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"The Power of a Name"

“The Power of a Name”

13Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. 14John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16And 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. 17And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17, NRSV)

I remember well the day we found out we were going to have a baby boy. On the drive back from the doctor’s office, I began jotting down my list of potential names. I had been dreaming of this day since I was a little girl. Only then, my list of future children’s names were doodled on Hello Kitty paper during recess with my best friend Alexia. She and I would share our future baby’s names, swearing to never steal each other’s top picks. That was against all rules of friendship. Fast forward twenty plus years. I sit with Jacob in our living room overwhelmed and ecstatic with the gift of naming our first child.

We spent months in deliberation. Should it be a family name? A trendy name? A name with meaning to our new lives in New York? Should it be a gender specific name? Or a timeless name? Should it be a Biblical name? We are in the business after all. The options are endless. And then there’s the meaning of each name. Meanings are important us. We wanted the name to be intentional. Significant. We wanted our son to have a name he could be proud of – a name that means something special. The name Aaron, liked by both of us, was not only Biblical, (bonus), but we discovered too that it has a beautiful meaning. “High mountain”. We loved it. Sold! Aaron William Burgess he shall be named.

The first time his name was called in a public setting will forever be etched in my brain. We were fresh out of the hospital, and at his first newborn check up at the pediatrician. The nurse opened the door to the waiting room and called out, “Aaron Burgess”. I immediately burst into tears. “That’s our son, we gave him that name,” I remember saying to Jacob through my postpartum sobs.

Names have power. They are our first notion of identity. Some of us spend our lives trying to live up to a particular name; while perhaps sensing our inadequacies every step of the journey. For some of us, we spend our lives defending our names, or wishing we came from a different family legacy. Then there are the names that were given to us – not by our loved ones – but by those who have bruised us along life’s way. Names that belittle and undermine our personhood. These are the names that have the tendency to stick and we spend years attempting to rid ourselves from their hurtful intentions.

Names have power. I remember as a teenager, my parents reminded me regularly as I left the house, “remember who you are”. In essence, “you represent something of significance that is linked to us. Don’t disappoint.” I knew well by that point in my life what they meant.

Some names do not fit who we sense we are deep within ourselves. This is true for many transgendered sisters and brothers who are searching for a name that best matches their true selves. In a growing number of progressive churches and synagogues, “Re-naming” services are held to celebrate and welcome not only the new name of the person, but to welcome a new spiritual journey under a new identity. The international organization GLAAD, whose mission is to advocate on the behalf of LGBTQ persons states the following about the importance of renaming.

GLAAD states, “Some children are given new Christian names at confirmation and then will go by that name from that point on. Some have names that are only used by the family and their formal name is used only by those outside of the family. Still others adopt a nickname by which they are forever called. Names are not always cast in stone at birth. Some Native American tribes do not name their children until some attribute is discovered about the child. And the name might change again when the child becomes an adult. And in the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, names would change as the person was transformed and embraced their true identity. Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, Jacob became Israel, Saul became Paul all to indicate a new person in relationship with their god. [Through Re-naming ceremonies] we celebrate the adoption of a new name that reflects a truth that has been hidden but is now revealed.[1]

Today’s lectionary scripture passage takes us back to the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Our story today highlights the humanity of Jesus as he presents himself to be baptized. It is a story about renewal and new life. But it is also a story about the power of names and identity. Following Jesus’ Baptism by his cousin John, the text says, “Suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. A voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” (Matthew 3:13-17)

There are few moments throughout our Biblical text where we read about the voice of God as a Spirit speaking to Jesus. In this paramount moment, the Spirit’s words to Jesus are about identity. He calls him Son, linking him to God’s own self. He reminds Jesus of whose he is. It is a name of belonging. The Spirit calls Jesus beloved, reminding him of God’s affection and unparalleled love. The story of Jesus’ Baptism is a story about the power of a name.

