Covenant Through Naming
Topic: Biblical Verse: Mark 8:27–8:38
The Second Sunday in Lent
February 28, 2021
“Covenant Through Naming”
Each of us has a name, and when we come to know a person, we associate that individual’s name with that individual’s face and everything about him or her: their voice and laughter, quirks and idiosyncrasies, funny stories and remembrances. Do you know where your name came from? Were you named after someone? My real name is John, which was my dad’s name, although he was never called that. He went by Hans, which was a nickname from his middle name, Francis. John was also my grandfather’s name, and his nickname was Jack, so that’s where my own nickname comes from. At school, I was John, but at home I was Jack. Growing up, I learned that my name had been in question because my dad and mom disagreed on what I should be called. My mom wanted me to be Robert, but my dad, like Zechariah in the birth story of John the Baptist, said, “His name is John” (Luke 1:63), and dad won out. Otherwise standing before you might be Pastor Bob! We hear about names in today’s Old Testament lesson (Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16) as Abram and Sarai receive new names to mark their new identity as God’s covenant people. We hear in today’s Gospel lesson how Peter correctly names Jesus, confessing “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29). This confession opens the door to Jesus foretelling his own coming death and resurrection. We will consider both of these texts as our Lenten preaching series, “People of the Covenant,” continues today under the theme “Covenant Through Naming.” May the Lord’s rich and abundant blessing rest upon the preaching, the hearing, and the living of his Word for Jesus’ sake.
To name something or someone is to have authority and influence over that thing or person. This happens when we name our children, so when mom or dad calls out in a very authoritative voice to their child using first, middle, and last names, you better pay attention! We see this also in the creation account at the very beginning of Scripture as Adam gave names to all livestock, birds, and beasts (Genesis 2:20). To name something is to have that authority and influence over it, and so God has tasked us, as Adam’s offspring, to have authority and influence over the created world, not to exploit and abuse it, but to manage it wisely and faithfully as God’s stewards. When a person chooses a different name other than the one given to them by their parents, that often means they are taking on a new identity; starting over. To receive a new name is to have a new life. And so it is with Abram and Sarai in today’s Old Testament lesson.
Both Abram and Sarai were well beyond the age of having children. In fact, we are told that Abram was 99 years old (Genesis 17:1) when God told him that he and his wife were to have a child. And yet, nothing is impossible with the Lord (Luke 1:37). God’s covenant with Abram was that he would be the father of many nations and that his descendants would possess the land of Canaan. In his covenant with Abram, God had already promised that Abram’s own son would be his heir (Genesis 15:1-6), and circumcision would be the sign of this covenant (Genesis 17:9-14). Even at such a great age, Abram and Sarai’s lives were just beginning as they would become parents. Talk about a late-in-life change! And to mark this great beginning, God gave them new names: Abram (“exalted father”) would now be called Abraham (“father of a multitude”), and Sarai would become Sarah (“princess”). Sarah’s very name underscores what God had promised: “I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her” (Genesis 17:16). The princess would be the mother of royalty. The patriarch and matriarch of believers receive new names through the covenant that God made with them.
Jesus asked his disciples in today’s Gospel lesson what name people had given to him. What were they calling him? “Who do people say that I am? And they told him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets’” (Mark 8:27b-28). There was and is great confusion about Jesus’ name and identity. The question that Jesus then asked the disciples is the same question Jesus asks each one of us today: “But who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29). How will we respond? What will we say? There is still great confusion about Jesus’ name and identity today. People today will say that Jesus was a great teacher; or he was a mystic; or he was a good and moral human being. Is that it? If Jesus is just these things and nothing more, we are in trouble. Peter names Jesus for who he really is: “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29). Jesus is the Christ, which means Messiah. He is the anointed One; the Holy One of God.
From Peter’s confession of Jesus’ name and identity, Jesus then shares with the disciples where he is going and what will be happening: “And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). This is the first of three Passion predictions (Mark 8:31-32; 9:30-32; 10:32-34) that Jesus makes of his impending suffering, death, and resurrection. But this doesn’t make sense to Peter. How can Jesus be the Christ, God’s anointed One, and then suffer and die? If Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, that meant to Peter and to everyone else at the time that Jesus would be a warrior king who would restore the kingdom of David some 1000 years earlier, and throw out the foreigners. It was supposed to be an earthly kingdom centered in Jerusalem. It wasn’t supposed to involve the Messiah suffering and dying. And so Peter proceeds to set things straight with Jesus. That doesn’t go so well as Peter becomes part of the problem, requiring Jesus to set Peter straight: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Mark 8:37). That’s a pretty strong rebuke. Only last Sunday we heard about how Jesus was tempted by Satan in the wilderness for forty days (Mark 1:12-13), and now one of his own is doing the same. From this, we understand that we, too, can get in the way of the coming of God’s kingdom that is centered in Jesus the Christ, the Messiah. When we start telling Jesus what he’s supposed to do and how things are supposed to work, like Peter, we also become a tool of Satan. We need Jesus to set us straight, and he has done this through the very thing he told his disciples: that he would suffer, be rejected, be killed and rise again. That’s what Jesus has done for us as Paul writes in today’s Epistle lesson: “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). That’s the kind of Messiah we have: one who would freely lay down his life for us that we might be his own.
After each of Jesus’ three Passion predictions, there is confusion on the part of the disciples. They don’t get it; they don’t understand. And so Jesus has to unpack this and explain it for them – and for us. As Jesus came not to be served but to serve (Mark 10:45), so in response to his saving love we also are called to follow him by taking up our own cross and following him. What does that mean? It means acknowledging that Jesus is Lord of my life. It means submitting myself to him; seeking his face and his will rather than my own comfort and security. It means that following Jesus may well involve suffering for his name’s sake. “The cross Jesus speaks of does not refer to individual burdens (bad job, crabby in-laws, hurt feelings, illness, grief). The cross Jesus is journeying toward is his own death as the result of living out God’s kingdom in this world” (Sundays and Seasons – 2021, Year B: Guide to Worship Planning. Minneapolis: Augsburg-Fortress, 2020; p. 115). It is through Jesus’ cross – his suffering, death, and resurrection – that we are reborn to a new life. That gift of new life is given to us in Holy Baptism where we are brought into God’s covenant family and named as sons and daughters of our heavenly Father. As we follow Jesus and live out God’s kingdom in this world, it may well be that we will suffer for it. That’s what Jesus means when he calls us to take up our cross and follow him. But if we are so loved that God would not spare the life of his only Son for our sake, he will also sustain us day by day in following him. He comes to us now in his gifts of Word and Sacrament to forgive and strengthen us, to refresh and renew us, in our journey of faith. Amen.