Our gospel today is all about exercising(sic) demons! I suppose they have to get out and stretch every once and a while too! Sorry, that’s all the jokes I have on exorcisms!
So instead, let me take a moment of introduction to say that today, the last Sunday of January, is Reconciling in Christ Sunday, a Sunday we celebrate with many other congregations across the country in our welcome of neighbors and friends who identify as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, and queer. And we remember proudly our official Lutherans Concerned statement of welcome, that, “people of all sexual orientations and gender identities are welcome to the gathering, membership and leadership of [Unity] and encouraged to share in its sacramental and community life.”
This is only the fourth birthday of adopting this statement at our Annual Meeting. We have been making some good progress; gotten past the terrible two’s, and I guess that means we’re ready for Kindergarten! Today, I encourage you, if you haven’t already, to take a moment after worship and sign-up online to be a Reconciling Lutheran. This is an opportunity to stand up and be counted individually. We are already a Reconciling in Christ congregation, but each of us can show our support of this Reconciling movement to the church, by signing up ourselves too.
As you know, our Lutheran Church voted only two years ago to allow GLBT pastors to serve in “publicly accountable, life-long, monogamous same-gender relationships.” And so, liberation, and respect of one another’s beliefs around these types of welcome, is still quite new. And it’s important for us to continue remembering, and living into, our statement of welcome.
Thankfully, Jesus just so happens to tackle the issue of human liberation in our gospel today, and in some ways was well ahead of his time! “They were blown out of their minds at his teaching,” says the gospel of Mark, “for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” At that moment, awareness dawns on them, and they were set on their own path of liberation, and eventually would write a statement of welcome too, a gospel. But as of yet, the worshipers have not figured out who this Jesus is, or what he has come to do. They only know that he has an authority in his teaching that is unlike any they have ever encountered. He has entered their lives, as well as their synagogue, with a power that is captivating. All they know is that they desire the truth that Jesus obviously holds.
And what strikes me, is how there are three forces in this story, a triangulation of classic proportion, which work for and against each other, a triangulation that must be resolved before liberation can be realized. Jesus is one force. He’s entered their synagogue at Capernaum and brought this powerful and authoritative new teaching to the believers there – who are the second force. But, as happens when Jesus walks in, the balance of power is shifted! And Jesus shakes loose what lurks underneath, the opposite of all piety, the Tempter himself, who is party number three! This “unclean spirit” cries out, “What have you to do with us Jesus of Nazareth?” Or, this Hebrew idiom could also be translated: “What do we have to do with you?” And no doubt, both meanings apply. The demonic spirit is afraid of Jesus’ power over them, saying, “have you come to destroy us?” But on the other hand, with their power of recognition and their uninhibited nature, they can’t help identifying him, “I know who you are – the holy one of God.” So my question is: why didn’t he surface earlier, before Jesus entered? Why, before Jesus arrived, was the demon content to stay hidden?
It’s curious, to say the least, that this “unclean spirit” would arise right out of the synagogue, the home and gathering of the believers. This is the part that blows our minds, even though the amazement that the believers in the story have, is over Jesus’ teaching. But can you imagine a possessed man jumping up and shouting out like that in worship? What would it mean to realize we have demons in our midst? Who or what are they? How do they present themselves or materialize in our modern lives? Where do they live? How would we exorcise them? And I don’t mean run around the block with them!
What we do know is that Jesus breaks the triangulation. He comes to liberate and make free, teaching the good news. He exorcises the “unclean spirit,” the ‘they’ plural, spirit, out of the man so he can be well, whole, and saved – the definition of salvation. “The holy one of God” is a gift that lives in our congregation as a whole, too. But each of us have some of the good and some of the evil in us, individually. Each of us desires the power and life giving spirit of Jesus, but we are also tempted to listen to the power of the unclean spirits, who want to let us off the hook when we shouldn’t be, to tell us it’s alright to do it our own way and blame others, or to rest on our laurels.