As the Spirit calls out to Jesus in this moment of renewal, God calls out to us, you are my beloved child. We use the word beloved often and sometimes in trivial ways. The kind of beloved the Spirit of God calls us, transcends any of our human notions of the word. Other synonyms for the word beloved include, dearest, precious, adored, cherished, treasured, and prized. Perhaps today’s story is about our own re-naming of sorts. Perhaps today’s story is about shaking off names that have broken and bruised us. Maybe today is about disposing of destructive names we call ourselves and adopting God’s name for us. Precious. Treasured. Child.

Dutch professor, author and priest Henri Nouwen writes about the phenomenon of realizing we are beloved by God as he writes, “Over the years, I have come to realize that the greatest trap in our life is not success, popularity, or power, but self-rejection. Success, popularity, and power can indeed present a great temptation, but their seductive quality often comes from the way they are part of the much larger temptation to self-rejection. When we have come to believe in the voices that call us worthless and unlovable, then success, popularity, and power are easily perceived as attractive solutions. The real trap, however, is self-rejection. As soon as someone accuses me or criticizes me, as soon as I am rejected, left alone, or abandoned, I find myself thinking, “Well, that proves once again that I am a nobody.” … [My dark side says,] I am no good… I deserve to be pushed aside, forgotten, rejected, and abandoned. Self-rejection is the greatest enemy of the spiritual life because it contradicts the sacred voice that calls us the “Beloved.” Being the Beloved constitutes the core truth of our existence.”[2]

As we welcome a new year with the beginning of 2019, so we too embrace a new identity through God’s words to us. Beginning a new year calls us to reflect on our families, our communities and ourselves. Perhaps as we seek peace, justice and healing in our world, we do so by embracing our true God-given identity. Beloved. Only then, might grace, love, kindness, and generosity expand to include others as our identity in God expands.

Nouwen expresses this notion as he writes, “When we claim and constantly reclaim the truth of being the chosen ones, we soon discover within ourselves a deep desire to reveal to others their own chosenness. Instead of making us feel that we are better, more precious or valuable…, our awareness of being chosen opens our eyes to the chosenness of others. That is the great joy of being chosen: the discovery that others are chosen as well. In the house of God there are many mansions. There is a place for everyone ̶ a unique, special place. Once we deeply trust that we ourselves are precious in God's eyes, we are able to recognize the preciousness of others and their unique places in God's heart.”[3]

So today, we come once again to the baptismal waters. We come at the dawn of a New Year – remembering the power of a fresh start. We come today, remembering the power of a new God given identity rooted in love.

Creative writer and poet Jan Richardson describes this notion beautifully as she writes


Is there any other word

needs saying,

any other blessing

could compare

with this name,

this knowing?


Comes like a mercy

to the ear that has never

heard it.

Comes like a river

to the body that has never

seen such grace


Comes holy

to the heart

aching to be new.

Comes healing

to the soul

wanting to begin



Keep saying it

and though it may

sound strange at first,

watch how it becomes

part of you,

how it becomes you,

as if you never

could have known yourself

anything else,

as if you could ever

have been anything other

than this:


You are God’s beloved child. Believe it. Live it. And may its loving notion expand in your life out to a world that needs to hear it too. AMEN.

Pastoral Prayer

God of grace and love,

You call us with your voice of flame

to be your people, faithful and courageous.

As your beloved Son embraced his mission

in the waters of baptism,

inspire us with the fire of your Spirit

to join in his transforming work.

We pray for the condition of our world this morning. We pray that where there is violence, we would find a peaceful solution. We pray that where there is hunger and thirst, we would find resources to quench and to satisfy. We pray for those separated from family and loved ones on this day. Bless those O God, that they might sense your peace. Help us realize and sense our connectedness as humanity.

We pray for our church family.

Direct our hearts and minds during this time. Inspire us to new levels of faith. Draw us closer to you. In the name of Christ we pray, Amen.

~~ from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers copyright © 2002


[2] Nowen Henri; “Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World.”

[3] Ibid.

[4] Richardson, Jan

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