What’s in a Name?
By The Rev. Lorraine Diaz
Sunday, December 27, 2020
Readings: Luke 2:15-21 and Isaiah 9:6-7
Whenever a couple has a new baby, people bombard them with questions: boy or girl? What was their weight? What time? How long was the labour? One of the first questions we all ask is: “What will you name the child?” Parents often experience a mix of excitement and stress about choosing the right name for their child. It seems like choosing a name for another human being is very important and carries a lot of weight. Names are meaningful. It’s like you’re bestowing an identity on the child before they’ve had a chance to develop one for themselves. In that sense, a name can often tell us more about who the parents are than about who the child is.
Children are often named to honour a parent or grandparent, and sometimes a particular name is handed down generation after generation. My grandmother’s given name, for example, was Eileen, so my mother’s middle name was Eileen, and now my older sister’s middle name is Eileen, as is my sister’s daughter’s middle name. As the second daughter, I was never going to be given the name Eileen, but then apparently, my parents were going to call me Stephen – but that didn’t really work out for them.
Sometimes parents go out of their way to avoid common names and prefer to give their child a name that’s unique, so that they’ll feel special. Sometimes that can be nice, but other times their name choice can make everyone else cringe.
When Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph had a responsibility no parent before or since has had – naming the very son of God. And – just like in our times – the name they chose for this special child tells us something about them.
In Israelite tradition of the time, names given to babies were chosen by parents because they had a readily understandable meaning. Many Israelite names were theophoric, that is, names that recognized divine assistance, or names expressing the parents’ wish for God’s blessing on the child. An example of this is the name Ezekiel, which actually means: “may God strengthen this child.” A name that begins with the letters “Je” – like Jesus, Jeremiah, Jerusalem, etc. – usually has its root in the name Jehovah, which is another form of the name Yahweh.
If now people often name children after parents or grandparents, in Jesus’ time this was even more of an expectation, to the point that when John the Baptist was named by his mother, the family were scandalized – they assumed that as the first-born son he would naturally be given the name of his father, Zechariah. When his mother states that his name will be John, the family cries out: “None of your relatives has this name!” (Lk 1:61) His mute father wrote out on a tablet, “His name is John” to confirm the choice, and the scripture tells us that “All of them were amazed” and they asked one another, “what will this child become?” That’s how important the chosen name was.
The Gospel of Luke also tells us how Jesus’ name was chosen. The story of the shepherds that we heard from Nupur a few minutes ago culminates in v. 21: “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.” It sounds very simple, but it tells us a lot. Here, Luke paints for us a picture of true humility and wonder. It’s a picture of a humble birth that belies the reality of this baby’s true identity. What Luke is careful to do here is to link Jesus firmly to Jewish tradition and piety, and to point out that his name was given according to the angel’s proclamation. His parents were devout Jews, obedient in all ways to God.
The verses we heard this morning tell us that shepherds out in the field rushed to the manger in Bethlehem after being visited by an angel, because they were surprised by the news that the long-awaited Messiah had been born. Surprised by the angel’s appearance and the fact that they had been given the news, they told Mary and Joseph what the angel had said. The one who was not surprised was Mary– instead, she had a moment of quiet reflection about what the angel told her before Jesus was conceived. It had come true, just as the angel foretold! She had been obedient, and God had been faithful.
The inclusion of the shepherds is not just a gentle pastoral scene reminiscent of English literature or a modern-day Christmas card. For Luke it was important to note that these were the working poor, hard-working labourers, who would spend the shepherding months of the year homeless, literally ‘abiding’ in the field at night. It was important for Luke to demonstrate that his parents and all those who were present at the birth were humble, simple, faithful people who followed the laws of Israel. Verse 21 then tells us that they went to have their son circumcised on the eighth day, as required, and that they gave him a Jewish name. The very best of Jewish piety and obedience to Moses were observed, and this is what their name choice tells us about them.
It was, in fact, a very common Jewish name - Mary named him “Yeshua” in the Hebrew, which is Yesu in Aramaic, Iesous in Greek, Jesus, Jesus (Spanish), Jésus (French). In hundreds of languages, the name Jesus is now known around the world and has a sacredness to it for us. Back then, though, it was as common a name as Jack, John, or Bob would be to us. Nobody today names their child Bob with the expectation that one day people around the world will be praying to God saying, “all this we pray…in Bob’s name. Amen.”
The name Yeshua means, “Yahweh is salvation.” There are variations on this meaning, like “God helps” or “God saves.” Either way, this verse with the naming of Jesus asks us both to look backward and forward – we look back and remember that the naming fulfills Mary’s obedience to the word of the angel. But we also look forward to the life Jesus will live and to the fulfillment of God’s promise to provide a Messiah from the lineage of David who would be the salvation of the world.
It all begs the question: How could anyone look at Jesus, with his humble beginning, his ordinary parents, his common name, and think that HE was going to be the Salvation of God for Israel and the world? Why would anyone put their faith in him?
As we reflect this Christmas season on the birth of Jesus, do we really believe that Jesus is our salvation? Do we believe that in Him God fulfilled His promise to restore the broken relationship between God and humanity, to defeat death, and to give our lives hope and meaning?
