What’s in a Name?

For most of my adult life, I was employed by Southern Baptists. I’ve written for numerous publications, edited everything from a postcard to a missionary biography, taught classes, led conferences, planned curricula, trained writers and conference leaders, served in churches, associations, state conventions, and national agencies.

But, until this year, I’ve never preached on Sunday morning. Women of my generation were not given that opportunity. But, today makes twice this year. I have found myself treading on unfamiliar ground, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to preach in Tripp’s absence today.

Many of you know that I was on staff at First Baptist Gatlinburg for sixteen years as Minister of Education and Minister to Senior Adults before Ellis and I got married more than ten years ago. Before that, I was an English teacher for a very short while and an editor for a much longer while—primarily, again, for Southern Baptist publications. So, I’ve always been a word person. As an editor especially, I was asked for book recommendations.

What are you reading? What have you read lately? What have you enjoyed? What are your favorite books? This morning, I want to begin by telling you about two of my favorite books. One fiction, one nonfiction.

Let me start with fiction. It’s a well-known classic Southern novel. And let me hasten to say that this was my favorite book long before I met Wayne Flynt and became part of his Sunday school class here at First Baptist.

Many of you will know this part of Wayne’s story, and I hope that I’m getting the details correct; but, many years ago, Wayne and Dartie met three sisters—first meeting the older sister Alice, who was, along with her father, a prominent lawyer. The middle sister Louise was active in social issues and so they grew to know her as well. The youngest sister, Nell, was suspicious of these burgeoning friendships, because she suspected that people were always trying to get through to her through some casual family connection.

The family and close friends knew her as Nell, but the rest of the world knew her as Harper Lee, the author of my favorite novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Wayne often shares stories about Harper Lee in our Sunday school class. His connection to Harper Lee is a bonus for me, but I first came to this church because of his reputation, not hers.

My favorite part of To Kill a Mockingbird comes near the end when Scout and Jim, the main characters, have walked home in the dark after the Halloween carnival and Harvest Pageant. On their way, they are attacked, and Jim is badly injured. Scout cannot offer many details about the attack, because she was in costume for the Harvest Pageant dressed as a ham—as one does in the rural south.

A mysterious man came to their rescue and delivered Jim to their family home, and the care of their father Atticus. Sheriff Heck Tate comes to question Scout about the attack, and he asks about the rescuer. Who is this mysterious man?

Scout sees him hiding behind Jim’s bedroom door and she says, “There he is, Mr. Tate. You can see him for yourself.”

When the rescuer steps out from his hiding place, Scout slowly recognizes the man who has been the object of the children’s fear and gossip all their young lives through sudden and unexpected tears.

She realizes who he is and she says, “Hey, Boo.”

The mysterious man who brought her brother safely home is the neighbor they’ve always wondered about—the one whose house they run past. The name Scout calls him, Boo, reveals the nickname they use because of fear of one they do not really know, but only know about.

Atticus corrects Scout and says, “I believe he already knows you.”

For the rest of the novel, Scout calls him Mr. Arthur, as any polite Southern child was taught to do.

Jean Louise and Arthur, Scout and Boo, names and nicknames. As someone who has an unusual name—or at least an unusual pronunciation—I’ve always tried to get names right.

I tease Ellis about his family names, because as I tried to make sense of a new family when we married almost ten years ago, he never called his aunts and uncles by their given names. All of them had family nicknames, and some had more than one nickname.

When I was a little girl, my grandmother shortened my name, Gina, to Gigi. My parents didn’t like it, and they asked her to stop when I was about five.

I told my son and his wife about my childhood nickname, and that’s what my grandmother name is now. It feels like I’ve come full circle, from my grandmother to my own granddaughter.

Names are important.

Nell Lee knew that anybody who asked for her by that given name was someone she might trust. Folks looking for Harper Lee were out for something else: a connection to her celebrity and notoriety.

If people call our home and ask for “Jeana”, it’s probably a stranger and not a friend.

Our former UN Ambassador Jean Kirkpatrick says, “What we call each other ultimately becomes what we think of each other, and it matters.”

Words have meaning and names have power.

