Numbers 6: 22-27
Name of Jesus
December 24, 2022
What's in a Name?
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In 11 years of serving Christ's church, I have never preached on the Feast Day known as the Holy Name of Jesus and if I did, it would have been 6 years ago and I don’t remember. I got to admit, after the craziness that was December and especially the craziness of Christmas Eve with a power outage, a power surge that blew out all the fuses on parts of our new heating system, pipes bursting—I didn't know if I had it in me to preach. As I fell into my funk while sitting in my office chair this morning here at Zion, I turned around and looked that the letter of call hanging behind my desk and remembered that I indeed did have one more sermon left in me to give because I worked for God and God has a way of showing up and breathing life and in my case, inspiration.
What's in a name? The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus has a fun beginning. But before we can talk about the inception of the Feast Day itself, we first need to talk about a hotly debated issue—the start of the new year. Don’t you wish that was the kind of hotly debated issues we had now? January 1, the beginning of the month immediately following the winter solstice, was accepted by the Roman Empire as the beginning of the year. Previously, March 1 had been observed as New Year's Day; later, in the sixth century A.D., March 25, the Annunciation, was adopted throughout Christendom as the beginning of the year. In 1582 Gregory XIII reformed the calendar and restored the beginning of the year to January 1. So, January 1 is adopted and celebrated as the start of the new year by pagans and Christians alike. Pagans do their thing, but what is a Christian to do? They of course eat Pork and Sauerkraut, pickled herring, limburger cheese, shrimp...okay that is what I do on New Years Eve. Christians showed up to church. But January 1 had no religious associations for a long time. It was a day. Granted the 8th day of Christmas, but nothing major was scheduled on this day. St. Augustine apparently showed up on January 1 to his church and noticed that it was full of people and reportedly said to the congregation, "I see you have come here, as if we had a feast today." Which is pastor-speak for saying, "Go home...I'm tired. I just saw you all 8 days ago on Christmas..." Shortly after Augustine said this, January 1 became a day of fasting and penitence which served as an antidote to participation in pagan rituals of New Years Day. As the years drew on, the church sucked all the joy out of January 1 making it a mini-Lent where the church wouldn't even say the word Alleluia. But let's be honest, who here wants to show up the day after New Years Eve and be miserable (other than myself?)? Anyone one? The power of the "antidote" to the pagan celebrations no-longer had any power or appeal so under Pope Boniface IX (615), January 1 was made a church holiday and called simply "The Octave of the Lord." Since the celebration of the new year could not be suppressed, the church did as it has often done and transformed the pagan holiday into a church festival. Originally, the feast day was associated with Mary but around the 6th century, the focus was moved away from the blessed Mother to the Circumcision and Naming of Jesus, which is recorded in Luke. This tradition has since held.
If you are a liturgical nerd like me and like collecting and reading through old hymnals, you probably know that In the old Book of Common Prayer, January 1 is called simply "The Circumcision of Christ"; but in the 1969 Book of Common Prayer changed the name to "The Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ." Lutherans though, for the most part, have typically focused on the Name of Jesus mainly because I think it is more palatable and easier to say without having to answer some uncomfortable questions from our children.
So, why do we care about celebrating a day that goes back 1400 years? Is this feast even relevant today? Does anyone care about Jesus name enough to celebrate? Do we need this day as an antidote to the pagan traditions of celebrating the new year even though most of us don't think of them as pagan traditions? I mean, I don't really think eating stinky cheese and pickled fish is going to bring my anymore luck and neither do I think spending my day in church brings good luck either. If January 1 had not been on a Sunday, none of us probably would have known about this feast day? So, why is important to talk about the Name of Jesus?
You all know we are expecting twins, right? There has been a great amount of debate among my wife's doctors as to whether they are Di-Di twins or mono-di twins. Di-di are the best to have because they have their own sacks, placenta and usually come from two separate eggs. Mono-di have to share everything. They first told us mono-di and that usually means they will be identical. Now they are saying Di-Di so we could have identical or we could have fraternal and since we aren't find out the gender, we are going to have to wait to see. But having two twins means we need to have 2 names. And this is something that we don't fight about, but we both have our own standards. The first name has to be Biblical. The middle name is family. But there are so many combinations. And now that we might have fraternal, we are trying to figure out what combination we like the best because these will be the last.