And so Jesus comes to liberate us from this merry-go-round of foolishness, the triangulation that never moves us forward into the dominion of God, the realm that he brings. When Jesus walks in the door, the “unclean spirits” are revealed. But because Jesus is no longer available in the flesh, he has sent us “the Holy Spirit of God” to live in the Body of Christ, which is the church, which is us. The church is the people. We, have the power to exorcise the “unclean spirits” from our midst. “Be silent, and come out!” Leave us alone! And it can and does happen when we stand up together for the same liberation that Jesus revealed, a new teaching with authority.
This liberation is not a matter of party politics, but is part of the generative spirit of the holy one of God, a freedom from our old lives and a transformation we so desire. We work on it individually, and pray for strength and guidance. But for those “unclean spirits” that are many, God enlivens us as the corporate body of Christ, so that, the more we let this authority of Jesus enter our gathering, the more we stand together, a unity of one body, one soul, one mind.
What a great time to be part of the church, as we adopt statements of welcome for people of all sexual orientations and gender identities, people of all colors and ethnic identities, both male and female equally, even a welcome and new respect for all God’s creatures and the care of the earth. We are still young and in the early days of living into such statements, so we cannot yet fully shelve the chapters of our mistakes and sins, our privilege and entitlement, until liberation is complete for all. We know, ‘we’ve come this far by faith!’ And in our ‘songs of thankfulness and praise,’ the more we live out our statements of welcome and they become who we are, the more God’s dominion and reign blossom and grow. We say with courage and confidence, “Be silent and come out!” Let the liberation of Jesus ring!
Text: Jonah 3:1-20, Mark 1:14
When Jesus calls, he is faithful to the end. Again and again, beginning now, he calls, "for the time has been fulfilled."
But when the prophet Jonah hears God’s call, he’s more like a high school drop-out! When God calls him to go to Nineveh to prophesy against the enemy of Israel, he actually packs his bags for the other side of the world! He rushes to the nearest shipping port, buys a ticket to sail the friendly seas, making sure to carry his passport, so as to flee the country, as far as he can possible go! Jonah is so relatable!
Remember what happens next? God makes a giant storm to rock the boat. So the sailors start throwing luggage overboard to lighten the load, but God stirs up the waters all the more! Then the sailors pray to their many and various gods for a reprieve, but to no avail. Finally they figure out it’s got something to do with Jonah, who they discover is resting comfortably down below in the hold of the ship! So Jonah, the reluctant prophet, speaks for the first time in this tale, and admits that yes, the God that he knows, is creating the storm, because, as a Hebrew, he “worships YHWH, the God of heaven, who even made even the sea and the dry land.” This terrifies the sailors all the more, but Jonah matter-of-factly tells them, that in order to calm the waters, they should feel free to, throw him overboard, knowing that God is really angry, at him. So, in the last scene of Act 1, the sailors are swinging Jonah by all fours, even as they pray now to YHWH, Jonah’s God, asking for forgiveness, before they give him the heave-ho into the deep of the Mediterranean Sea.
And sure enough, the storm ceases, and the sailors, in total awe of this God, pledge to worship YHWH alone, from that moment on. And, as for Jonah the chapter concludes that, “the LORD provided a large fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.”
The two pairs of Galilean brothers that Jesus calls, who are quite familiar with the sea and its fish, show none of the reluctance to follow, that Jonah did, on the day their Rabbi invited them to “break with business as usual.” (Ched Myers) Jesus has come in the name of YHWH, the maker of heaven and earth, to call us into the dominion of this God, which, in Jesus, “has come near.” And business as usual is challenged already in these opening verses of his public ministry. For example, no one’s ever thought to put these two pairs of brothers together in the same boat! It’s significant, you see, that Peter and Andrew actually have no boat. They are the 99% who live a subsistence life, working each day to bring home the bacon, or in their case, the carp and mackerel, enough to feed family their “daily bread.” James and John, on the other hand, have a boat, a family business passed down from their dad, Mr. Zebedee, and capital and pay roll enough to hire servants. That puts them, not quite in the 1%, but, in the rare, in those days, middle class.
