This is the sermon I preached on New Year's Day, 1/1/17 at St. Timothy and St. Mark Lutheran Churches. The text was Galatians 4:4-7.
What is in a name? Shakespeare wrote, "A rose by any other name would smell as sweet" (William Shakespeare, "Romeo and Juliet"). When picked on, adults used to tell kids, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me." We quickly discover that this is not so! Some labels given to us are such that we may struggle with them as adults.
All names are powerful, but Jesus’ name is the most powerful of all. We use names as a concise way to convey complex meanings: being able to call someone by name means you know something important about that person, and being called by name means you are known. On this day we celebrate the privilege and the power of calling God by name, and that name is Jesus.
Our texts for today affirm the power of the name we’re given at baptism: child of God. The name of God liberates and empowers us in ways we do not deserve and did nothing to earn (Ps. 8, Num. 6:27).
For everyone of us at worship today, the passing of time is on our minds especially because today is the first day of 2017. That is one kind of time. However, Paul is writing about a completely different kind of time. In these moments, God invites us into his holy mission in specific and concrete ways.
It was in "The fullness of time," that the Father sent the Son. The liberating event was God's act in Christ. It was not a matter of people adopting a new attitude or resolving to follow the principles taught by Jesus. The fullness of time was when everything was in place and ready for Jesus' birth, life, death and resurrection.
Paul writes that Jesus was "born of a woman." This means that Jesus completely belonged to the human race. Paul also says Jesus was "born under the law." This identifies him not only with the Jewish people, but with all people. Jesus was Jewish, but Paul's point is that Jesus accepted the conditions of human life. He shared the same restrictions as all other human beings.
Some of us struggle with prayer. It is not something we can do on our own. Our good intentions to pray are not enough to develop a prayer relationship with God. But that's alright. God is the one in our hearts praying through us. Because we are adopted children of God, God sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts crying Abba.
Martin Luther, in his writings on Galatians points out, "That God adopted us is due to the merit of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who humbled Himself under the Law and redeemed us law-ridden sinners" (Martin Luther, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians). Paul proclaims the gospel: with Christ Jesus, believers are now children of God and have the right to call God Abba. Since God is the adopted Father of everyone here, this means we have a large extended family in the community of faith.
Knowing someone's name was a sign of having access to that person's inner self. It was a privilege to use someone's first name. What's so special about the name Abba? For me, it is best illustrated by warm evenings in Jerusalem when families were out walking on the plaza of Ben Yehuda St. Small children in strollers would stretch their arms upward to their fathers crying out, "Abba!" Abba is a very intimate form of address. As our name changes in baptism from sinner to child of God, the name with which we address God changes because of our new relationship with him. It is not something we can do on our own, but it is the Spirit of God at work in our hearts. Previously, we were slaves, now we are children of God. Because of that, Paul writes that we are heirs.
Have you given much thought to your inheritance? Perhaps it may be large or incredibly small. How do we inherit something? Someone has to die. Jesus died so that we become heirs of God. And what an inheritance he leaves for us.
Luther sums up today's reading from Galatians in this way, "This passage contains excellent doctrine and much comfort. It declares that we are justified not by works, sacrifices, or ceremonies, but by Christ alone. The world may judge certain things to be ever so good; without Christ they are all wrong" (ibid.).
In this new year, may we grow in our relationship with God and each other so that our world may know what life is like when we are all that God calls us to be.