When I was a lad, I was not the most popular boy in the school. There were a lot of reasons for this, now I look back on it. I was tall and gangly, and had a face covered in acne. I was also the only musician in the school; very different from the rest of my rather macho classmates. I was also extremely allergic to sport...mainly because I was rubbish at it. And to be honest, I was a bit of a ‘know-it-all’ – though I’m sure none of you would recognise that now!
As a result, I got called rather a lot of nasty names...very few of which are repeatable from a pulpit. My poor parents did their best to try to help me cope, including making frequent use of that old saying, "sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me".
The trouble is, that old saying is a load of rubbish, isn't it? The reality is that name-calling does hurt, doesn't it? Our names are part of who we are...they are a key part of our identity. And when someone replaces our identity with a horrible word like "idiot”, it creates what psychologists call a 'dissonance' between who we think we are, and who others perceive us to be - and that dissonance physically hurts.
The names we use, and the names we call out do matter.
For example, when I think of the name 'Tom' it carries with it a whole load of associations...most of them positive. It’s the name that Clare uses to call me to dinner (which is always a positive experience for me!). So, the word 'Tom' has a positive ring about it - it’s part of my positive identity…along with many other names that I use, like Dad, and Uncle.
‘Thomas’ - on the other hand - creates a rather different sense of identity. That's the name that Clare (and my mother!) use when I am in trouble. When I hear "Thomas!" from the other end of the garden, I tend to think "Uh oh; what have I done now?!"
So names are important - and they were even more important in biblical times. The bible is packed full of examples of people changing their names in order to mark a change or transformation in their deep-down sense of who they are. Perhaps the best example is that of Abram, the father of the Hebrew nation, having his name changed by God to Abraham. ‘Abram’ meant, simply, 'exalted Father' - a term of respect for an old man. But Abraham meant 'father of many', and was given as a sign that Abraham was to become the father of an entire nation.
Names in the bible, then, are much more than just a word which helps to sort out who is who. Names are words which contain a sense of the full character of the person being named. Today, we celebrate the naming and the circumcision of Jesus. Circumcision was, of course, normal practice for a Jewish male-child. By having him circumcised, Jesus’ parents were being faithful to the teachings of the Hebrew, or Jewish Bible. It placed Jesus in his culture, and literally marked him as a child of Israel, and a son of David.
But it is his name which is most significant.
Interestingly, Jesus wasn’t called Jesus at all! His actual given name was ‘Yeshua’ which essentially boils down to two words: ‘Ye’…a contraction of YHWH, or God. And ‘shua’ which is a noun meaning a cry for help…something like ‘save us’. So Jesus actual name, the one his Mum would have called him at dinner-time, means ‘God Saves’.
Incidentally, I was once pounced on in a churchyard by a very angry woman of dubious mental stability. She was adamant that we were not Christians at all, because we don’t worship ‘Yeshua’ by his proper name! No matter how hard I tried to convince her that ‘Jesus’ is essentially an anglicised way of pronouncing ‘Yeshua’ – she wasn’t having any of it!
Some names were also believed to have power in and of themselves - because of whom they are attached to. So, to 'call on the name of the Lord' was to invoke the power of the Lord himself. (To see this most powerfully demonstrated, you only have to sit in on a service of our friends at the Redeemed Church of God - where every prayer is made, powerfully, 'in the name of 'Jesus'.)
To pray 'in the name of Jesus' is to pray in the presence and reality of Jesus – and to be convinced that it is God who saves, not we ourselves.
Names have power, and so do some particular words. At this turning-point of the year, I want to ask you to consider the meaning of one more important word – and that’s the word ‘parish’. We describe ourselves as ‘the Parish’ of St Faith, Havant – not just ‘the church’. In fact, both are useful words – and we might take a moment to consider them.
Etymologically speaking, the ‘church’ is not this building at all. The church is the gathered people of God, all those who own the name ‘Christ-ian’ – wherever we might actually worship. We could worship in the Hall at the Pallant Centre (as indeed we did last year) and we would still be ‘the Church’.
We are those whom Yeshua, the Saviour, calls to tell others the good news of how ‘God saves’. And the place that Yeshua especially calls us, is ‘the Parish’ – the area surrounding our church-building, in which we have been called, placed, and equipped for his service by our worship.
And so, we make no apology for spending the resources that God gives us on more than just this building. There is much we would like to achieve in this building in the coming year – you can read all about our hopes and aspirations in ‘The Big Build News’, available on the sides-table. We want to finish the organ restoration, and improve our toilet facilities. We want to upgrade our PA, and our audio-visual capabilities. We want to deal with crumbling plaster, and the long-term need to re-roof the building. We want this building to be the best and most fitting place for the worship of God that we can make it.
But we are also called to serve God, and bring his ‘salvation’ to the wider parish. That’s why we will continue to invest in The Pallant Centre – the place where we have perhaps more connections than anywhere else with the people of the parish. In the Pallant Centre, young parents have a café in which to gather for friendship. Alcoholics, gamblers, drug addicts, and ex-service-personnel all find advice and support. Young people are stretched and given the space to develop, through Dynamo. Artists have space to paint, archers have space to exercise. The Solent Male Voice Choir has space to exercise body and voice, and find friendship and fellowship. And many more besides.
We do all this, with your help, in the name of Yeshua – the God who saves. We serve the God who saves us from death by the cross. But he is also the God who saves us from loneliness, and isolation. He saves us from idleness and from addiction. He saves us from selfishness, and calls us to lives of service to others. He saves us from mediocrity, and invites us to become all that we can be, in his service.
It is Jesus we serve; he whose name is above all names. We set out, into this new year, confident that in his name, we can overcome the negativity of so much that is present in our nation at the present time. We believe and declare that the time is coming when the message that ‘God saves’ will be in every heart and on every tongue – when at the name of Jesus, every knee will bow!