And so, as Jesus gathers disciples, we find they will be from many walks of life, different economic, ethnic, gender, sexual and social classes. But what brings them together, is their response to the good news of God in Jesus, above everything else. “Business as usual” was disrupted as soon as the dominion of God moved in! The brothers turn around from their old ways, and “come after” Jesus, “immediately.” Something new is being created: your kingdom come… on earth as in heaven
When Jonah’s three days of solitary confinement in the belly of the big fish are over – preserved but not pickled, apparently! – God has the fish spit Jonah up, literally throw-up, on the beach, on the “dry land,” God’s created safe space, “made” for us. And then, “the word of the LORD came to Jonah a 2nd time.” You didn’t think God was giving up, did you?! Turn around from your defiant disobedience, says our persistent God to Jonah! I heard you on the boat confessing your faith in me! Do not be afraid to go to Nineveh, your enemy, and say what I ask you to say.
Now Nineveh, was the elephant in the room. This is the story of going to your enemy and telling them they are wrong. Nineveh was the capital of Assyria, the country that had conquered Israel brutally, and was known for torture and being, well, merciless
. Jonah didn’t want to ask them
to be forgiven, not to mention he was rightly afraid for his life, if he even showed up there!
Nineveh was a massive metropolis, three days walk across, was the claim. Jonah walked for one day and figured, close enough! And he “cried out” what was the shortest message of any of the OT prophets, saying simply, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” Instead of arresting Jonah, as he feared, it was worse yet. The evil Assyrians “believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small,” repented. And even the cattle, and the goats, and the sheep, were said to, “put on sackcloth!” And they prayed loudly and movingly to the God of Israel, renouncing their terrorist ways, turning around and “going after” now, the sovereign God of Israel.
What an odd and funny story! A fish saves a disobedient prophet by swallowing him for three days. The evil torturous Assyrians act like ladies and gentleman, dressing up their herds of animals in sack cloth and ashes to repent along with them. And, God changes God’s mind! Is God clueless or just terribly irresponsible? How can justice be served in the face of such mercy? How on earth can human beings hope to make sense of such a God?
Jesus is odd and funny in his own way too. ‘Business as usual’ is broken up. “The call of Jesus,” as Ched Myers said, “disrupts the lives of potential recruits, promising them only a ‘school’ from which there is no graduation.” Which is good news, of course, because now we begin a new life with him, that is forever. The invitation is a free turning around from all that enslaves us, to enter the gates of mercy and the power of love.
So how does this affect us? Where are we in the story? Sure, we are Jonah, sometimes reluctant to answer the call and follow, taking a doomed cruise ship just like the Costa Concordia, running dangerously ashore. But we are also the brothers and sisters of diverse backgrounds that want to go after Jesus,
with all our hearts and minds and strength, leaving our small boats behind. And, we are the Ninevites, who turn around and trust God to pardon and forgive us.
In God’s story, we are the chosen ones, here in Andersonville and Edgewater. A unique diversity of every kind, which God has made – the people that God calls into one boat – Jesus does not let us drop out! Rabbinic schools, much like our universities today, let their students self-select who they wanted to follow and enroll with. But Jesus does his own calling, knocking on our door, calling us by name, insistent that we follow. He calls us: the lost and the lonely, the rich and the poor, the outcasts and winners. He turns us around from what we were doing, and makes us into that bright shining beacon, an Epiphany Star, so that others will see him, in us, and together we leave ‘business as usual’ to make a difference in God’s world, to live in the joy of divine dominion.
Sometimes it’s hard to go home. Other times it’s hard to leave home. I remember when I came home from my senior year abroad. I was full of new perspectives and wild-eyed romanticism. I was in debt to the government, and my parents, for 4 years of student loans. And I was still waffling and wavering about whether or not to go to seminary. I was still full of wanderlust from my European journeys, reading Herman Hess’s “Steppenwolf” and smoking filter-less cigarettes. That nasty habit didn’t last long, thank goodness! And neither would my wander-lust! Though finding home is always somewhat more tricky!
