"And he was called Jesus"-A Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name (Jan 1), Luke 2:15-21
Luke concludes our Gospel lesson today with the words, “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” So…the name of the child born to Mary and Joseph on that first Christmas, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, the name…Jesus…indeed comes from God even before his conception…perhaps even before time itself. But we first learn of this name for the Babe of Bethlehem, in scripture, when the archangel Gabriel visits Mary at the annunciation…the annunciation that Mary would indeed conceive a child…God’s own child. Gabriel announced to what must have been an astonished and likely frightened teenage girl, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and he will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And we also find a reference, this time involving Joseph, to the naming of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel…this time after Mary has conceived…but long before she gives birth. And in Matthew, Joseph has his own angleophony…his own encounter with a messenger from God. While sleeping, in a dream, the angel says to him, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
Now we don’t often celebrate it…because January 1st falls on a Sunday only about once every seven years…but January 1st, today, the first day of the New Year, is designated as a major feast in the life of the Church called “The Holy Name of our Lord”. The holy name…Jesus…a name in Hebrew that means Savior or Deliverer. And the scriptures seem to clearly suggest that God, through the auspices of his messengers, the angels, chose and delivered the name Jesus to Mary and Joseph very intentionally. God chose Jesus’ name for a very specific and important reason…the name was not found in a baby naming almanac or book, or chosen because it flowed easily from the tongue, or was popular that year…again the name was chosen with great intentionality…and this was, simply said, because it says something to us of who this child is. He is Jesus…whose whole very human life and as his name so powerfully promises…is about salvation…he is Jesus…our Savior who delivers us from sin and the grave. From the very beginning of his earthly journey…from the moment of conception in the womb of his mother…Jesus already has a name…a name that tells us, that assures us, that promises us…that the power of sin and death have no power over us. Because, Jesus saves us, all of us, even you, even me…and everyone who has or will live, move, and have a being…Jesus delivers us from the vexing problems that science, technology, and human genius have never, nor will ever, crack…the problems of imperfection and mortality. For Jesus, indeed, and I say this to you by faith and with all the conviction of my heart, saves us…from all that seeks to bring us down…all that seeks to corrupt and destroy…all the darkness that lurks at the edges of life both within and outside us…Jesus is our Savior…from all of this and really so very much more.
Now the birth of a child, the birth of new life into our world, is indeed worth the joy and celebration that often ensues…but…at Christmas…we are celebrating more than simply a really special birthday…more than the forging of a new family…we are celebrating a world-altering act of God, who enters time and space, who comes among us as a fellow human…promising that we are not left alone in our often death-dealing world…we are not left with no power to wage war against the sin the rages both within ourselves and all around us…we are not left alone to suffer the fate of forever in a lifeless grave. No…none of that…at Christmas we find a promise that life is everlasting, that sin can and will be overcome…that we are not alone…God is with us…through all the chances and changes, joys and sorrows, transitions and celebrations that make up our own lives…even, maybe most especially, at the moment of our own passing from this life into the next. This is indeed the Good News that the name of Jesus speaks to, proclaims and promises. Again, as the angle announces, “You will name him Jesus, for he will save his people.”
Thus, Jesus’ name says so much to us today, and each that follows, there is clearly much intentionality and meaning that stand both behind and in front of the name Jesus. And I believe, in addition to the promise of salvation, there is a lesson in the intentional naming by God of Jesus for each of us…particularly as we embark together on a new year. For the beginning of a new year often provides, or should provide, the opportunity to stop, to step back, reflect and think about who we are and who we want to be. And my hope for myself and for each of us is that, like God before us, intentionality and naming will be themes that we will carry forward in the year to come. That is, I hope we will be intentional in the work of naming God’s activity and loving presence in our lives…that we might be able to literally name the ways that God is shaping us more and more into the people God has called us to be. For in doing so, we grow closer to God. We indeed know more and more that we are not alone on this human journey. And we can begin to point out, for both ourselves and others, the ways God breaks into our world, for love’s sake, all around us…in the most ordinary and extraordinary times…in the most mundane and surprising places. And in doing so, we engender the sort of hope that leads us and others to good choices and good works…that then lead to transformation and change in our world for good and for God…in real, tangible and life sustaining ways.
Moreover, even more specifically, this work of naming includes naming those things in our lives that seek to control us, wrap us all up in fear and anxiety, those habits that make us less alive and less fully human. As twelve step spirituality has so powerfully taught us, we must first name the sin and dis-ease in our life if we are to take control over it…break its chains that seek to hold us in bondage. And on the other side of this equation, I also hope we will name in our lives that which is breathtakingly beautiful, our gifts and talents and creativity, for in naming them…we are reminded of them…and we become much more likely to use them…hone them…let them flow out of our life…blessing ourselves and all those God has entrusted to our care. When we name them, these gifts and charisms begin to define us…they become more and more who we actually are…and influence how we actually love and live.
Further, I hope we will be more intentional about naming the gifts and blessings we experience in the lives of other people. This affirms that they are oh so very good. It helps them name and notice what is breathtakingly beautiful about themselves…and fills them with gratitude for all that God is doing in their lives. It reminds them, like Christmas does, that they are indeed not alone…they are loved and they belong…to God…to us. I received a birthday card in December from a dear friend who wrote, “You are a remarkable man—your honesty, your integrity, your faith, your loyalty—all are inspiring to me. I understand why God loves humans a little better, knowing you.” This was undoubtedly the best present I received this year. Now I think that might be all a bit overstated, at least about me, but the point I want to make is…that in naming these things about me…my friend reminded me of who I really am…the words help me name those good and Godly things in my life that are indeed a part of me…and that I want to live out loud every day I wake up. Might we always be about this sort of naming work in each other’s lives…and do so with great intentionality and great generosity…every day in the year to come. I can’t imagine a more important and Godly sort of New Year’s resolution.
Jesus’ name, profoundly and intentionally chosen for him, means he saves…and indeed he does. And when each of us was baptized…marked with water and oil as Christ’s own forever…we took on a new name…and that name is Christian…which flows a bit better than Jesus-ian…but the point is, as we take this name for ourselves, Jesus’ holy name, intentionally…every day we wake up…as our own…we are invited to also take on the meaning both behind and in front of that name…Christian. For our work of naming all that belongs to and is of God in this world, makes us, blessedly, a part of Jesus’ saving work…divine work, eternal work, Christmas work, work that requires great intentionality and that literally has the power to save lives…our own and others. Amen.