“What’s the stuffed animal’s name?” It’s the first question I ask a little boy who is always toting around a stuffed animal. Sometimes he doesn’t understand my question. Sometimes his mom looks confused because the name randomly changes. But usually there is an answer. The toddler adores the animal and is excited to share the identity of his favorite toy.
I remember naming things as a child. I still name objects I care about. My car is “Vice” and my Mii character from the electronic gaming system Wii is “Mollie.” I have the “Good Smelling Gloves” that hold the scent of my hand lotion better than others. Sometimes I wear the “Fat Pants” or the “Hot Earrings.” Then there’s “Mom’s Recipe” for lasagna, which I usually follow up with the “Fat Pants.”
Naming was important in Biblical times. Shadrack, Meshach, and Abednego were renamed after entering the king’s service in Babylonia. The king wanted the three to forget their former lives. So by changing their names, he changed their identity. (Their Hebrew names were Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. See Daniel 1:7). It reflected who they were, and also whose they were.
God took names seriously. He changed Abram’s name to Abraham (Genesis 17:5) to show the world that he was the beginning of many nations. Abram means “exalted father,” while Abraham means “father of many.” His wife went from Sarai to Sarah (Genesis 17:15) since she became the mother of an important nation. The New Testament showed people’s names as their identity. Peter was the original “rock” (Matthew 16:18). Jesus said he would build his church on the “rock.” Names counted, and when a name was given, it was a clue into the identity.
What happens when a name sticks? I worried about that when I discovered my name in Hebrew meant “bitter.” I like my name, but did it reflect my character? I hope not.
I hope not for Mary’s sake too. Her name also meant bitter. She was the first woman to see Jesus after he bailed out of the grave. Silly Mary, thinking it was an unnamed gardener. Until she heard her name, she didn’t recognize Jesus. Her name was the key to recognition. It was the moment Jesus adored Mary and identified her. In that moment he also identified himself. Jesus didn’t go to the mountaintop straight away and shout his name. He allows his followers to do that for him. Instead we are to listen for our name, just as Jesus said “Mary” in the garden. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have summoned you by name; you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1b). Jesus redeems Mary’s bitterness when he calls her by name.
And get this: Around the same time, Peter was probably still sulking over his complete biff of denying Jesus. My reaction would’ve been similar. Peter hid where no one could call him out. He hoped to gain respect back by allowing everyone to forget. In the meantime, he hid in isolation. But when Jesus called for his friends after the resurrection, he said, “Get the disciples, and Peter” (Mark 16:7, emphasis added). Jesus knew. He knew Peter’s tendency was to think, “Oh, he means get everyone but me, the one who royally screwed up.” He knew Peter’s heart because he knew Peter’s name. He knew Peter’s identity and personality.
Names give objects personality. My car does have some vices. My gloves do smell good. And I’ve had compliments while wearing the “Hot Earrings.” The “Fat Pants” provide roomy comfort when those “Comfort Foods” come my way. God respects the depth of names. He likes to use them.
When did God last call you by name? How did your heart swell? Did you ask yourself, “Whose your daddy?” Listen closely, I bet you can hear the Holy One call your name.