My parents were very tolerant people. They had supported 3 of 4 children to that point, going through very good liberal arts college educations, and trying out different majors, like so many hats in a fine shop. But now it was decision time, and when they asked me what my plan was, I said that I thought it would be nice to get a motorcycle as transportation to some temp job, until I could decide on a real career.
This, wasn’t the son they recognized! I had normally been hard working, earnest, and truly a son “without deceit,” much like the disciple Nathaniel. But, I had lost my direction. Though I was living at what had been my home my entire life, I had no idea what home meant any more! I wanted to see the, “greater things than these,” that Jesus promised to Nathaniel, but needed a swift kick in the butt to get there!
When Jesus is baptized, John the Baptist gives his disciples a swift kick in the back side! “Here is the Lamb of God,” he told them when Jesus came by. They leave home and become followers of Jesus, no motorcycle for them either, no place to lay their heads, practically penniless. First Andrew follows, and then his brother Peter, the Rock on whom Jesus says he will build his church.
The next day Jesus found Philip, who was from the same home-town as Peter and Andrew, and he called to him, “follow me.” So Philip left home and became a disciple. Three for three! Jesus is building a team of committed followers. Things are falling into place. Philip then invites Nathaniel to join them – because they’ve found the one whom all of Israel’s been waiting for. He just happens to hail from the little berg of Nazareth, down the road a piece. Nathaniel blurts out, “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” So Philip drags Nathaniel along rather reluctantly, and when Jesus sees him and pays him a compliment, identifying him as a standup, honest guy, with “no deceit in him,” Nathaniel, a bit too pridefully asks, “Where do you think you got to know me?”
What happened to just following when Jesus calls? Will he break the streak of 3 for 3? But Nathaniel’s questions and his doubts also break through his calling story so that we learn more about both him, and Jesus. Jesus is a visionary who sees the goodness of Nathaniel’s soul, “truly an Israelite without deceit,” but Jesus the miracle worker is not the be all and end all of his mission. When Nathaniel suddenly confesses Jesus is the Son of God, and King of Israel, Jesus answered him, “Do you believe because I said I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these,” he tells Nathaniel. You will even see the dream of Jacob’s ladder between heaven and earth become a reality!
Today, January 15, is the commemoration of Martin Luther King. He would have been 83 today. In his Letter from Birmingham Jail in 1963 Martin delivered a powerful argument for his non-violent civil disobedience, and with just a touch of tongue-in-cheek sermonizing, a message still relevant to us today. It includes the now famous phrase: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He went on to say, “we know from painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given up by the oppressor… Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” …but, “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” And after detailing the daily humiliations endured by the African-American community, laced with personal examples, he asked with a bit of irony, but not a drop of pleading, to move beyond the waiting: “I hope,” he concluded, “you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.” Four months later, from the Washington D.C. Mall, in his “I Have a Dream” speech, he would call this “the fierce urgency of now!”
I am no expert on Dr. King. I am not African-American, and have no personal experience of suffering as a minority. But in the gift of faith given, I feel the call to be a disciple that we all have, to know what it is like to leave home and be focused on becoming a follower of Jesus, a divine demand that pulls us beyond romanticism and takes us on a journey of transformation. Martin, on his journey, went literally all the way to the cross. How far are we capable of going?
So, there is one thing that intrigues me today about Nathaniel. When he asked Jesus, “Where [in the world] did you get to know me?” And Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree [long] before Philip called you.” No one is completely sure what in the world the fig tree means here! But one good explanation I like is that it refers to 1 Kings – where the magnificence of King Solomon’s empire is lauded: vs. 25 says, “During Solomon's lifetime... Israel lived in safety, from Dan [the farthest northern part of the kingdom] even to Beersheba [the farthest point south], all of them under their vines and fig trees.” This quote is picked up again in both the prophets Micah and Zechariah, where “living under the fig tree” becomes a kind of code word for the future hope of restoration for an Israel trying to find itself again, and go back home. But it was taking that privilege of the good life under the fig tree for granted that was also at the root of Israel’s demise.
