September 3, 2023

Proper 17A – George Yandell

What’s in a name? From early childhood, I was told ‘George’ means ‘farmer.’ Now no offense to anyone who farms, but I was a city boy, and I didn’t like thinking my name meant ‘farmer.’ The only farms in E TN I’d visited were dirty, the farmers’ lives were tough, there was manure everywhere, and they smelled bad to me. Only later, when I began to study Greek in seminary, did I find my name ‘ge-or’gos’ meant also ‘gardener, vinedresser, husbandman.’ So I began to realize a deeper significance to my name. And now I’ve come to love growing herbs, tending plants, getting dirt on my hands. (And you know preachers are known for how they can spread the manure.) I guess I’ve come full circle.  

In the early history of the Hebrew people, the name for God was ‘El.’ One of the first conversations I had with a man named Elroy, was about his name, which can mean ‘child of God.’ Beth-el in Hebrew means ‘house of God.’ From the time of Abraham, about 2000 BCE forward, the Hebrew people called God ‘El.’ Ancient times. Then around 1250 BCE a most intriguing change happens. The Hebrew people began to call God a new name. How and why?  

The Hebrew people migrated from Canaan to Egypt @ 1650 BCE. You remember the story- Jacob’s 12 sons sold Joseph into slavery. He was carried to Egypt, rose to become Pharaoh’s second-in-command, and then gave sanctuary to all his father’s and brothers’ people. The Hebrews lived in Egypt for 400 years. Over time, they became slaves to Pharaoh.  

Then around 1250 BCE, a child was born to Hebrew slaves. His parents were from the tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe. But Pharaoh had decreed that all male children born to Hebrews were to be killed at birth. We read this story last Sunday. So the baby’s mother hid him, then built a tiny raft and floated him in the Nile River. The daughter of Pharaoh spied the little canoe and the baby, and wanted to take him in.   

The baby’s older sister happened to be there, suggested to Pharaoh’s daughter she could find a wetnurse for the baby, went and got the baby’s mother, and the baby and child were reunited. The mother raised the baby to a teenager, when she presented him back to Pharaoh’s daughter. Pharaoh’s daughter said, “I’ll call him ‘Moses’ (from an Egyptian word ‘Mosheh’ meaning ‘to beget a child’) for I drew him out of the water (from a Hebrew word ‘Mashah’ meaning ‘to draw out.’)” Fascinating, isn’t it? How that name would ring with deeper truth.  

The child Moses went in a moment from being a slave of a down-trodden people to magnificent privilege. He lived in the household of the world’s most powerful man. Then one day, strolling amongst the construction sites, Moses saw an Egyptian policeman beating a Hebrew slave. Moses was filled with outrage. He killed the policeman, and had to make a run for it. He fled to the land of Midian, over 400 miles. Moses identified so strongly with his people’s plight he killed a man, marking him forever as an enemy of Pharaoh.  

One day years later, while tending the sheep of his father-in-law, Jethro, God appeared in a flaming bush near Mount Horeb.  Moses had to see more. (Read Ex. 3:3-8) “I have come down to deliver my people from the Egyptians, to draw them out -Mashah- from Egypt.” “Moses said to God: Which of the gods will I say sent me to deliver Israel?  When they ask me his name, what shall I say?”  

In antiquity, it was believed that selfhood was expressed in the name of a person. If you knew someone’s name, you gained power over him. In this moment the God known only as “El” told Moses God’s personal name- YAHWEH- a verb. This verb form can be translated “I am who I am; I am what I am; I will be who I will be; He causes to be; I am who I choose to be.” What a name! From that moment on, Yahweh has not had a quiet moment. Just as Yahweh chose. Yahweh chose to relate to God’s people personally. God chose Moses to draw out God’s people into freedom. We are descendents of Moses today. Our spiritual ancestors were chosen by the God whose name means ‘being, change, choice.’   

There’s one more name most important in our spiritual history- the name Yahweh bestowed on Yahweh’s son, born of Mary- Jesus. Jesus translates ‘Yahweh saves.’ Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, or Yeshua. We sit here today as the tribe whose members, both living and dead, bear the mark of Yeshua’s crucifixion on our foreheads. God has claimed us, we have claimed God in the name of Jesus. Yahweh moved in history to get us to this point. Will we be bold like Moses? Will we work with Yahweh to live into our Christian names? Today in a war-torn world will we work to end ceaseless strife and conflict? Are we ready to draw out those around us to live with us in God’s freedom?  

What’s in a name? Identity, being, mystical relationship, salvation. By acting to draw out Moses, by acting through Jesus, in Jesus, God has made us whole. That’s where our story begins. As we live out our lives, we yearn to know God face to face. To grow into a fuller and fuller relationship with God and God’s son. Yeshua has saved us.  Now we are challenged to carry on what God has begun.