What’s In a Name?

a sermon for Name of Jesus

Luke 2:15-21 and Galatians 4:4-7

It seems to me that for most people this particular time of year—the time around Christmas and New Year’s Day—involves following more traditions than probably any other time of the year. Is that so for you? One day this past week my family was reflecting on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day and sharing what our favorite moment was, both of my high school daughters said that their favorite part of Christmas each year was the beef stew that Hanne and Rob Hamlin make for the church staff to eat between services on Christmas Eve. Over the years Melinda and I have developed all kinds of traditions for our family that take us through December and into January, but the one ritual that routinely stands out for them is having the chance to gather with other staff kids and adults in the office and shovel down beef stew while we’re figuring out who the crucifers and torchbearers are for each worship service. For me the beef stew is a way to get food during a busy night, but for my children it is a valuable tradition that has meaning. Hanne and Rob’s generosity is something they will always associate with this time of year, and I think that’s fantastic.

I bet most of us today will sit down to some kind of special New Year’s meal: pork of some sort, with a side of greens and cornbread. It’s the one time of the year I get black-eyed peas. Traditions don’t have to center around food, of course. People have a tradition of making New Year’s resolutions or ringing in the new year a certain way. Traditions anchor us. They help set our wild and chaotic lives into some type of story. They help us measure time and how much we’re growing and aging.

The gospel writers want us to know that Jesus comes from a family that is anchored in tradition. Luke, especially, seems to be keen on getting this point across. Jesus is born into a family and a community that chooses mark time and meaning and growth by following their Jewish rituals and customs. Jesus comes to us anchored in story, and one of the reasons we know this is because the first thing we’re told about Jesus’ life is that Mary and Joseph have him circumcised on the eighth day.

Now, I don’t feel the need right now to get into the details of that procedure, but suffice to say that it was a centuries-old tradition that linked Jesus all the way back to Abraham. Abraham was the person God called forth to claim as God’s own people, the father of the Israelites. This ritual was a sign of the covenant that God made with Abraham and his descendants that God would be their God, no matter what. In the midst of their own chaos, Mary and Joseph want this to be their child’s story. God calls people forth into new adventures and promises to be with them.

As strange and ancient as this ritual may seem to us now, we have to remember that this would have been very ordinary and customary for Jesus’ family. In fact, this would likely have been a public event, under normal circumstances. Who knows who was there for this event. It may have even had an atmosphere like one of our baby showers, where people brought gifts and other items that would have helped Joseph and Mary take care of a baby. And a central part of this tradition was announcing the son’s name. Their child’s name was Jesus, a name they did not get to choose themselves but which had been announced to them by an angel.

We often use different methods when naming someone or something. Typically the names we choose have a formal definition that may or may not tell you something about that person. One of the Sudanese tribes I worked with in Cairo had the tradition of naming a child after one of the first things the mother saw after giving birth. One of the girls in my class went by “Akuol,” which was a beautiful name, and later I found out it just meant lizard. There had been a lizard crawling on the wall in the hut when she delivered her.

Jesus’ name actually has a meaning that will tell people something about his identity. The word Jesus, or Yeshua in Hebrew, means “He saves.” It was the same name of Joseph in Genesis who helps save his family in Egypt, so this story of saving people and being a savior would have been connected to Jesus’ identity right from the beginning. Jesus, however, would go on to save people from the powers of sin and death. Throughout his life people would watch Jesus save people from all kinds of things. His name becomes his identity and his mission, all rolled into one. He saves people from disease by healing them. He saves people from hunger by feeding them. He saves people from social ostracization by restoring them to community. And eventually Jesus offers his own life as a way to save humankind from their separation from God.