When Thomas was born, we knew his name was either going be Thomas or Magdalena which is short for Mary Magdalene: These two people were the first to preach the risen Christ and declare him Lord and God. But as Diane's first pregnancy wore on, we both began to worry if our baby would actually look like a Thomas or a Magdalena. Which sounds strange but if you are a parent, you know what I am talking about. How do you know if that name is appropriate? When Isaiah was born, I worried that this name was not going to fit him. Like was Isaiah really an Isaiah? Or more importantly, did I want Isaiah to be an Isaiah? Isaiah says some pretty tough stuff to the people. I wasn't too sure I wanted that life for my son. And Thomas, as tradition holds, was sent by the Holy Spirit to India to preach the gospel and was killed after soldiers stabbed him with their spears. I want Thomas and Isaiah to grow up and change the world like their namesakes did, but I don't want to see them hurt like the world hurt their namesakes.
Names are powerful. Just say the name Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden and see the reaction that you get from people. Sometimes I love when I am called Pastor Matt especially when it is by 4 year-olds screaming it as I walk into work. I didn't like being called Pastor Matt by those same kid's parents when they were upset about something that the school was doing or not doing. I love when my kids call me dad and daddy. I get kind of annoyed when they call me Matt, though I am afraid to correct them too much because what if they get lost and need to a police officer my name in-order to help them locate me? Daddy won’t help a police office or Good Samaritan find me. I expect parishioners to call me Pastor Matt or Pastor Day and not simply to call me by my first name not so much because I am full of myself, but because I need you all to remind me that I have been called by you to be your pastor—there are things we need to do as pastors that don’t always make us popular but are a necessary part of the office. You calling me Pastor Matt reminds me of that holy task. My friends call me Matt. My family calls me Matthew. Before Thomas was born, my dad pulled me aside and said, "You will call him Thomas. Not Tom. Or Tommy. Or Tom-Tom. Thomas." Which makes a lot more sense now after all the work we put into picking out his name.
What is about the name of Jesus that makes it so special? Is it magical? What does Jesus’ name tell us about who he is or will be? In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is to be named Emmanuel which means, “God with us.” But nowhere in the gospel is Jesus ever called Emmanuel. He is always called Jesus. Instead, Matthew spends 25 chapters showing us how God is with us, which I think that is pretty cool. Jesus really lived into the name the angel Gabriel proclaimed that his father would give him.
Jesus has many names attributed to him, but the one name he is called by his mother and Father, the name given to him on the 8th day after his birth was Jesus. Many of us probably have learned or heard that Jesus is a form of the name Joshua and the name of Joshua means God saves. That is mostly true. The name Jesus and Joshua come from the same Hebrew verbal root (Y-Sh-Ah) רשע. Joshua lived up to his name many times over as he led his people to victory over the enemies of Israel. But Jesus doesn’t lead an army. He doesn’t ever pick up a club or sword. He doesn’t call the smartest and brightest. He doesn’t seek out an elite group of followers and leaders. Jesus saves by becoming a victim of violence. He calls 12 uneducated guys who were pretty bad at fishing for fish but pretty good at fishing for people. Jesus lives up to his name just like Joshua did. They both saved the people, but unlike Joshua’s nation, victory and freedom would come and go. Jesus though saved the people once and for all.
How are you living up to your name? Thankfully, none of us have to live up to the name of Jesus. And even though today’s feast celebration began as an antidote to pagan celebrations around the new year, I think it still holds relevancy and power in our world today. The name of Jesus is powerful and has the ability to proclaim good news without even telling the story. Jesus’s name reminds us that God is with us. Jesus’s name reminds us that God saves us. But it is our job as Christians, to tell the world how God is with us; how God saves us.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.