.’ 


With that, the boy smiled for the first time in a long time and walked out the door a changed person.  He was never the same again.  Whenever anybody asked him, ‘Who’s your daddy?’ he’d just tell them, ‘I’m a child of God.’  The distinguished gentleman got up from the table and said, “Isn’t that a great story?” Fred Craddock, said that it really was.  As the man turned to leave, he said, “You know, if that new preacher hadn’t told me that I was one of God’s children, I probably would never have amounted to anything!” And he walked away.  Fred and his wife were stunned.  He called the waitress over and asked, “Do you know that man who was just sitting at our table?” The waitress grinned and said, “Of course. Everybody here knows him. That’s Ben Hooper. He’s the former governor of Tennessee!”


The power of a name.  The power of being a child of God.  Claimed, loved and cared for by the living God, creator of heaven and earth.  That is what it means to be a child of God.


It is the most important identity of all.  In the Baptism of Jesus it is the moment where the Kingdom of God breaks into human life.  It is the moment when Jesus ministry begins – he begins to live as a child of God and to take on the power and responsibility of that name. In baptism you and I have been “clothed with Christ.”  What does that mean?  It means that when God looks at you and me, God sees his Son, the Beloved, the one with whom God is well pleased. In baptism we are clothed with Christ, so when God looks at us God sees Christ in us, even when you and I cannot see Christ either in ourselves or in one another.


Our faith gives us an important identity and affirmation.  At baptism we accept, or we accept on a child’s behalf, God claiming that Child as “His own”. In baptism we accept our identity as God’s child, as God’s beloved. In seeking to respond to the gift of grace showered upon us at baptism we seek to live out this baptismal identity and this affirmation. It is as if the heavens have opened for each one of us and as if God has said, “YOU are my child and I am pleased with you.”


The great Protestant reformer Martin Luther, struggled with bouts of depression and he struggled with a sense that he was unworthy, awful and he was stricken with despair.  One thing that he did to help himself with these demons is he kept an inscription over his desk that read, “Remember, you have been baptized.”  Often, he would touch his forehead and remind himself, “Martin, you have been baptized.” 


No matter what you do or don’t do you are still a child of God…


When you’re wandering around lost and lonely, feeling afraid and isolated you are still a child of God…


As a child of God, you look at the world differently: you are filled with a strong sense of servant hood, and heart for mission will open your eyes.


Jesus the Word became flesh so that all who receive him may be given power to become children of the living God. We learn that we, like Jesus, discover who we are by hearing once again whose we are, God’s own beloved child. We may be living at a time when the question of identity has never been more important, for there are so many sources that influence our identities.  But so few of those names are life-giving, and none of them is redemptive.  It is no wonder this gift of identity and affirmation is one of the most powerful themes of the Gospel, and it sends us forth from the sanctuary armed with our new name – Child of Godthat we may face the challenges and opportunities before us knowing that we are God’s own beloved children.


You are God’s beloved child – God is pleased with you.


Now go and claim it!


Live into this powerful name.

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