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Sermon for 1st January 2017


Giving names to things and people is one of those characteristics that marks human beings from animals. Remember how in Genesis God brought all the creatures to Adam to see what he would name them, and how the meaning of the name of each person in the Bible is explained.

Names have great significance in most cultures. To know the name of someone is to have power over them. Remember in the fairy tale how Rumpelstiltskin was enraged when the heroine found out his name. We like to be able to give our name as and when we wish, and not when it is demanded of us. In former times, a great deal was made of the distinction between our surname, a public name that we inherited, and our Christian name, which was given to us personally at the font of baptism. It would take a good deal of getting to know someone before you would suggest that you call each other by your Christian names. Children were never expected to use them in talking to adults, at least not without an extra title like auntie.

Perhaps, like me, you get very irritated by cold callers and online surveys that ask what your first name is and then insist on using it over and over again. It feels deeply intrusive and falsely intimate. The right people need to use the right name in talking to us for us to feel comfortable. Wendy Cope captures this beautifully in a poem called “Names”:

She was Eliza for a few weeks
When she was a baby—
Eliza Lily. Soon it changed to Lil.

Later she was Miss Steward in the baker’s shop
And then ‘my love’, ‘my darling’, Mother.

Widowed at thirty, she went back to work
As Mrs Hand. Her daughter grew up,
Married and gave birth.

Now was was Nanna. ‘Everybody
Calls me Nanna,’ she would say to visitors.
And so they did—friends, tradesmen, the doctor.

In the geriatric ward
They used the patients’ Christian names.
‘Lil,’ we said, ‘or Nanna,’
But it wasn’t in her file
And for those last bewildered weeks
She was Eliza once again.

Today we celebrate a naming. When it comes to God, the name is supremely important. The Jewish people never pronounce the proper name of God, which is composed of four letters. Instead of saying these letters, they say Adonai, meaning Lord, or they call God HaShem, which literally means The Name.

At Christmas we celebrate the coming among us as a human baby the Creator of the world, the one John’s gospel calls God from God, Light from Light, very God from very God. And he is given a human name, but not just one his parents pick. It is a name given by an angel: Jesus, meaning God saves. This name is both the identity of Jesus—he is the gift God gives to the human race—and the purpose of his life and ministry: he is to save his people from their sins.

Today is the eighth day of Christmas, so by tradition it is the day that the baby Jesus would have been circumcised into the Jewish covenant. He is at the same time the descendant of Abraham and the God of Abraham. It is the first of many paradoxes in his story.

In this season we reflect on those paradoxes. At midnight mass our opening words are
Welcome all wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span.
Summer in winter, day in night,
heaven in earth and God in man.

Today we celebrate that a name was given to that wonder: Jesus. It is a name we are invited to use freely in prayer. In fact we are commanded to make all our prayers in the name of Jesus Christ, relating to God as our Father. We can do this because God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, as Paul wrote to the Galatians. In communion with Jesus, the only-begotten Son of God, we able to call God Father, Abba, just as he did.

That link between heaven and earth, between God and man, which is given a name that means “God saves”, should give us reason for hope. Today is the first day of the new year. It is a secular date, nothing to do with the Christian calendar or the Christmas cycle of festivals. But I am sure that we all feel it marks a new beginning.

The world has laid down, with a weary shrug, the burdens of 2016, a year that brought us many griefs, upsets and surprises. It seems that turning the page of the calendar to a new year gives everyone a sense of hopefulness. Maybe things will be better in the next twelve months. But that is just whistling in the dark.

As Christians celebrating this date alongside people of all faiths and none, we have more reason for hope. And it is not a hope that is tied to the beginning of January, with all those resolutions to exercise more, drink less, stop being the slave of our smartphone, or whatever we are planning to do to change our lives.

It is a hope that is rooted in a name. God saves. Jesus. It is a hope that proclaims that we ourselves are known by name, inscribed on the palm of God’s hand, given a new identity in baptism. Every one of us matters infinitely. Whether we keep our new year’s resolutions, fail utterly to do so, or refuse to make any resolutions at all, makes not a whit of difference to how much God loves us.

And hope is not tied to how well we do as citizens in society. Whether the world takes a turn for the better or the worse in the coming year, whether we are able to make a lasting peace in Syria, whether the plans for Brexit please everyone, what the fallout is of the Trump presidency—these things matter, but however they turn out, God will still love the world and the Spirit of his Son will still be with us.

Our special calling as Christians is to provide the difference in the world that hope makes. When I was in the Holy Land last June, I met some extraordinary Palestinian Christians whose hope persists in the face of relentless persecution. One man, Daoud Nassar, whose family farm Tent of Nations has become a centre of peace and reconciliation, told us about the four founding principles of his organization:

1. Refuse to be victims. Act instead of reacting.
2. Refuse to hate. No one can force us to hate. We must differentiate between people and their bad actions, and stand up for what is right by naming injustice for what it is.
3. Act differently because of our Christian faith.
4. Believe in justice – sooner or later, justice will prevail. Remember that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

I am going to try to make those principles guide my response to political events this year – that’s alongside the bit about losing weight, taking up tai chi and staying on top of my paperwork, of course! However I do with my resolutions, I will try to remember that God’s promise to save us, enshrined in the name of Jesus, gives us hope in the midst of whatever happens. And as people of hope, we can do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God across the threshold of a new year.