We talk about Jesus so freely now that we can forget the name of Jesus was so powerful and so revolutionary that early Christians would get thrown in prison and thrown to the lions just by mentioning it or being associated with it. Ancient Romans believed that Caesar was who saved people—and followers of Christ contested that simply by saying the name of their Savior, “Jesus.” The symbol of the fish came to be a way early believers could mention Jesus’ name and the community he had created without directly mentioning him. The Greek word fish, ichthyus, happens to be an acronym for Jesus: “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.” If a Christian approached someone else in public and wanted to know if that person was a fellow believer, they would draw an arc on the ground. If that person was a believer, they knew to draw a connecting arc underneath it to finish the fish picture. Nowadays we just buy a fish symbol and stick it to the back of our Honda. But for centuries, Christians would look at at that fish and see “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior” and immediately think of the Savior’s name. Furthermore, it wasn’t an ideal or value that would unite the two of them, but a real person’s name.

Even more important than knowing the actual definition of Jesus’ name and purpose is the fact that God gives us his name to begin with. This is something I think we can take for granted: that God has actually revealed this name to us. A name is the most intimate, integral aspect of a person’s identity. That’s why we work so hard against identity theft these days

and we fear it happening to us. We don’t want anyone else out there walking around using our name and pretending to be us and doing things that we’re not actually doing. A name is precious. A name is a reputation. It’s a person’s “handle” in the world, and so in giving us Jesus God is putting flesh and blood on his reputation.

I don’t know about you, but whenever I have a concern or a complaint or especially a compliment to voice with a certain company or institution I hate having to write “To Whom It May Concern.” That address feels so distant and unreliable, and I just hope that whoever is supposed to be concerned with the thing I’m concerned with will actually end up hearing it…and being concerned about it. I always like having a name of someone I can speak with, get a hold of. Now that God has given us Jesus, there’s no need of prayers that feel something like, “To Whom It May Concern, out there in the universe.” We can call directly on the Son ourselves and know that the Creator is listening. We can know that because that name is Jesus and he has walked this earth as one of us, he is concerned with what we are concerned with and does hear us.

There is no secrecy about our God. There is mystery, but no secrecy. That is a tension built right in to our faith. God is always mysterious, never able to be contained or fully explained or understood and yet God is not secretive. In Jesus God has let us know what God is really about: saving.

But even more than that—even more loving and daring than just revealing his name and letting us use and misuse it as we may—God puts his name on us. God places Jesus’ mission onto our lives and encourages us to go out in the world and do things bearing Jesus’ name. Several years ago I had dropped off the church van at West Broad Honda for a routine inspection or something. When I went to go pick it up, they asked for the name. I told them “Phillip Martin.” They looked in their records and said no car was in the service shop with that name. I knew I had dropped the car off! They had me describe the car and then finally they found it. The technician looked at me and said “Are you Mr. Epiphany?” Could you imagine? Me, out there acting as if I’m “Mr. Epiphany,” representing this church all the time?

In Galatians Paul says that Jesus was sent into time to be born of a woman so that we might be adopted as children, as heirs of God. In a way it is like we are each named “Jesus” and let loose in the world to continue the tradition of saving. Wherever we go, and whatever year or day it is, we announce the grace of Jesus. In many different ways we lay our lives down at the feet of those looking for salvation—from hunger or loneliness or grief or despair.

The end of each worship service includes a blessing, or a benediction. Sometimes it uses the form of Aaron’s benediction from the book of Numbers. Sometimes it uses words that the apostle Paul used. Typically that blessing and reminder involves the pastor making a cross-like motion with his or her hands. It’s a clear gesture of Christ’s identity. And sometimes, in addition to that, the pastor forms his or her fingers into the actual first two letters of Jesus’ name, a chi and a rho. Another reminder.

We go forth from here not only as ourselves, you see, but as people who have learned the name of Jesus and who now bear it into the world. This is our true tradition. We are anchored in Jesus’ story, whether it is a new day or a new week new year. Jesus has already ventured into it to meet us there. And he beckons us to venture with him. For we are no longer slaves, but children of God, and if children, heirs. May that anchor you in your fresh start of 2023: you have been saved by The Savior Jesus and made heirs. Heirs of God.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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