So, Jesus is trying to pay him a compliment perhaps. To live under the fig tree would mean to be a part of that promise of restoration about to come. But Nathaniel, like all of us from time to time, confuses the romanticism of that good life with the real thing. He’s kind of diggin’ the privilege of sitting under that bountiful fig tree. And that’s when Jesus gives him his Letter from Birmingham Jail speech. We are not at the mountain top yet, my followers! The real journey is just beginning. And the real wonder of Jesus’ ministry is yet to be revealed, when “heaven will be opened and you will see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
Nathaniel would like to stay home and have this pretty vision without leaving the fig tree. But Jes us calls him out! There’s a “direct-action campaign” that lies ahead for Jesus’ disciples, and it entails carrying our own crosses, and confessing our own prejudice and privilege. There is no pretty motorcycle to carry you there, but only the epiphany of the beautiful ascending and descending light of Christ which indeed blows our minds, and transforms our lives, like nothing else can. Only together, are we truly enriched and “find” the kingdom of God, which is abundant life and joy and peace. Until we all meet under the fig tree, no one can live under the fig tree! Waiting there is not an option! Jesus too long delayed, like justice, is Jesus denied! Come and see!
Leftover “Bethlehem 2000” merchandise lay dusty in the West Bank souvenir shops in January of 2005. In the five years since the Pope’s visit to the Holy Land, the anticipated millennial year tourists had vanished, due to the worsening political climate and escalations of violence during the Intifada. Bethlehem had been spiffed up for the arrival of the nations – the star was a symbol of this pilgrimage – but even now, after the shelling had ceased, the crowds were slim and the gift shops that were a large part of the economy, remained nearly deserted.
I bought a camel from a sad-eyed Palestinian boy in the streets. Then I bought a whole caravan – which was described as a lead donkey and three camels – this time from a thin man hawking them by our solitary tour bus. We had been discouraged from “encouraging” these vendors by our tour guides, who understandably didn’t want to be distracted from leading us. But it was hard to resist the pleas of fathers who spoke of hungry children at home. It was hard not to notice the dust, disappointment and desperation. It was hard not to connect with the hope that lit up these faces when we appeared. Perhaps they’d have enough to eat tonight. Perhaps tourism would pick up. Perhaps Americans could do something.
Back home, we ended up giving the lead donkey to our godson Joey. His younger brother Daniel got the sad-eyed-boy’s camel. At bedtime, when we presented these far-away gifts to them, we talked about the Magi who followed the star, and their caravans – the single file pack animals banded together to cross the desert with spices and treasures. In the morning, we noticed Joey had emptied his bookcase! With the donkey proudly leading the pack, he’d lined up every animal in his room to form a eclectic caravan that switch-backed through the shelves. Plastic horses, stuffed bears, wooden giraffe, a ceramic piggy bank, an onyx whale, all on an expectant, single-file, upward march, toward… something wonderful, surely.
Today’s good news begins: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage’.”
So begins the Epiphany text we know so well! But who really are the players? Who are the leaders? And who are the followers? Sad to say, even our preferred NRSV translation fails us here! Magi have been translated as “wise men.” And worship, as in worshiping God alone, has been translated as, “come to pay him homage.” I love the poetry here, but it somewhat misses the mark.
There are wise men in this story, but it’s not the Magi who come from the East. There is a king in this story, but Herod, whose title was: “King of the Jews”, who was a well known tyrant ruling Israel at the time, doing the bidding of Rome, wasn’t God’s anointed. Herod thinks of himself as king, of course. And so he is understandably “frightened,” as Matthew says, by the bold claim of the Magi, that a new king has been born! Herod’s smart enough not to kill the messenger, and plots how to use them to get to his rival. And so Herod consults the chief priests and scribes, literally the real wise men in this story, trained in theological interpretation of the scriptures and its Messiah’s and Kings, to play along with the Magi. ‘The prophet Micah foretold of a ruler,’ his wise men report. ‘A Shepherd-King, to be born in little Bethlehem, the city of David, just a few miles down the road.’
