Names can define us, for better or worse! When names fit us, they can enhance our status, take for example, John F. Kennedy. He not only had the unofficial American royal Kennedy name, but it just seemed to roll off the tongue, John F Kennedy, JFK. And sometimes, we even called him “Jack,” like he was our very own personal friend.
When names fit us awkwardly however, they can undermine us. Take for example Pee Wee Herman, not his real name, but an unfortunate choice for a stage name as it turned out, especially for such a talented and caring person. So, what’s in a name? A lot!
Today we sing the old, old song, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” In this Advent standard are 7 of the names, or titles, used for Jesus, that all derive from the Hebrew scriptures: O Wisdom, O Lord of Israel, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Rising Sun, O King of the nations, and O Emmanuel. Together they are called the Great O Antiphons, and date back to at least the 9th C. Taken from the prophecies of Isaiah, they were first used in daily prayer on the 7 days leading up to Christmas, a kind of Advent devotional practice. What’s in a name? Plenty!
And so, the naming of Jesus in Matthew’s gospel is a defining moment. It falls to Joseph, a “righteous man,” to name him Jesus. But other names are hinted at for the Christ-child, even in this short passage: the Messiah, one from the Holy Spirit, Son of David, and Emmanuel. Truth is, it’s hard to fit Jesus with only one name. He’s all these things and more.
But, why didn’t Joseph name Mary’s child after himself, when it was customary that the first born son took the fathers name. Jesus could have been, Son of Joseph. It’s not just that the father of Jesus is God, “from the Holy Spirit.” But God knows, apparently, that Joseph just won’t fit! Jesus is not a mere dreamer as the 2 Joseph’s in the bible were. Joseph, 12th and last son of the patriarch Jacob, had that crazy dream while still quite young, that all his older brothers would bow down to him one day, and that they would look up to him in the hour of their neediness. If only young Joseph, in his beautiful coat, would have kept that dream to himself instead of exuberantly running out to tell his older brothers! It so enraged them, they tried to kill him, but then ended up just selling him into slavery in Egypt.
The Joseph in our story was a dreamer too. He keep having dreams that God was talking to him, and indeed directing him at all the important turning points in his life, starting here, at the birth of Jesus the Messiah. jAnd next, when the wrath of Herod burned hot against Jesus, that a rival king was being born in his territory, the angel of the Lord warned Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt. Joseph, Egypt, dreamer – I’m starting to see a pattern here!
But God had other plans for the son of Mary. Jesus was not a dreamer – Jesus was a man with a dream, that he lived out and fulfilled here on earth, with God’s blessing. Jesus was not a dreamer, Jesus came to proclaim the dream come true!
What’s in a name? Jesus’ name, Yeshua, means, God saves. And that’s why the angel of the Lord has specific instructions for Joseph. “You are to name him Jesus, for he – on God’s behalf, as the Son of God – will save his people from their sins.” That’s another title for Jesus in this short little text, I suppose, Savior. Jesus saves.
If we know the story, the whole story of the gospel, we know already what this saving in chapter one refers to. Jesus will save us at the end of the story, on the cross, and in the resurrection. It could have been different. We the people, could have pardoned Jesus.
On trial on Good Friday, Pilate asks the crowd an astonishing question, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas, or Jesus who is called the Messiah?" There were two named Jesus that day, you decide! The people, us, decide Jesus is more threatening, he knows us inside out, he tells the truth, and its consequences may ask us to change. We the People, stick with Jesus Barabbas, because, well, he’s a lot like us. And if we were in his place, we’d like to be set free from our sins too. And ironically, we sentence Jesus to his fate, and the anointed one of God, dies for us, and saves us from our selves.
At our new member gathering yesterday, when we talked about baptism, Jim I think it was, noted the tradition sometimes used where, adult candidates are able to chose a new name for themselves. Candidates who have heard the good news, made confession for 40 days, and accepted the gift of grace and renewal in baptism, take on a new name of their own choosing. They know in a first hand way, ‘what’s in a name,’ and they enter the waters of baptism to die to their old life and rise again to a new life in Christ, with a new name, and a new identity as, a child of God.
Joseph, unable to name his own son, must have felt like a real loser, at times. He offered to dismiss Mary quietly, but the truth was, marriages were arranged back in those days, in that culture, and the engagement itself was a legally binding contract, that could only be ended through a divorce, which put the woman at risk for shaming, possibly worse. Joseph was caught in an impossible situation. He couldn’t claim Mary’s child as his own, and, if he listened to the angel of the Lord, he couldn’t quietly dismiss her. You can almost hear the taunts and bullying he must have endured, the names that were hurled in his direction, “you whimp,” and worse.
Yet we should all be as righteous and full of the Lord as Joseph. How many of us do as God commands? How many of us are attuned to what our dreams are telling us? How many of us are true to our visions?
What’s in a name? Joseph named Mary’s child Jesus, to ‘quietly fulfill’ what God had in mind for the world, that he would save us from our sins. This became the good news, and in our freedom and joy we haven’t stopped finding names for him: Emmanuel, Key of David, Messiah, and many more. And so in our baptisms, we get a new name too, child of God. And by this covenant, we all become brothers and sisters to one another, taking on a new family name, Christian. That’s what’s in a name!