A Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus
Preached at St. Barnabas Anglican Church, Medicine Hat, AB, 1 January 2012
Num 6:22-27, Ps 8, Phil 2:9-13, Luke 2:15-21
Our names, particularly our first or, as they were once commonly called, our Christian names, are powerful things. They mark as us individuals, and hint at the rich complexity that each of us carries within. They are the sign of intimate relationships with family, friends, and lovers. Sometimes they connect us to our ancestry if they are names that run in a family. They can morph into pet names or nicknames, known only to a few. To the rest of the world, whether its Canada Revenue or the cashier at Safeway, I may be “Mr. Peterson”, but to a relative few I am either Michael or Mike. I have to confess that I prefer it that way. I don’t want a stranger at the car dealership to start referring to me as “Mike” during a pitch, following the practice of many salespeople who seem trained to drop the prospect’s first name as often as humanly possible. That practice always annoys me because it is an unearned familiarity, but also it’s an abuse of the power that lies in our names. Our names have power, and we don’t give that power away to just anyone.
This Sunday is about the power that lines in names. In the liturgical calendar this Sunday, like Jesus, has several names. Sometimes it is referred to, rather unimaginatively, as “The First Sunday After Christmas” or, as some clergy call it, “Not Many People In Church Sunday”. In the old Prayer Book, whose 450th anniversary (that is, of the 1662 version) we celebrate in 2012, this Sunday is known as The Feast of the Circumcision of Christ. As we hear in today’s Gospel, Jesus, like all Jewish male infants (see Leviticus 12.3), receives his circumcision to mark him as one of the chosen people of Israel. A third name for this Sunday is TheFeast of the Holy Name of Jesus, because Jewish circumcision, like Christian baptism, is when children are given the names which mark them as individuals within their family. The scripture readings chosen today invite us to think about what the name of Jesus means, what our own names mean, and how the two are connected.
Through Advent and Christmas we have heard Jesus referred to in several ways. Isaiah prophesied that “a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Is 7:4), and this prophecy is remembered in Matthew’s nativity story. . In Luke the angels who tell the shepherds about Jesus simply refer to Jesus by his titles, saying that Jesus will be “the Messiah”, the annointed one or Saviour. The Greek word for Messiah, “Christos”, has become linked to the name of Jesus so that “Jesus Christ” sometimes seems today like a proper name. In fact his proper name is singular, “Jesus”, and it is the name that the Angel Gabriel instructs Mary to call the child she has yet to conceive. In Matthew the angel explains to Joseph that the child Mary is carrying will be named Jesus, because the name, Jesus or as it was known then, “Yeshua”, means in Hebrew “he shall save his people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). So the etymology of Jesus’ name literally enacts the the meaning of his title, Messiah or Christ. Jesus is the one who will save his people, and, by extension, save us.
The name of Jesus is thus linked to his mission of salvation. It is a name that carries the full purposes and power of God the Father who sends Jesus to us. The name of Jesus is like no other name in the Bible, like no other name that we know. It is as this a name that has broken in to our reality from a higher realm, from the kingdom of God itself. It is a name that stands at the heart of the struggle between God’s purposes for life and light and all the forces of darkness that rage against that light. There are several hints in the Gospels that Jesus and his power are well known by demons, such as the one known as Legion who cries ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? “ (Luke 8:28) which has equivalents elsewhere (Mark 1:24, Matthew 8:30). I think one of our challenges as followers of Jesus is to recover our sense of the power of his name, as the most wonderful and potent word that we can call on in our times of need and darkness. This recovery means stripping off the layers of overfamiliarity, neglect, and scorn that our culture has encrusted the name with, so that once again we find the word “Jesus” to be this amazing gift of salvation that comes straight from God. Some of us, myself included, also need to recover our willngness to name Jesus without fear of embarrassment or giving offence to others. I recall attending a meeting of Synod in the Diocese of Huron where we all belted out that great Anglican hymn, “At the Name of Jesus”, and then debated reasons why we shouldn’t adopt a new plan for evangelism least we offend non-believers. I think we need to have more confidence in the name of Jesus.
One of the fears that came out at that Synod I mentioned was the feeing that we didn’t want to “shove our religion down people’s throats”, a very Anglican sentiment. Perhaps if we had paid more attention to the hymn we had just sung, “At the Name of Jesus”, based on Philippians 2, we would have realized that this fear is baseless. Paul writes that God the Father gives Jesus a name “that is above every name”, a name that has the power to make every knee on earth bend, but Paul also notes that there is nothing coercive or compulsory about the power of this name. The name of Jesus may be feared by demons, but it is also the name of the one who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave” and who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:5-8). The name of Jesus is the name of the one who came to serve and rescue humanity. It is the name that God gives to us not as a command for our submission, but rather gives to us as a blessing. In our first lesson, from Numbers, we hear the blessing that God gives to Aaron for the Israelites, a blessing that is much loved and used by Christians. The last part of that blessing is not usually heard, and it says “they shall put my name on the Israelites” (Num 6:27). I think that our epistle is a fulfulling of that passage, that the name of Jesus is likewise put on us as a blessing rather than as a burden, as that which connects us to the saving purposes of God.
Let me finish in a way that is less theological and more grounded, by asking you to think about your name. Take a moment to reflect on the origins and meaning of your name. Where did it come from? Why was it chosen for you? What does it mean – does it have its own etymology? If you’re not sure, a fun place to look is a website called behindthename.com. Now think about when your name was first used in your life as a follower of Jesus. In the old Prayer Book, the person being baptized is referred to either as “this Child” or “this thy Servant” until the climax of the service, when the priest says “Name this Child”. I love that moment in the liturgy because it’s then that the parents and godparents speak the name by which their child will be known as an individual, with all his hopes and dreams, for the rest of his or her life. And it’s that moment where God takes that person, and links that person with His own mighty and powerful and loving and generous name, when the priest says “I baptize you in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spriit. Amen”. It’s at that point that our particular, given name becomes our Christian name, and links us with the salvation of God through our earthly lives.
In the old Prayer Book, there was a service called the Office of Instruction which was a preparation for confirmation. It began with these questions put by the minister to the candidates.
Question: What is your Christian Name?
Answer: My Christian Name is ._______________.
Question: Who gave you this Name?
Answer: My Sponsors gave me this Name in Baptism: wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.
Those two questions and answers tell you all you need to know about the Name of Jesus. It is the name of God’s son. It is the name feared by demons. It is the name that was connected with your name at your baptism, in a bond so strong that it will bring you through life, through death, with bonds so strong at it will bring you to stand with Jesus, the one who saves his people. Amen.