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January 1, 2008 (The Name of Jesus: New Year’s Day)

Pastor Fritz Fritschel

Isaiah 62:1–5, 10–12; Philippians 2:9–13
This is an English translation of the sermon Pastor Fritschel delivered in German as part of “German Vespers for New Year’s Day.”

We are counting. We count minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years. We count forward and backward, toward the future and into the past. We count the days of a holiday season, the months until retirement, the amount of money in our portfolio. We count the minutes until kickoff time.

Musicians count the beats in music and continue counting even when they are not playing. Poets count the number of feet in poetry, dancers the number of footsteps for a performance.

We count the number of floors of a building, the square feet of an apartment, the cups of flour in a recipe, the number of guests at a party.

We count the number of red cells and white cells in our blood, the calories we ingest, the rate of our heart, the pressure of our blood, our body weight in pounds. What is it that we do not count? We count time, even though we may not be sure about the character of time. The mystery of time.

We count electromagnetic waves, sound waves, sonar beeps, the number and size of waves, the degrees of warmth and cold, the rate of melting ice. We try to count even when we are not sure there is anything there to be gravitational waves.

What is it that we are trying to measure? Space? Time? Value? But how shall value be described? Health? Security? Freedom.? The winning of a game? Which game? The Sugar Bowl? The game of politics? A game of international economics?

And how are we to name value? And how can we measure supreme value? This is a day in the Christian calendar on which we celebrate the name given to Jesus. There are many titles as well as names that have been attached to him. Indeed the title “Christ” soon became a part of his name. What is meant by such a name?

Contemporary emperors too had special names: Octavius became Augustus—Caesar Augustus. All this to designate the status and authority of the person.

What do we mean by such naming?

We count names given to God or gods. Islam traditionally has 99 names for Allah; other faiths also use a multiplicity of names for a deity. Such names in various religions often carry a sense of supremacy. But many times such names also bear a sense of absoluteness. Absoluteness, I believe, is a distortion of supremacy, a corruption. Please note: I believe the difference between supremacy and absoluteness is critical.

I have no accurate way of knowing what many of you might consider to be of supreme value. I do believe, however, that the attachment of absoluteness to the divine name has contributed to tyrannical political expressions, gestures of infallibility and of absolute control. Absoluteness generally means unaffected, impassable if not unapproachable, infallible. A supreme name is not necessarily an absolute name, nor an authoritarian name. The supreme name connotes unsurpassability—for example, unsurpassability in relatedness.

For example, our relatedness is limited or finite. But what if there is one whose relatedness is not limited but is infinite. We might say that that represents one who is absolutely relative. Supreme.

The supreme name is worshipful, worthy of the tenor aria in the following cantata suggests, vor allen Schätzen [above all treasures]. A supreme name does not carry with it a sense of absoluteness, but of unsurpassability. Supremacy is unsurpassability, except by itself.

I admit I do not find every name given a deity worshipful. What names shall we use? The poets help us. Poets help us break out of our literal confinement, help us unleash the powers of imagination, startle us with new insight. I invariably like the names that the German poet Rilke uses—names like du Nachbar Gott [you neighboring God]; du Dunkelheit, aus der ich stamme [you darkness whence I came]; du Eingeweihter [you confidant]; du sanfter Nachbar jeder Not [you gentle neighbor of every need], du meines Leidens leiser Zeiter [you partner in my sufferings].

They remind me of another designation uttered by a philosopher poet, the “fellow sufferer with the world who understands.” Not a deity of absolute power, but a Companion of transforming, suffering love. Such a name is not absolute, but one I consider to be supreme, vor allen Schätzen.

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