Sunday, January 1, 2012

Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus

Philippians 2:5-11
St Paul’s Cathedral 

In the secular calendar, today is, of course, New Year’s Day. But in the church, our new year started five weeks ago at the beginning of Advent, so that’s not what today is about here. In most years, the Sunday after Christmas would be styled, appropriately enough, the First Sunday after Christmas—how’s that for stating the obvious? But not this year. Why? Because January 1, in our church calendar, is the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, and the feast of the Holy Name is on the list of a privileged few occasions that, when they happen to fall on a Sunday, trump whatever else would have ordinarily been observed on that Sunday. So here we are, celebrating the feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, on the eighth day of the Christmas season, at least, if not technically on the First Sunday after Christmas. Got all that straight?!

The feast of the Holy Name invites us to share mystically in a very special moment—a very Jewish moment, as a matter of fact. On the eighth day of his life—do the math here and count back to Christmas—on the eighth day of his life, Jesus, like all other little baby boys born to Jewish parents, was circumcised. He was made a child of the covenant, the covenant between the Lord and the Hebrew people, a covenant going back to Abraham, established some 2000 years earlier. And on that occasion, he was formally given a name, as Joseph fulfilled the instruction he received from the angel Gabriel when he was informed of Mary’s pregnancy: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Actually, to be quite literal, he was named Yeshua, which was, in fact, a rather commonplace Jewish name at the time. There are two pathways that the name Yeshua has taken into the English language. One of them went through Greek, then through Latin, and ended up in English as ‘Jesus.’ Now, those of us with northern European roots think of this as an absolutely unique name—a holy name, in fact—and we find it, at first, rather odd when little boys in Spanish-speaking cultures are named Jesus. But … do you know anybody named Joshua or Josh? Well, that’s the other way the name Yeshua ended up in English, more directly from the Hebrew, without going through Greek or Latin.

The original Yeshua, of course—the original Joshua—was one of the heroes of Israel, Moses’ hand-picked successor, the one who, after Moses’ death, led the people in completing the journey they had begun under Moses, finally crossing the Jordan River and entering the Promised Land some forty years after escaping from Egypt through the parted waters of the Red Sea. So it wasn’t “just another name” that Jesus was given, even if it was a pretty common one. Yeshua means “the Lord saves.” Joshua in the Old Testament was a savior. He led his people into the fulfillment of what had been promised to them when they followed Moses out of slavery. When the angel told Joseph what to name that child that had been conceived in Mary’s womb, he didn’t keep the reason for the name choice a secret: “for he will save his people …” —not from a tyrannical king this time, but—“from their sins.”

So what we celebrate today is the naming of Jesus. It is a sad reality, I think, that, because of where our culture is in its evolution, we are poorly-equipped to understand the significance of this day. We have lost the sense that a name actually means something. That’s nothing new, of course; we began to get away from it several hundred years ago, and started giving names to babies that had some significance within a family or within an ethnic group. Certain names go in and out of fashion in different generations. When I was young, the boys were David and John and Paul and William and Edward and Charles and James—some usually shortened to Dave and Bill and Ed and Chuck and Jim. The girls were Carol and Linda and Judy and Kathy and Susan and Pamela and Nancy. Right? Those are the names of the Baby Boomer generation! Anyone named Charlotte or Elsa had to be an old lady. Now those happen to be the names of my two granddaughters! So fashion changes, and many are now just making up names because of how they sound, or inventing unorthodox spellings for conventional names. Names are seen as a means of self-expression, with a high value placed on uniqueness and originality.

It was not always this way. Names used to have meanings. Often, parents would hold off on naming a child for several days or weeks until the child somehow “revealed” his or her name. We still do that many times with pets, interestingly, but not with people! It’s an old movie now, but I remember being struck when Dances With Wolves first came out. Kevin Costner’s character was given a name by the Native Americans who observed him, and that name was based on what they saw him do as he interacted with wild animals—Dances With Wolves.

The culture in which Jesus was born, when it comes to names, was more like that Indian culture than it was like ours. Naming a baby boy on the eighth day of his life was a big event, because it wasn’t just about the name, it was about what the name means, which is to say, it was about who and what that child would become. Jesus was named Jesus because his whole purpose in life was to reveal and manifest and implement the salvation of God.

And not just the salvation of any God, generic God, conceptual God, but of a very particular God—the God, in fact, who has a proper name. That’s something else that has gotten lost in translation, not only for us English speakers this time, but pretty much for Christianity in general. The ancient Israelites did have a generic word for ‘god’, and the ‘god’ they worshiped was certainly included in that category. But the ‘god’ they worshiped also had a proper name, and it didn’t sound anything like the generic word. Now, a pious Jew would be rather reluctant to actually try to pronounce that name—to do so is considered sacrilegious—but it was probably something like Yahweh (or, as it was once rendered in English, Jehovah). In English translations of the Bible, this name is usually rendered “the Lord”, which is itself kind of a generic expression, so we don’t get the full impact of God having a proper name.

And because of that, unfortunately, we miss something of real significance, real importance. The God in whom we place our trust, the God on whom we set our hope—our hope for a better year this year than last year, our hope for a more just and prosperous society; our hope for healing in body, mind, and spirit; our hope for the restoration of fractured relationships, our hope for world peace and the redemption of all creation from the power of sin and death—the God on whom we set our hope is not just any God, not a generic God. He is “the Lord”; the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who took our mortal flesh and assumed into his own being our human nature in the person of a particular baby who was given the name of Jesus on the eighth day of his life because his destiny was to be the savior of the  race whose member he had now become.

Sadly, many of our neighbors in the world know the name of Jesus only as an expletive. But we know that name of Jesus as the source of our hope, because Yeshua is not just a good name for a nice Jewish boy. It has a meaning. It means “the Lord saves.” And God himself has given him that name, which is above every name, because at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, and every tongue confess, that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

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