Sunday, 27 September 2015

What's in a Name?

This sermon was preached at Evensong on 27/09/15 where we celebrated Michaelmas - the feast of St Michael, to whom our church is dedicated. The readings were Daniel 10:4-end and Revelation 5.

Names have always been seen as important things. I’m sure you know the story of Rumpelstiltskin – whose name likely literally means ‘Noisy, Limping Imp’, who struck a ghoulish bargain with the fairy-tale queen that he would take her first-born son unless she could tell him his name. In our Christian and Jewish tradition, we hold much reverence over the name of God in particular – in Judaism, the name of God cannot be spoken or written, instead, the tetragrammaton  – the four letters ‘YHWH’ – are used whenever the name of God needs to be invoked. Through the years, we have added vowels, to make the name ‘Yahweh’, or even ‘Jehovah’. In our bibles, the four letters will often be replaced by the way we now commonly refer to God – The LORD (often written in capital letters). God’s name is too holy for us mortals to be able to use safely.

There are other references in the Old Testament to names being important things. In Genesis, an angel appears to, wrestles with, and –interestingly – does not beat, Jacob. Even after Jacob prevails, the angel blesses him and renames him Israel – ‘he who struggles with God’, but still the angel will not tell him his name. 

Names, then, are important – to answer Shakespeare’s Juliet, there is much in them. Just as we hold that a name holds meaning, we place a lot of importance on bestowing a name.

We like to name things after traits we can see in the thing we are naming. Jen and I have just returned from Menorca, where we took Isaac to the zoo. We walked through the monkey enclosure, and I was reminded as I walked through that capuchin monkeys were so named because they reminded the European explorers of Capuchin monks; just as the coffee, cappuccino is named – it’s all to do with the particular capuchin red-brown colour of the monks’ robes that were also seen in the monkeys and in the coffee. We see a link, and like to refer to it in the name we give something.

Similarly, we like to give names that refer to traits we want to see develop in the thing or person we are naming. We name our children after characters, or celebrities we admire – there were, apparently 187 girls born last year named Arya, and 50 girls called Khaleesi – both names taken from the hugely popular Game of Thrones TV (and book) series. Alternatively, we name our children after people we know or have known. Isaac takes his middle name from a friend of ours who tragically died in a car-crash in the year Isaac was born. He would have celebrated his birthday two days before Isaac did. In giving Isaac the middle-name John, we felt like we were granting Isaac something of John’s humility and humour, his intelligence, kindness and his Godliness – all traits we want Isaac to grow up with, sharing with his name-sake, who, in this life he will never meet, but we still hope he will emulate.

Today, we celebrate the feast of Michaelmas – the feast of the archangel Michael, after whom our church, and we – as that church – are named. We are St Michael’s – named after, and for him. What, then, is in our name? What are Michael’s traits?

Michael is one of two angels named in the bible. He and Gabriel, alongside Raphael (who is named in the book of Tobit – a book in the Apocrypha) make up the three named Archangels (literally, chief angels) within Roman Catholic tradition. We have heard the two main readings which refer to him today – the first this evening, from the book of Daniel, and the second earlier this morning, from Revelation, describing Michael’s role defeating the great dragon in the heavenly war. Some people believe the angel I referred to earlier – who wrestled with Jacob and renamed him Israel – was also Michael.

We can see from these readings that Michael is a protector of God’s people; that he battles and defeats evil. He has come to be known as a warrior against injustice, and was given particular care for the sick and the dying by the early Christians. These are the traits for which we are named; which our founders all those years ago most likely wanted us to have as our focus throughout the years – to fight against evil, to defend the people of God, and to care for the sick and the dying; the traits of our namesake.

St Michael, defeating Satan - at Coventry Cathedral

What does the name of our namesake mean, though? What does our name mean?

Michael is, obviously, a Hebrew word. It is, in fact, a question. We have heard that Jacob was renamed by the angel ‘he who struggles with God’. That angel, if it was Michael, has a name that literally translates, ‘who is like God?’

Like the angel, the psalmist asks us the same question

Who is like the LORD our God,
who is seated on high,
who looks far down on the heavens and the earth? 
He raises the poor from the dust, 
and lifts the needy from the ash heap, 
to make them sit with princes, 
with the princes of his people. 
He gives the barren woman a home, 
making her the joyous mother of children. 
Praise the LORD!

 Who is like God? The answer seems clear enough; no-one. No-one is like God. Not one of us is holy enough, righteous enough, powerful enough, forgiving enough, loving enough to be like God. God is unique.
No-one is like God. And yet, as is the case with so many questions our faith presents us with, and prods us to ask again and again, the answer is not that simple.  Who is like God? Us. We are – his followers.

We all are made in his likeness and his image; in the image of God he created us, and, as the writer of Second Corinthians points out, through knowing God, we are also being more and more transformed into his image – from one degree of glory to another. There’s a concept in Orthodox Christianity known as theosis – it’s the idea that those who know God are on a journey towards becoming more and more like him; towards becoming divine. Athanasius of Alexandria wrote that God became us that we might become God. It’s a long, hard road, but it is one to be travelled.

Who is like God? We are – the people known as Christians – the name literally means ‘little Christs’. To those who do not know God, we are God’s representatives here on earth. To answer Michael, to them, we are like God. There’s a famous poem by Theresa of Avila that says the following:

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

 We emulate Christ. We emulate God. We represent God here on earth. What does that mean for us? For our behaviour? For our lives?

On this feast day of St Michael, for whom we are named, let us vow to share his traits of fighting against evil, defending the people of God, and caring for the sick and the dying, and also to meditate upon his question and what the answer means for us – who is like God?

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