Isaiah 61:10 – 62:5 

1st Sunday after Christmas

St Barbara’s; 31.12.2023

Rev Jeremy Bevan

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the heroine is trying to convince herself that the course of true love would run smoother if only her beloved, Romeo, wasn’t a Montague – Montagues being sworn enemies of Juliet’s family, the Capulets. In the end, their family names, and all they represent, are their doom. Trying to deny the power of names is wishful thinking, it seems. In our time, whether we call it Twitter or X, the social media platform is seemingly as controversial as ever; my gas supplier is now called E.ON, not npower, but my bills are no lower.

It seems that names can be mere labels if the essence of what lies beneath them is stronger. The Bible understands the power of names. It sees they indeed may have a power to shape the essence of things, even to determine the course of people’s lives. The name Moses, for example, sounds like the Hebrew for ‘I drew him out’. It refers to Pharaoh’s daughter plucking Moses from the Nile as a baby. And it’s a name he goes on to live up to, as he draws his people out of the waters of the sea, so to speak, as they cross into the promised land. For the Bible, a name can be a powerful force for good.

Our passage from Isaiah chapters 61 and 62 understands the power of names. Recently, Dan and I spoke on chapters from Isaiah telling of the hardships of exile and God drawing people back to the promised land. In today’s reading, our determined, encouraging, far-sighted God is still working to restore things. The images pile up: it’s going to be like someone all dressed up for a wedding; a seeded garden now bursting into life; a new dawn; and a crown in God’s hand.

But there’s a problem. And it lies in the names someone has given the promised land. Names like ‘Deserted’, ‘Desolate’. Perhaps the inhabitants of surrounding nations were mocking the efforts of the people to turn social, economic and spiritual life in the land around? It may have been that there was criticism from within over lack of progress. Either way, those names seem to have stuck, shaping how the people felt about their life together. There are good names in the Bible, then – and bad names.

We see this happening in our own lives, don’t we? We call ourselves names. Or people label us, in unhelpful ways. My younger brother followed me through secondary school, and teachers expected him to meet their expectations that he would be like me. He wasn’t, he never would be, but it took him a long time to shake that off. Names may pigeonhole us, label us and dog our footsteps, shape our future for the worse. This is a truth we see in the Bible too. When we at first meet the father of the Jewish people in Genesis 12, his name, Abram, may be a mocking taunt for this childless older man, translating as something like ‘Big Daddy’. Can we shake off the names we give ourselves, or the labels others give us? Turning to Isaiah 62, how may the people shake off those names: ‘deserted’ ‘desolate’?

There’s a clue, I think, in our Gospel reading from this morning. When Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the temple, they give him “the name the angel gave him before he was conceived.” Our far-sighted God has known each of us from the womb, delights in us, and longs to see us become all we’re meant to be as God’s beloved children. Perhaps it isn’t so much a matter of shaking off those bad names ourselves as letting God bury them under a glorious, God-given truth about ourselves in all its fullness.

For the people of Isaiah’s time, that fullness is called ‘salvation’. What does it look like? Again there’s a clue in the new names God gives the people: ‘My delight is in her’ (= “Hephzibah”) and ‘Married’ (= “Beulah”). In Hebrew, there is only a slight difference in sound between the old, mocking name ‘Deserted’ and the joy of ‘My delight is in her’. ‘Desolate’ and ‘Married’ rhyme in Hebrew, though could hardly be more different in meaning. Both ’My delight is in her’ and ‘Married’ are God’s way of saying to the people: “I want you to be close to me, as close as a couple progressing from wedding and honeymoon to all that lies beyond. That way, you’ll find out how much I delight in you, rejoice in you.”

It’s the sort of love that should call forth a response, and one that should turn lives into that crown of beauty Isaiah envisages. It’s what God promised the people of Isaiah’s time – Isaiah whose name means ‘God is salvation’, whose words lived up to his name. It’s the sort of love Jesus, whose name means ‘Saviour’, came to show us. It’s the sort of love that can transform our lives more and more, day by day as the relationship grows, as we grow in readiness to let God deal with the obstacles we put in the way. Including the labels we give ourselves – or the pigeonholes others put us in – that deprive us of the full truth about how much God loves us.

When God gives Abram a new name, he’s no longer a man taunted and haunted by what he’s not. He’s Abraham, a name that means ‘Father of many’. Through his many descendants that name becomes a blessing in all the earth, as God promised.

Good names; bad names; names God gives. What name you’ve given yourself, or others have labelled you with, may you need to shed? What new name might God give you to bring forth a fuller truth about who you are or might become this week, this coming year?