“What’s in a name?” The question has been asked innumerable times since Shakespeare first penned Juliette’s query. She was right, a rose’s sweet fragrance is not dependent upon, or a condition of, the name of the plant. A name is quite simply a form of identification or association. However, unlike Juliette, I do not think names can so easily be dismissed: names are powerful.
Last month I traveled with some friends to North Myrtle Beach to participate in a half-marathon. Having not trained or prepared as well as I should have, somewhere around mile 8 of the 13.1 total miles, I began to ache. My feet were swollen; my fingers were giant; my legs seemed as though I had ankle weights. Those last several miles were a mental and physical battle to just keep moving, despite the motivating musical set list streaming from my iphone. I tried to keep my shoulders back and head up, but there was no “Eye of the Tiger” strong enough to raise me up to this challenge.
Strangely enough, there was a gentleman, dressed in a pink tu-tu, standing along the sidelines of the race. His cheers and encouragement to the racers rose above the volume of my headphones, and I listened to his words: “You can do it, Anna!” “You’ve got it, Kathy!” “Come on, Hannah, don’t quit now.” “Just keep on running, Tara!” He wasn’t just cheering us on. He was cheering us on by name, printed on our racing bibs.
Now, I had never met this man before, nor will I ever see him again, but I’ll never forget him there at mile marker 8. My heart swelled with warmth when he called my name. “Go, Jennifer! Keep running!” Somehow, a renewed sense of strength came with his praise, and with it a confidence to finish the race.
In Scripture we find a repeating narrative of naming and renaming which spans the entirety of the text. Beginning with our faith father, Abraham, who was once “Abram.” Upon God’s covenant promise to make a great nation from Abram’s linage, he was given a new name: “Abraham.” Likewise, his wife, who was born Sarai, was renamed Sarah when included in the holy promise (Gen. 17).
Jacob was renamed “Israel” after wrestling with a divine opponent all night (Gen.32). Naomi was renamed “Mara” in a whirlwind of grief (Ruth 1). Daniel and company were each renamed in Babylonian captivity: “Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego” (Dan. 1). Simon, one of the earliest of Jesus’ disciples, was renamed “Peter,” after making a bold declaration of faith (Matt. 16). And the Jewish “Saul” of Tarsus became one of the most important figures of the Apostolic Age, founding several Christian Churches around Europe and Asia Minor as the Apostle Paul, after encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 13). Yes, friends. Names are of great significance and can be powerful.
In the era following the Babylonian exile, the prophet Isaiah wrote encouraging words and a message of hope to a dislocated and misplaced people of God. They were reminded, despite desperate and depressing circumstances, they were to be of good courage because “YHWH” had called them by name. God had formed them in their mother’s womb, they were of infinite value and worth.
As Christians, we cannot forget the value of bearing Christ’s name in the world. It is our joy and our responsibility to witness to the life, death and resurrection of the one who sets us free, the Author and Perfecter of our faith. While we daily make choices to resist the things of this world that wear us out or weigh us down, we can also live more fully into the Kingdom of God; we, too, can hear God’s calling us by name and we may be encouraged to finish the race set before us.