Tuesday, January 5, 2016

What's In a Name?

What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd, retain that dear perfection which he owes without that title. A famous quote by William Shakespeare that, by and large, rings true.  Names, even though they may be deeply associated with something, can’t fully exhaust the meaning and significance of the thing itself.  Thus, fair Romeo, should he no longer have the name of one of these warring families, could take Juliet for his own.  His name, tossed aside, would reveal that his name actually means nothing.  And for those of us, would it truly affect our character, our personality, if we had any other name?  If I rid myself of the name Christopher, which means ‘Christ bearer’, I would still in fact be a Christ-bearer, husband, father, and priest.

But not so with Jesus.  That name so sweet, so tender, so powerful, so magnificent.  Jesus is the exception to that beautiful passage from Shakespeare, for as Paul in Philippians says, “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” This child, this name, this wonderful and life-giving name was given that the world might know the overwhelming and inexhaustible love God has for the human race.  For within the very name ‘Jesus’ contains the whole drama of salvation.  It’s a Greek translation of ‘Yeshua’, a Hebrew word we might also translate as ‘Joshua’.  And the meaning of this name is good news for those of us unable to save ourselves, for it means ‘God saves.’

God saves.’ Is this not the whole meaning of Christmas, that God has taken the unexpected step of entering this world and becoming human that we might become divine, being saved by a surprising grace and love?  It’s the message that was carried to the Blessed Virgin Mary by the angel Gabriel: The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour 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 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 for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. The angel Gabriel offered this most amazing prophecy of the role this newborn child would have in the world, playing upon the Messianic expectations of the Jewish people, preaching the Good News that those expectations will no longer be unfulfilled.  And his name, Jesus, certainly evokes the heroism and legacy of Joshua, who led the people of Israel into the Promised Land after Moses was prevented from entering by God.  One set of expectations fulfilled, those of Messianic hope.  Another set of expectations put into play, those that speak about the type of Kingdom this Jesus will usher in.

But as with most things divine, what is expected is not exactly what happens.  Paul’s words in Philippians remain for me some of the most profound reflections on the person and work of Jesus.  Messianic expectation was for a new king, an actual earthly king, who would take up David’s throne.  And yet, the kingdom inaugurated by the coming of God into the world in Jesus bears no resemblance to an earthly kingdom, and was birthed not by power, but humility: Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. It is precisely because of humility, of being willing to relinquish the power and dominance that rightly belongs to God the Son, of being willing to live life as a human being and suffer a human death…it is for these reasons that we bow at the name of Jesus, the one who truly embodied what it means for God to save.  The name of Jesus, “God saves”, has become so much more than a simple mark of identification.  Inherent in this name, and fulfilled by the willingness to be born as a human and suffer death, is a fundamentally different understanding of divinity.  We do not earn grace.  We are saved by the action of God.  In this drama of salvation, God is always the subject, coming to us, loving us, saving us.

As it is written in the Book of Numbers, “So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.”  And in these days, living after the incarnation of the Son of God, we too have had this Holy Name put upon us, and are blessed by the humility and love of a God who humbled himself as a human being, even to the point of death.  May we be a people, a church, that exudes the humility of our Savior, that the whole world may come to know the true power in the name of Jesus.

*A sermon preached on the Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, January 1 2016, at Trinity on the Hill Episcopal Church in Los Alamos, NM.  The texts were Numbers 6:22-27, Philippians 2:5-11, and Luke 2:15-21.

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