Sunday, January 1, 2017

Name of Jesus - January 1, 2017 (Luke 2:15-21 and Numbers 6:22-27)

One thing people often like to do when they reach the beginning of a new year is look back on the one that has just ended and take stock. That’s actually what January means. This month is named after the Roman god Janus, who had two faces, one facing forward and another facing back. And at this transition time many people replay the high points and low points of what happened and make a judgment about it. Maybe they lost a loved one in the past year, or went through a tough transition of some kind, or they’ll reflect on major world or cultural events and they’ll say, “2016 was a bad year.” Or maybe 2016 was a good year, a game-changer, because they achieved certain goals or the year brought them a new relationship or new opportunities. It’s as if each year tells a story—that it has its own unique theme and plot—and when each January 1 rolls around, we feel one story has come to an end and a new story begins again. And like Janus with his two faces we all wait to see what the story will be for us and for the world.

In the ancient world, calendars often got switched up almost every time a new ruler assumed the throne, and so individual years didn’t have that same story-telling character, but you know what did? People’s names. Nowadays we choose names mainly because we like the way they sound or they were names used by people in our family, but for much of human history and certainly for people in Jesus’ time, someone’s name typically said something about their story, about their life, their character. Their name wasn’t just their “handle” that moved them down the highway, à la Jim Croce. Their name also told something about their identity, about who they were.

There are still examples of this today, of course, usually in other cultures. I remember one time I was worshipping years ago in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Geneva, Switzerland, a congregation that had an English-speaking pastor but which served the multi-ethnic and multi-cultural population of the city. Every Sunday there were probably no fewer than fifteen different nationalities represented in the pews. This one particular Sunday the pastor was mentioning the name of an Kenyan orphan who had been found on a bench as a baby and taken to an orphanage. They knew nothing about his origin or who had left him there. He had no papers or anything. They named him “Mwenda,” which in Swahili means “One who is Found,” which obviously told people something about his story.

Several years went by and this young boy was adopted by a forever family and the family had his name legally changed to “Mpwenda.” And at that point in the sermon the pastor pointed to this teenage African boy sitting at the edge of the balcony with his family and said, “And in Swahili, ‘Mpwenda’ means ‘One who is loved.’” And the atmosphere in the congregation was electric at that point. It was like we were thinking, “The One who is Loved is in the room with us right now!”

Now, just imagine if you went through life with a name that mean “One who is loved.” Every time you signed up for something, every time you were in the doctor’s office filling out form after form, every time you bubbled in the answer sheet on a standardized test you wrote, “One who is loved.” It’s always a bit more than a name; it would remind you of a core aspect of your identity, the crucial narrative that shapes your whole life. Let me tell you: every time I fill out a form, I’m just thinking “Phillip,” and nothing more. I do not think “lover of horses.”

Receiving a story, an identity, is what the ritual of circumcision was to the Jewish tradition. On one level, the boy was made a part of his people’s story, the story that had begun with Abraham and Sarah and had continued down through Moses and Aaron, and then the kings and prophets of Israel. He received the story that came with the covenants God had made with God’s people through all those years, a covenant that promised God would be with them and that they bore a holy responsibility to live in a right relationship with God and each other. He also received what would be his own personal story, his name, as circumcision was a naming ceremony.

Observant Jews performed this ceremony eight days after birth, as the law stipulated, and that’s what happens to Mary and Joseph’s son. We may assume they make the proper arrangements for this procedure right there in Bethlehem somehow and he receives the name Jesus. Typically the son would receive the name that the father had selected, but in Jesus’ case, at least according to Luke, the name had already been revealed to Mary. He is given the name “Jesus,” which means “he saves,” or “to save.”

I can’t imagine what it would be like to step into that kind of identity. That’s a very serious story to live into. Probably every time he introduced himself or filled out his name on a form somewhere people would think to themselves, “Well, well. Savior! Just who does he think he is??” And there are times where things similar to that happened. In a time when the Jewish people were especially hopeful for someone who could ride in and re-establish their kingdom and their glory as a people, that name must have brought with it all kinds of complicated cargo.

And as we watch Jesus live out this identity, we might think he has forgotten it altogether. He does nothing that outwardly seems to be particularly saving. His story involves a lot of teaching about the law and healing people with various illnesses and then getting into arguments with the religious authorities about the nature of God’s kingdom. Then, at the end of his life, which comes all too quickly, he hands over his life to those who want to mock him and kill him rather than speaking out for himself, or, more importantly, doing anything that would save himself. It appears as though he is a total failure at his identity.

But then three days after his body is taken down from the cross and left in the tomb the strangest thing happens. Some of his followers, who are already beginning to be persecuted as well, begin making claims that he is alive again. They eat with him, relive some of the stories with him, and come to realize that if this is really him—if Jesus is really raised from the dead—then all of reality, all of creation, is now completely different. God really has made good on God’s covenant to restore and re-establish the kingdom. The story is far better than they ever imagined. Everything is being made new, even in the face of death. All of creation is, in a word, saved. It is saved from its own decay, from its own ridiculous tendency towards self-absorption, from its habit of thinking just a few new resolutions, a handful attempts at self-improvement will make everything better.

This way in which Jesus lives—by giving himself over to others totally, by loving and serving those he comes to save—really is the way God moves his purposes forward. In that sense, we see that Jesus really is the savior and is the name above all names, his story filled with more truth than any other story, the identity he gives us is more important than all our many identities.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a little book called Life Together, says it like this:

“It is not in our life that God’s help and presence must be proved, but rather God’s presence and help have been demonstrated for us in the life of Jesus Christ…The fact that Jesus Christ died is more important that the fact that I shall die, and the fact that Jesus Christ rose from the dead is the sole ground of my hope that I, too, shall be raised on the Last Day.”[1]

Because Jesus comes to save us no matter what our name is and no matter what our life’s story is, and because we are washed in this water of new birth, we have faith that that hope has been given to us. We are ones who are found, and we are ones who are loved. The one who can put all time and history together for us has been born and has now been named…he has been named for you. Today we may commemorate the fact we’ve revolved one more time around the sun, but we can even more give thanks that our lives revolve around the Son.

As the ancient Israelites made their way through the wilderness, preparing to take up residence in the Promised Land, they needed some assurance that God would bless their journey. So God instructed Aaron to pronounce the following blessing upon them:

“The LORD bless you and keep you.
The LORD make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you.
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

They are the words we say as a blessing, or benediction, at the end of many worship services as we go forth into the world. We use it because in Jesus we come to know we have a God who doesn’t have a face looking backward or forward, like Janus. We have a God whose face is always upon us, whose countenance is lifted up on us, on our neighbor—ever outward into new dark and dangerous and exciting and hopeful places where we will go.

And so as you venture into 2017, whether it be a good story or a bad one, know that the Lord’s blesses you and keeps you. Know that the Lord’s face is upon you and that you bear Jesus’ name.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, HarperSanFrancisco, 1954. pg 54

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