The beginning of wisdom, one proverb suggests, is to call things by their right name. In Genesis, God gives Adam the task of naming every living creature. This assignment carries with it a sense of both responsibility and ownership. To name something—to know the name of something—signifies relationship and awareness, perhaps even intimacy.

There are more than 3,200 named individuals in the Bible. About 2,900 of them are men. Of course, the biblical story includes hundreds of thousands of people whose name we do not know. Some are perhaps main characters in favorite Bible stories: the good Samaritan, the rich young ruler, the woman at the well, the innkeeper. Other favorites we do know by name: Zacchaeus the wee little man, David and the giant Goliath, Nicodemus who comes to Jesus by night, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus.

I love that we know the names of the brave Hebrew midwives, Shifrah and Puah, who saved a generation of Hebrew babies. Three of my favorites are the daughters of Job, whose names we learn at the end of Job’s story when his life and family have been restored. He has a new family of seven sons and three daughters, Jemima, Keziah, and Karin Happo. Nowhere in all the land were found women as beautiful as Job’s daughters, and their father granted them an inheritance along with their brothers.

Eugene Peterson, in The Message, identifies these daughters as dove, cinnamon, and dark eyes. We do not know their brothers’ names. But identifying these daughters foreshadows for us the message of Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek. There is neither slave nor free. There is neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”

In our New Testament reading this morning, we were introduced to Simeon and Anna, two senior adults who have been waiting for the promised Messiah: the consolation of Israel.

Anna, whose name means grace, is a widow who never leaves the temple. She is the daughter of Penuel and from the tribe of Asher. Asher, whose name means happy or blessed, is the eighth son of Jacob. And scripture tells us he is the most blessed of Jacob’s son. His tribe became one of the ten lost tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel. Simeon, righteous and devout, takes his name from a word that means to hear intelligently.

These two characters are waiting, anticipating, listening for the Holy Spirit to reveal the long-awaited Christ child. They embodied discernment and commitment. Simeon, some scholars suggest, is believed to have been either one of the temple priests from the tribe of Levi, or Simeon ben Hillel, son of Hillel the elder, from the tribe of Benjamin. Either tribe, Levi or Benjamin, would not have been part of the Northern Kingdom, but of the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

Luke gives us then, in naming these two, a moment of wholeness for the Jewish people. Messiah is received and recognized by both sides of the divide that had occurred centuries before. The consolation of Israel has come for all the people: we are all one in Christ Jesus.

If you’ve been in church all your life, as I have, no doubt you’ve heard lots of sermons about the good shepherd and his relationship to his sheep. Scripture tells us that he calls them by name and they know his voice. Throughout the biblical story, we see God’s relationship with his people as he calls them.

God calls Abram to leave Ur, and he changes his name to Abraham, “the father of many nations.” He calls Moses by name when he appears to him in the burning bush, and he calls Samuel by name when he calls him from his sleep in the temple while he’s serving the priest, Eli. At Easter, we hear the story of the women going early in the morning to anoint the body of the crucified Christ, and of Jesus appearing to a confused and grieving woman who only recognized him when he called her gently by name, Mary.

Sometimes the biblical story tells us the significance of a new name, like Abraham, the father of many nations, or when Jacob becomes Israel, the one who struggles with God, or Simon becomes Peter, the rock. Before God calls Gideon to lead in battle, he first calls him by a nickname, Mighty Warrior, even though Gideon is hiding and has no intention of heading into war as a mighty warrior.

This is the first thing I want you to know this morning: God knows your name and He will call you by name. You are not a stranger. Your name is important, and even though there is no possibility that God will not remember your name, Isaiah 49:16 tells us that God has your name engraved in the palms of his hands. He knows your name, and if you have a nickname, He knows that, as well.

Names matter. Your name matters, and God knows what it is.

My other favorite book, nonfiction, is equally Southern. Written by a reporter from The Birmingham News, Dennis Covington, it is the story of a group of believers whose faith practices differ significantly from ours. They are members of the Church of Jesus Christ with Signs Following. That name comes from the Book of Mark, Chapter 16, where believers are identified by the signs following their expressions of faith in the risen Christ.

These are the signs: driving out demons, speaking in tongues, handling snakes, drinking poison, laying on of hands, and healing.

