I went to a restaurant the other night, and on the way in, a guy accidentally bumped into me. “Sorry, dude,” he said, and I thought dude? I’m a dude? Maybe I’m THE dude!.
When I got inside they didn’t have a table ready, so they asked me for my name. “Jim”, I said. It was noisy, and the hostess repeated, “Kim?”. I shook my head. Can’t she tell? I’m a dude, like the guy who just bumped into me acknowledged. She gave me her pad to write it down, so I wrote J I M, and then she immediately turned around and went off somewhere. I thought, that was dumb, I should have given her any name. What difference does it make? Jim, Kim… I’ll take any name as long as I get a table. A few minutes later I heard my name called out over a loudspeaker in the lobby. Table for Tim, she said.
That’s a thing about our culture that I’m not so thrilled about—this sort of fake familiarity that we practice. You go to get your car fixed, or your hair cut, or a table at a restaurant, and they ask you for your name and you give them the familiar one that you give to your friends and family—Marie, or Mike, or Katie, or Joe—and then they call it out when your latte is ready at Starbucks, or the Genius will speak with you at the Apple store. And it feels a little weird for a total stranger to be using the name that your mother or your best friend uses for you.
Of course it’s your own fault: that’s the name you gave them. You didn’t give them Dr Jones, or Ms Powers, or Mr Lewis. So you kind of have to accept the informality, you know… dude?
It’s like Facebook friends. They’re not all really your friends, are they? How can you have 1741 “friends”, anyway?
But on the other hand, it is a nice to hear your name called out by people who matter to you, isn’t it? To hear your name spoken in the voice of your bride or your grandfather or your best friend or your colleague or your teacher. And nicknames are wonderful because they usually reveal esteem, appreciation, endearment. When you are called “Sunshine”, “Gorgeous”, “Admiral”, “Amazon Man” or “Supergirl”, well that feels pretty good, doesn’t it?
George W Bush was famous for giving affectionate nicknames to people in his life. He called his vice president “Big Time”, his Secretary of State “The World’s Greatest Hero”. He called Chris Christie “Big Boy”.
I have always wondered just how that voice from the heavens spoke to Jesus at the river Jordan. Was it thundering, full of reverberations, shaking the seagulls in midflight, causing a wake of its own upon the muddy waters of baptism, making John’s bad teeth (all those locusts and honey) rattle and chatter? Perhaps it was a little like being in the lobby of a restaurant, hearing your name called out in a kind of weird way. Or was it more intimate, did it sound like a gentle lullaby, was it like a faint whisper in the wind, barely noticeable? Maybe there was an affectionate nickname attached, God showing his cards even more blatantly: you my son, my beloved J-Boy, I am sooo incredibly proud of you.
Imagine how that must have felt, however it came to him---J-Boy? Me? Really? Standing there with dirty water up to his waist, tangled hair dripping a piece of seaweed over his ear, Jesus was named from on high in the most familiar way possible.
Just like at our baptism, when we were officially named as children of God, it all began right then and there for him. It was another epiphany, manifestation, revealing, announcement of who he was, and who he was meant to be. That’s why we skip from Jesus the baby with the magi (just last week) to Jesus at his baptism. It’s really the beginning of his mission in life. From that point on he knew who he was and what he had to do.
Sort of knew, actually. Right after the nickname at the Jordan, he was a little confused—who wouldn’t be after hearing your name on God’s loudspeaker?---and he went out to the desert to figure out what it all meant and how specifically he should live out the rest of his life.
I had a friend name Bernie Kelly. When I met him for the first time, Bernie was 86 years old--at least twice my age. Bernie held out his hand to me--practically crushing mine with his strength—and pulled me into his chest for a bear hug. “Great to meet you, Jimmy”. It was the name my family called me all my life. Almost instantly we were no longer strangers, and I felt honored and loved when he called me by my family name.
One of the best things about my friend Bernie was the way in which he made you feel like you were the most special person in the world. He did it with everyone he knew, to anyone he encountered—even strangers. He made it his business to let you know that you were born special in this world, that you mattered, that you were great in your own way: in his eyes, certainly, but more importantly, in the eyes of God. It was the inspiration for what he saw in everybody he met. Bernie was such a faithful man, he loved God so much; and he knew, at the bottom of his heart--in the very marrow of his bones--that God loved him. And when you really know that, it’s easy to let everyone else know how wonderful they are too.
If you ever needed a lift, if you ever felt down or depressed, the thing to do was to call Bernie, and he’d lift you right up, you wouldn’t even have to tell him anything. He’d tell you before you could ask for it, tell you how wonderful you are and how important you are to him, and to God. In many ways, Bernie was one of my most important mentors, and he taught me a lot about how to live and how to love.
I think that Jesus had a Bernie moment at the river Jordan. Perhaps it was in the gentle lapping of the waters of the river that Jesus heard it, perhaps it was in the sound of the water filling his ears as he was submerged by John, maybe even in the sound of the wind, the answer he had been seeking came to him: an ineffable, wordless voice that spoke to his heart, saying "You are an original, wonderful, beloved; you are my child, you are my favorite".
At the River Jordan, Jesus really heard that, and that was enough. It was enough to set him on a course of life that was amazing and extraordinarily effective. Suddenly there were a million doors open to Jesus, a million opportunities. Knowing that you are loved does that to you, you see, it opens your heart to the whole world.
For most of us, it’s been a long time since we had our name pronounced over the waters of baptism. Maybe we’ve got water in our ears, a bit of seaweed stuck in there since our baptism, but the same Word was thundered or whispered to us then. It was a beginning for us as well.
Maybe we should listen again, now. I suspect our nickname is still on God’s lips, waiting for us to live up to the name he affectionately gives us. And that name is not “Big Time” or “Supergirl” or “Boy Genius”. It is much simpler and much more meaningful.
The name that God has on his lips for you is…beloved. Your name is, you are…beloved. Beloved. Beloved. Beloved.
And once we’ve heard our name---that name----we’ve got to wade out of the river and get to work, hollering and whispering and singing the same mission as J-Boy—bringing justice to nations, prisoners out of confinement, healing to all those in the grip of the devil.
Hey, you know what we need to do? We need to get some water thrown on us. We need to get a little wet to be reminded that it’s up to us to keep the promise of Christmas alive and well from this day forward. You always leave the river Jordan with a wet head, a new name and a renewed mission for your life.
It’s January, the year of our Lord 2019, and it’s time to get to work. Let’s make this the year when we address our brothers and sisters with a loving name and many acts of love. Who will stand now and pledge to do that, to carry on the love of Christmas? Stand if you so pledge, and we will water you with the water of strength, and of holiness, and of love.