In our 1st Reading, Isaiah shouts for joy, “Arise, shine, for your light has come”! The light of the star, lights the way to, the Star of Bethlehem, Jesus: little child, the Son of God, and Light of the World! It seems like all the nations are in motion to find this gift! Only, the wise men of Jerusalem, and King Herod, are content with the way things are, holding on tightly to their positions.
These feast day texts set the stage for a Season of Epiphany that recognizes we are a people of God on the move. And so Matthew’s gospel begins with this wonderful story of foreign nations, represented by the Magi, who come to worship the true Shepherd-King. This gospel begins with the inclusion of, us, the Gentile nations. Just like Israel had been, we too are a people on a journey; Diaspora is as fundamental to the Magi, as it is to the Abrahamic faiths. In these days of global migration, as millions are displaced, does the church of Christ migrate, and when it comes time for resettlement, resettle? How can we be more nimble and ready to mobilize? Can we be those in waiting, as well as the caravan?
In my first call in Michigan, I considered it a high compliment to our congregation when Beth, who worshiped only occasionally, traveled to our church service because she felt welcome and alive there. As an outdoors person, she described the feeling she had when coming up to our church doors. It was as if she was on a hike in the woods, she said, and came upon an encampment of people along the trail! They were gladdened that she had appeared, but not surprised to look up and see her. They smiled as though they were expecting someone they didn’t know, and appreciated that she had gifts to bring. They were happy to be camped together, and in that joy, shared a meal and whatever they had, with all who came along.
That’s my favorite description of the feel of our communities of faith. Provisional, like an encampment, with opportunities to gather and worship. We look up, to see who’s coming, and in them, see God’s glory on the horizon. Our assemblies ebb and flow, but has a core, a heart, and a hope in Jesus, our guiding star.
For at our best, we, the church, are a sent people. “All diasporas are different, and often difficult — but every diaspora also holds the possibility for us of leading new and transformed lives, filled with much hope.” (Francisco Lozada, The Bible as a Text in Cultures: Latinas/os, The People’s Bible, (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 2009)
So, who’s leading and who’s following? We follow the Magi, who followed the star – and don’t follow the wise men, the scribes, for the truth “will not be revealed to the wise and intelligent,” Jesus tells us. But we also, like the Magi, become leaders and bring others to the manger, to worship the true King, the Christ-child, on bended knee, as servant-Magi, that we may give and receive, the peace and love of Christ. We are a diaspora people. We continue to follow the star, and we settle only for a time, there by the manger, encamping with other believers, before going out to find other followers once again.
Here’s a good game. I’ll bet you played this for New Year’ Eve last night! The Garland game!? It’s a popular old singing game, or at least it was in Germany in the middle-ages, probably played in the local pubs there at the time. Young men would sing the garland refrain to the women, which went like this:
(Sung to the tune of
Good news from far abroad I bring
Glad tidings for you all I sing,
I bring so much you’d like to know,
Much more than I shall tell you though.
And then they’d add a new verse, a riddle they made up, singing it to a young woman of their choosing. If she couldn’t answer the riddle, she had to give her garland to the singer! And around and around they’d go, taking turns singing and trying to solve the riddles, and exchanging the garlands around their necks. It reminds me a bit of the old tradition of giving your college ring to your sweetheart, except the Garland Game is more gender-free than this American tradition.
Anyway, Luther liked the tune of the song and used it, as he did with a number of popular Pub songs in his day, and made it into a hymn for church. He wrote a whopping 14 verses, and he used the riddle format, you could say, in that, the name Jesus is not revealed finally until verse 12! Today we sing it as our Hymn of the Day, but we won’t make you sing all 14 of the verses!