This book, Salvation on Sand Mountain, is Covington’s account of the snake handlers, of his worshiping with them, befriending them, and ultimately understanding that although he is alternately drawn to them and repelled by them, he is not one of them, and his time with them must come to an end.

After a final heart-wrenching worship service, he ends his journey to Sand Mountain and returns to Birmingham. As he’s driving back into the city, he realizes that he’s near his childhood home, East Lake. And he ends his book with these words:

Most of the children in my neighborhood are called home for supper by their mothers. They open the back doors, wipe their hands on their aprons, and yell, “Willie” or “Joe” or “Ray”. Either that or they use a bell bolted to the door frame and loud enough to start the dogs barking in backyards all along the street. But I was always called home by my father and he didn’t do it in the customary way. He walked down the alley all the way to the lake. If I was close, I could hear his shoes on the gravel before he came into sight. If I was far, I would see him across the surface of the water, emerging out of the shadows and into the gray light. He would stand with his hands in the pockets of his windbreaker while he looked for me. This is how he got me to come home. He always came to the place where I was before he called my name.

Let me say that last line once again, because it is my favorite ending to any book that I know. It’s the second thing that I want you to know today: “He always came to the place where I was before he called my name.”

That’s the way scripture describes the calling of the disciples. Mark 1 tells of Jesus walking along the seashore, seeing James and John, Peter and Andrew, as they are fishing. Luke 5 also tells about Jesus calling these fishermen, and John gives us the chain of events as Jesus sought his disciples and called them from the seashore or from the tax collector’s booth.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke give us a list of the twelve that Jesus called, and I learned those names as a young child in Sunday school. Music has a way of teaching that’s hard to duplicate, and I’ve known this little song for more than 60 years.

This is how I know the disciples’ names:

Jesus called them one by one,
Peter, Andrew, James and John,
Next, came Philip, Thomas too,
Matthew and Bartholomew.

James the one they called the less,
Simon, also Thaddeus,
Twelfth apostle Judas made,
Jesus was by him betrayed.

I thought for a long time as a child that Judas’ name was Judas May. The last line says, “The twelfth apostle Judas made, Jesus was by him betrayed.” I thought it was Judas May.

I believe that God will come to you before he calls your name. Perhaps you will already be on the way to him, or you may be searching for something and you don’t know that you’re searching for God, but he will come to you. He is looking for you, waiting for you, seeking you.

Just as he did with the disciples, he will come to you before he calls your name. And because he knows your name, he knows you. He doesn’t just know about you, he really knows the you that perhaps no one else really knows.

Eugene Peterson’s son said at his father’s funeral that his dad only had one sermon. That he had everyone fooled for his twenty-nine years of pastoral ministry. That for all his books, he really had only one message. It was a secret that he said his dad had let him in on early in life—a message that his dad had whispered into his heart for 50 years—words he had snuck into his bedroom to say over him as he slept as a child:

“God loves you. God is on your side. He is coming after you. He is relentless.”

I don’t know how God will call you or what God will call you to do. For all of us who claim the name Christian, He calls us to a relationship. For some of us, He calls to a specific task—a profession or a mission. And God’s call certainly doesn’t always involve vocation, like a call to ministry, but it does involve a relationship.

So here’s the thing about God’s call and his gifts or blessings to each of us. Romans 29:11 tells us that God’s gifts and his call do not waiver or change. God doesn’t change his mind about calling you. One translation says, “God’s call is irrevocable.” He doesn’t change His mind.

The Message says it like this, “God’s gifts and God’s calls are under full warranty, never canceled, never rescinded.” God does not take back the gifts he has given or disown the people he has chosen.

As we end this year of 2023 and look forward to a new year beginning tomorrow, I want you to know these three things: God knows your name. God will come to you before he calls your name, and he will not change his mind. The God of the universe has your name engraved in the palm of his hand.

May it ever be so.

Would you pray with me? Lord, thank you that you know us, that you know us by name, that you call us to be your very own precious sons and daughters. Thank you that you do not change your mind, that you love us and bless us and will never turn your back on us. You are relentless in your love for us. For that amazing truth, we are forever grateful. Amen.

Auburn First Baptist Church