What's in a Name


Matthew 1:20-23 The Message

While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God’s angel spoke in the dream: “Joseph, son of David, don’t hesitate to get married. Mary’s pregnancy is Spirit-conceived. God’s Holy Spirit has made her pregnant. She will bring a son to birth, and when she does, you, Joseph, will name him Jesus —‘ God saves’ — because he will save his people from their sins.” This would bring the prophet’s embryonic revelation to full term:

Watch for this — a virgin will get pregnant and bear a son; They will name him Immanuel (Hebrew for “God is with us”).

This week I signed my name again to what seems to be the 20,000th document over my time as bishop. It is such a simple thing, and it seems so easy. What’s in a name anyway? The first blank of a birth certificate and almost every other form or application asks for our names.

What’s in a name? My parents chose “Robert Dean Farr” for mine. I had no say in the name I would carry with me for the rest of my life. Why Robert Dean Farr? Well, I suppose my parents were carrying on a tradition from both sides of our family tree. My grandfathers on both sides of the family were named Robert. They had different personalities and lived very different lives. For years I received mail for them long after they were gone. Both were nicknamed “Bob.” So, when I was growing up, my parents nicknamed me “Bobby” to help stop any confusion.

As happens to all of us, my name changed over time. I went to the seminary “Bobby” and came home four years later as “Bob.” I’m not sure how that happened. Then again, when elected bishop, my name underwent a more dramatic shift from “Bob” to “Bishop” due to the church’s traditions around the role and office of a bishop. What’s in a name? Today I hear “Bishop,” “Bob,” “Reverend,” “Doctor,” “Grandpa” and, occasionally “Bobby.” 

We all have many aspects of our names. Interestingly, we say it’s “our” name. While that is true, it is a name given to us by others. I read once that there is a culture that gives children their original name, but once they reach a certain age, they may pick out their own name. We know in the Bible the early tradition of becoming a Christian disciple meant you changed your name to indicate an inner transformational change. The most famous name change was from Saul to Paul.

As we enter the Advent and Christmas seasons, we are reminded that Joseph was given a name for his new son through a dream from God. Matthew’s Gospel wants us to remember the importance of Jesus’ name; where it came from, David’s son, Root of Jesse; when he was born, during King Herod’s reign; where he was born, Bethlehem (an insignificant town); to who he was born, Mary and Joseph. Matthew wants us to see the connection to the Old Testament salvation story and the connection to Jewish history. Luke’s Gospel reminds us that others showed up at the birth, shepherds and wise men from the east. He is reminding us that Jesus isn’t just connected to the Jewish community, but the world and all people.

What’s in a name? Matthew’s Gospel wants us to know there is a lot in a name. The fact is, naming your son “Jesus” was not that uncommon in first-century Judaism. However, Matthew wants us to know that Jesus has a common name, but his first name is “Immanuel,” meaning “God is with us.” These names remind us of both sides of Jesus, his divinity and his humanity.

Immanuel (Jesus) was born of a human woman, born of the Divine Spirit. In the hymn, “There is Something About that Name” (UMH 171), part of the chorus is: 

“Master, Savior, Jesus! Like the fragrance after the rain. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, let all heaven and Earth proclaim ...” 

I heard a recording of the Gaithers singing this hymn. During the song, Gloria Gaither speaks these words:

“Jesus ... The mere mention of His name can calm the storm, heal the broken and raise the dead.

At the name of Jesus, I’ve seen sin hardened men melted, derelicts transformed. The lights of hope put in the eyes of a hopeless child. At the name of Jesus, hatred and bitterness turn to love and forgiveness, arguments cease. I’ve heard a mother softly breathe His name at the bedside of a child delirious from fever, and watched ... as that little body grew quiet, and fevered brow cooled

I’ve sat at the side of a dying saint. Her body wracked with pain, who in those final fleeting seconds summoned her last ounce of ebbing strength, just to whisper Earth’s sweetest name.

Jesus ... Jesus ...

Emperors have tried to destroy it.

Philosophies have tried to stamp it out.

Tyrants have tried to wash it from the face of the Earth with the very blood of those who claimed it. Yet it still stands.

And there shall be that final day when every voice that has ever uttered a sound, every voice of Adam’s race, shall raise in one mighty chorus to proclaim the name of Jesus.

For in that day, every knee shall bow, every tongue shall confess, that Jesus Christ is truly Lord. You see, it was not by mere chance that caused the angel one night, long ago to say to a virgin maiden: His name, His name shall be called Jesus ... Jesus ... Jesus ... Yes, there is something, something about that name ...”

Indeed, there is something about that name. May it be so in our souls this Advent season.

In Christ,

Bishop Farr, Missouri Conference of The United Methodist Church