One of my seminary professors of the Hebrew scriptures told us "nomen est omen" - in other words, your name tells something about your call from God or your destiny. This starts at the very beginning of the Bible with the naming of Adam - from the Hebrew adamah or "dirt." Fitting for one formed of the earth isn't it? His wife was named Eve or Chava in Hebrew, meaning "mother of all" - also quite fitting. They had two sons, Cain and Abel (or Kayin and Hevel). Cain came from the verb to create and Abel ... well ... his name meant "vapor" and when you have a name like "vapor" you probably will not be around long in the story. As we hear, Cain kills Abel but then after his banishment, he goes on to become a worker of iron and bronze - an artisan ... one who creates.
Today is the Feast of the Holy Name or, if you remember the old 1928 Prayer Book, we used to call it the Circumcision of Jesus. Circumcision and naming went together in the Jewish tradition and we hear that Mary and Joseph named him Jesus as the angel Gabriel had given them this name. Jesus is the Anglicized version of a Greco-Roman translation or his Hebrew name. That means we are two translation levels deep and we often forget the underlying Hebrew here. Jesus' Hebrew name was Yeshua - or Joshua.
Joshua means "deliverer" and certainly the Joshua of the Hebrew scriptures was a deliverer - he delivered the Israelites into the promised land after wandering in the wilderness for 40 years. God had declared that no one who remembered Egypt would be allowed to enter the promised land - even Moses dies outside on Mt. Nebo after having seen the promised land. To us that might seem harsh, but God new that those who remembered Egypt with all of its magnificent buildings, its infrastructure, and the abundance of wealth and food would likely grouse and gripe about the promised land being a bit of a "fixer upper." And so, the torch was passed to Joshua to bring the Israelites into the promised land. He delivered them.
Jesus also is a deliverer. He delivers us from the power of Sin and Death but he also delivers us from a past into a future. On this New Year's Day, we find ourselves contemplating the ending of the old year and the beginning of something new. For some, leaving the past behind is a good thing. There are those who tell of having a life changing experience when they came to know Jesus and how it changed their lives for the better. I think of Henry Covington, one of the central characters in Mitch Albom's latest book Have a Little Faith. When Henry turned his life over to Jesus, he left behind a life of crime, drugs and addiction and launched My Brother's Keeper, a ministry to the down and out in Detroit. He left behind a dark past and used his gifts to reach out and bring the gospel to others who needed to hear a word of hope.
But while we hear stories of those whose futures look brighter than their pasts, the opposite can also be true. We might find ourselves in a place where our future looks dim and our past looks much better. This can happen because of chronic illness, loss of a job, death of a loved one, a terminal diagnosis. We may be facing a future which is uncertain and even fearful. We might wonder where our deliverer, this Jesus, even is.
Kathleen Norris wrote a book called Dakota several years ago which was a memoir of just such a situation she faced in her life. Kathleen had grown up in Lemmon, South Dakota. Now if you are from Dakota, you know there really is only one Dakota which happens to be divided into North and South (and only so the states could double their representation in Congress). Lemmon straddles the border between the two states. It is a sleepy little town, 12 city blocks by 12 city blocks, where the weather report and the farm report dominate the news. Kathleen left this little town to pursue her dream of becoming a writer and swore she would never return. She married and built a glamorous life in New York City amidst other writers and artists. It was the life she had dreamed about ... until her mother died.
Kathleen and her husband returned to Lemmon with the intention of settling her mother's affairs, selling the house and getting back to Manhattan as fast as they could. But that isn't what happened and in her book Dakota, Kathleen reveals the process of how she and her husband made the decision to leave Manhattan behind and settle in Lemmon with no jobs and a very uncertain future. In this journey back, she discovers the fierce beauty of the plains, becomes connected with a Benedictine monastery and eventually takes the vows of an oblate (as a Presbyterian no less), and how eventually she becomes a published author - something which had eluded her in Manhattan. But when Kathleen made this decision to stay in Lemmon, the future looked uncertain, even fearful and her glamorous past in Manhattan must have at times looked pretty good and been hard to let go.
Our lives are lived forward and our God continues to deliver us out of our past and into our future. Regardless of whether the future looks bright or perhaps may be uncertain and even scary, our God came to us in Yeshua - Jesus our deliverer. And Jesus promises that no matter what our future holds, this future is held in Gods hands - and those are trustworthy hands indeed.