We’re coming to the end of what many have declared the worst year ever – well, maybe in our lifetime, because I suspect there were some pretty awful years that previous generations had to face. We’ve had a year that has been marked by serious illness and death. Even if we haven’t had Covid-19 ourselves, we may know people who did, some who recovered, maybe even someone who died. All of us have in some ways had our lives interrupted. People have lost their jobs or their businesses. Young people have had their newly blossoming lives stalled just as they’re starting out. Weddings and baptisms have been postponed and loved ones have been buried without the comfort of a community service of thanksgiving for their life. There’s no doubt that this year has been tough and has left many people wondering where God is in all this; if God cares; who Jesus really is; and how He can help us in times like this.
Of course, we’re not the first people to face challenges like the one we’re facing now – or even worse. In the face of these trials, many previous generations of believers and non-believers alike have questioned where God is, and - for Christians - whether we can really trust that Jesus is who he says he is: that he’s the son of the Almighty God; that he’s God’s salvation, as his name indicates. He turned water into wine, he healed the lepers and raised Lazarus from the dead, why doesn’t he intervene in our problems and our suffering?
I’d love to be able to tell you that there are pat answers to all these questions, but one thing I’ve learned walking with God over the years is that each one of us will need to reflect for ourselves on the question of where God has been in our lives over this past year. It might be different for each of us. Some have told me that they have sensed God speaking to them, redirecting their lives during this time; others have calmed the busy-ness of their lives enough this year to feel the comforting presence of God in a much more intimate way. Yet others see God’s hand directing our society and our world in powerful ways. Some realize that God has been there all along, but they’ve been too distracted by other things to really notice.
So, can a common man, with a common name, born in a barn, to ordinary parents, over 2000 years ago in a much less technically sophisticated culture, be relevant to our complicated lives today?
Well, consider this: the birth of Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy and of God’s promises - everything that the prophets said the Messiah would be, Jesus was; and what God did in Jesus then, He still does for us today. God helps; God saves; God is our salvation; God fulfills his promises; God is present and near to us, especially in the darkest valleys, in the lowest moments of our lives. He is called “Emmanuel,” God with us.
If the name Mary and Joseph chose tells us about who they are, this baby is given many other names that tell us who HE is. The prophet Isaiah foretold who the Messiah will be – not that he would be named Jesus, necessarily, but what his true identity would be. Hear again the words that Nupur read for us a few minutes ago:
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
Isaiah describes the true identity of the Messiah – God’s anointed one – and it has nothing to do with what his name might be, but with who he is and what he did, and what he still does in our time and in our lives through the power of the Holy Spirit. He is wonderful, mighty, everlasting. He is the Prince of Peace, even in the midst of trials. He establishes justice and righteousness, now and forever.
We can’t necessarily look at the baby born in a stable, surrounded by animals, with His ordinary parents and his common name, and lowly shepherds as the first visitors, and see in Jesus this Messiah; but as we take the time to really get to know him – in the way that can only be done through constant prayer and Bible reading – we learn to look at the baby with the eyes of faith, because we learn about the man he became, and how he thought, and how he related to God and other people; and how he died for us; and we get to experience for ourselves the Jesus who is our wonderful counselor, our Mighty God, our Everlasting Father and our Prince of Peace. We get to know the Jesus who does live up to his name – the salvation of our God. That’s who Jesus is.
I often quote theologian Shirley C. Guthrie, because he wrote a wonderful systematic theology in the 1960s that so simply and beautifully expresses the deep, mysterious truth about God. This is what he writes about who Jesus is:
“In this real flesh and blood man, Jesus of Nazareth, God himself was uniquely present in the world. This man was not just a great teacher of profound truths about God, man, the world and the secret of a happy, peaceful and successful life. He was not just a great moral hero for us to imitate as best we can; nor just a very Godlike religious personality, the model of a truly spiritual life; nor the founder of a religious club later called the church, where religious people with a common interest in him come together to admire him and to admire themselves for admiring him. To know this man in not just to know a very great, very good, very wise man. It is to know God himself…He is called “Emmanuel,” God with us. He is the “Christ,” the Messiah, the “Anointed One” of God. And his miraculous birth is the sign of the fact that where he comes from, who he is, and what he does cannot be explained in terms of the ordinary process of human life and history. This man comes from God, not from men. He is the ‘Son of God.’”
That’s who Jesus is, and that’s why we can trust Him to be faithful in our times of need. As the angel came to Joseph in his time of perplexity, and to the shepherds in the dark of night, Jesus comes to us in our times of deepest need.
When you think about it, our names, in the end, don’t really define who we are. Our character says much more about who we are than our names do. When “Stephen” didn’t work out for my parents, they chose the name “Lorraine,” which is a French name. Well, after months of research on Ancestry.com I haven’t found a drop of French blood in my background! People who know me, though, know that I am more commonly called “Lori.” They know who I am, though, by my personal qualities, characteristics, and eccentricities much more so than by the name that I go by. You could call me Stephen, if you wanted to, and I’d still be me.
Our true identity is determined by who God says we are, and when we read the story of Jesus we learn that who we are in God’s eyes is people who are precious, worth coming to earth to redeem from the power of evil, and even worth dying for. No matter what your name is, that’s who YOU are in God’s eyes. Amen.