Luther is credited with rewriting the music, and is the one we have printed in our hymnals. It’s a catchy tune, and even Bach used it in his Christmas Oratorio, and at least seven other of his works.
It’s not the kind of name-game we choose to play today. But the melody is easy to learn, and the verses aren’t bad either, for the Christmas season!
Names! They have intrinsic meaning, as Paul Tillich, a great theologian of the 20th C. used to say. Spoken words carry meaning within them so that they point to the thing which they represent. For example, Jesus is the Logos, or word of God, as we learned last Sunday, reading from John’s Prologue. Jesus was “with God” in the beginning, and indeed “was God,” the word of God, which is exactly how creation came into being in the Genesis story. God spoke, and it was.
In our gospel reading, the new born child, only a week old, is gathered up by his parents from his manger in Bethlehem for his first journey just up the road a piece, to the Temple in Jerusalem. “After eight days had passed,” Luke tells us, “it was time to circumcise the child.” A, matter-of-fact bit of information! But also a reminder that Mary and Joseph were fulfilling the equivalent of the baptismal requirements of the day, and that Jesus was brought up according to the Jewish laws that all children were. “And [on this day] he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel…”
Normally a first born son would be given the name of the father. We already saw this come up in Luke’s story in the naming of John the Baptist. There was a controversy over his christening! Should he be named from heaven above, or from the culture below? When Elizabeth and Zechariah brought him to the temple on the eighth day, and when the priests were about to name him Zechariah, Elizabeth said “no,” the angel told us, “he is to be called John”. But they didn’t believe her, and went running to Zechariah, who was still struck dumb by angel Gabriel, unable to speak – and he had to write it on a chalk board, and show it to the priests: “his name is John.” And immediately Zechariah’s “mouth was opened and his tongue freed” to speak again. Names are important!
Just so, Jesus was named, not after his father Joseph, but was given a name from heaven above, “given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb,” the name Jesus, which means, God saves. So, the Jesus story contains a double whammy! First of all, at least from the perspective of the culture around him, Jesus is not named in the tradition of his family, raising more questions, no doubt, about his unwed parents. And secondly, this child born in a manger, a feeding trough, is to be called: God saves? Really?! A bit presumptuous, don’t you think?
The date of this feast day has shifted back and forth over the years. In the fourth century, when Christian pilgrims kept coming to Rome on January 1st, St Augustine greeted them one year, and is reported to have said, “I see you have come here as if we had a feast today!” And sure enough, as Christians were want to do in those days, they transformed the pagan celebration, in this case New Year’s, a time of widespread license and wild debauchery, and turned it into a Christian holy day. At first, to offset the pagan partying, it was more like a Lenten day of fasting and solemnity. Augustine said in his sermon that day, “During these days when they revel, we observe a fast in order to pray for them.”
But as times changed, so did the commemoration day. By the 7th C. Pope Boniface called it “The Octave of the Lord,” like the eight days of the Easter Feast, and it became a joyous and celebrative festival.
And eventually, calling today, the Name of Jesus has come to win out over, the Circumcision of Jesus. The Jewish tradition was to combine both together, of course, but the gospel emphasizes the naming of Jesus, and made circumcision optional.
As Jesus grew, he received many different titles, in an attempt to define all that he was and is: Son of God, Son of Man, Emmanuel, Christ, Prophet, Rabbi, High Priest, Name above every Name, Prince of Peace, King of Kings, Light of the World, and Bread of Life, among others. But none was more apt than Jesus, meaning, God saves.
Jesus is both a riddle and the most well known name there is. From heaven above he comes, though he’s born of a woman, here below. He is savior of the world, but he also empties himself taking on our sins. He is innocent, a man peace, but he dies a criminals’ death. He was a poor wandering teacher with no where to lay his head, but he debated the scholars of his day and was raised up by God as our king. He holds both heaven and earth together in one miraculous whole, a riddle we struggle to apprehend. But as every Sunday School child knows, the answer is always the same: it’s, The Name of Jesus, “the name given by the angel, before he was conceived [in the womb].”