Tuesday, March 13, 2012

What's in a name?

Genesis 17.3-8 & 15-16

A baptism or christening used to be the time when babies were given their names, usually very soon after they were born. That’s changed, of course. Parents now have to register our names with the government instead, and usually long before we’re baptised. And, of course, some people aren’t baptised at all, but they still have names!


Giving someone a name is something that most of us don’t get to do very often. We might get to name our pets, but even the most fortunate of us only get to name a child a very few times in our lives. People have asked me whether I like my grandchildren’s names, but that’s neither here nor there. I didn’t get to choose their names, or even to have a say. They are who they are. I got to help name their mother.

A long time ago I worked with a minister from Fiji. It’s the custom in Fiji to choose at least one name for each of your children which reflects the place where they were born. So he called one of his daughters Rose, because we were living in the county of Lancashire - the red rose county - and another one he called Wigan, because we were working in Wigan. It’s just her good luck I suppose that we weren’t working in Pontefract at the time!

Does anyone know what their name means? (If not, why not visit a site like www.mfnames.com to find out?)

Names are very important in the Bible. Abraham means ‘father of many nations’. God chose the name for Abraham as a sign that - because of his faithfulness in following God and believing in him - he would become an example to, and the ancestor of, millions upon millions of people.

Before God changed his name, he was called something very similar, Abram, but although Abram sounds like Abraham it has a very different meaning: it means high father. Perhaps that’s because he was supposed to be an ‘important father’, or perhaps it means he was expected to be someone very tall.

Sarah, Abraham’s wife, had a name which means ‘princess’, and her name was changed by God too. But I think that was just to make her feel that she wasn’t being left out, because Sarai - her old name before God changed it - means exactly the same thing as Sarah. However, she too had shown great faithfulness and courage, so they both deserved a new name.

Simon, the friend of Jesus, was given a new name as well. Simon was a perfectly fine name. It means either ‘someone who’s a good listener’ or ‘someone who is listened to by others’. But Simon wasn’t a very good listener. He didn’t always hear what Jesus was really saying. And even when he did understand what Jesus meant, he didn’t always say or do the right thing. He wasn’t always someone who should be listened to. So Jesus gave him a new name, Peter, which means ‘Rock’. In the end, although he didn’t always listen properly or say the right thing straightaway, Peter was a solid kind of guy, someone dependable and trustworthy.

Jesus means ‘God saves’, someone who can rescue us or hold our hand when we’re in any kind of trouble, and ‘Christ’, the other name by which Jesus is often known, means ‘God’s chosen leader’. Funnily enough, people are often called Jesus - especially in other languages, not in English - yet no one is ever called Christ. But people can be called Christians, which means followers of Jesus, and baptism is one of the signs that we belong to Jesus and are being called to follow him all our lives.

Paige means ‘servant girl’ and ‘Elisa’ means ‘God’s promise’. So the name Paige Elisa is a reminder to us all that God will keep his promise to love and care for us, and in return he asks us to be his servants all our life long.

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