What Is in a Name?

“She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Matthew 1:21 NRSV

                 I think we are all ready for a fresh start.  The year 2020 has not exactly been anyone’s “cup of tea” and here we are at the cusp of the busy holiday season which runs from Thanksgiving through Christmas.  I quite honestly wish our time could slow down just a bit, but unfortunately this will not be the case.  By the time you read this article, our church facilities will be decorated for the arrival of Advent which prepares our hearts, minds, and living for the coming of the Christ Child.  Advent in a sense is a time for a new beginning as it serves as the start of the Christian Year.  While our calendars run one way and the church’s fiscal year another, Advent marks the beginning of God’s redemption story which journeys onward through Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, Ordinary Time, and culminates with Reign of Christ Sunday.  The Scripture lessons for this time of the year pull from the Prophets and various New Testament passages which are related to anticipation, hope, and making room in our lives for God’s gracious gift.

                 It is difficult to think we can possibly create any more space in our lives which are already, shall we say, chaotic.  This year’s pandemic has certainly altered some of the craziness in our lives, but for many of us we continue to be busy (just in different ways).  Virtual learning, travel, music lessons, social media, news, voting, and hunting for toilet paper have occupied our drive time, computer time, and shopping time for much of this year.  We are anxious as to what the coming year may have in store.  The political and social unrest in our country have placed us on edge.  We ponder our investments for the future hoping they will be secure.  The price increase for goods and services has caused us to question personal priorities and in many cases curve expenditures.  It is indeed a trying time in which we live, but we need not give up too quickly.  Perhaps now, more than ever, we need a fresh start which can enable us to reorder our lives in a way that gives them purpose, perspective, and promise for the future.

                 Have you ever thought about the words issued to Joseph during his dream reported in Matthew 1?  Chances are that you have, but not really.  Here was a man with a bright future ahead of him.  Joseph was devout in his practice of the Jewish faith, he was employed in a steady career of carpentry, and soon would wed the one to whom he had been betrothed for some time.  His life held so much promise, but that was until he learned from his soon to be wife, Mary, there was a child on the way.  Oh, and by the way…it was not his.  It sounds like the script for a television soap opera.  Now what to do?  Joseph wrestled within himself and determined to take the high road by secretly dismissing Mary in order to avoid any public humiliation on her part or the tarnishing of her family name.  This was not what Joseph had planned for, but at least he could be tactful in bringing it to a quiet and somewhat peaceful conclusion.  Having determined to follow through on his new plan, Joseph went to sleep no doubt feeling “better” about matters.  Little did he know his plan was about to change.  An angel from the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and reassured him that what had occurred was not as a result of unfaithfulness, but rather the doing of God through the Holy Spirit.  Joseph was told not to fear, to take Mary as his wife, and to name the child upon his birth, Jesus.

                 Here is where I wish to focus for a few moments: Jesus.  “What is in a name?”  This is a well-known question posed in William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in which Juliet ponders how family names can prove to be so divisive and stand in the way of true love.  It is an important question to consider, but not only in relation to romantic love.  This name “Jesus” offers us valuable insight into the significance of the Incarnation.  “Incarnation” is a word we use within the faith community to describe how God entered the created order by taking on human flesh, bone, feelings, etc.  There are many reasons why the birth of Jesus is significant to our understanding of God’s interaction with humanity, but let us consider the importance of his birthname.  “Jesus,” while not unique to the Son of God, comes from the Hebrew name “Yeshua” which means “to deliver or rescue.”  We can also safely translate this understanding into our word “salvation.”  It is the most common way to refer to what has been provided for those who accept through faith what Jesus did by his death and resurrection.

                 To suggest that Jesus saves us indicates that we have something from which we need to be saved.  It is as though something has encapsulated us and hinders us from working free of its hold.  Often, we describe this hold as “sin” or the ways in which we fail to live into the righteous standard which God has set before God’s people.  We, as the word which we translate as “sin” indicates, “miss the mark.”  It is the image of aiming toward a target, drawing back a bow string, and releasing an arrow only to have it go astray.  If you have ever shot something toward an intended goal and missed, you know the frustration.  Unfortunately, our bend toward sin does not often give us the same sense of frustration which we experience with a ball or arrow.  To be quite honest, we keep moving along with little regard to what we have done or failed to do, and how that measures with God’s standard.  We become consumed with ourselves, our wants, our desires, our methods, and so forth to the point that we essentially create a “god” that is in our image.  Blame it on evil.  Blame it on the devil.  Whatever we choose.  The reality is, we need to be saved from ourselves.  This is the starting place for a new beginning, the fresh start of which we have need.  The only way in which this process can be initiated is through personal submission to the One who was born of humble means and willingly gave his life for each of us.  Such submission can only occur as we say, “I have had enough of doing this life my way.  I want to be free to be who and what God wants me to be.  I want to start over.”  It is far from easy, but it is the necessary step we all must take if we wish to have a life that knows peace in the storm, light in the darkness, clarity in the confusion, and hope in the despair.  I believe we can all agree this is something we have need of in our world, but we must agree not only for the sake of those outside of the Church, but also for those of us who are a part of the Church.  We have need of repentance and forgiveness for our own lives on a reoccurring basis.  This guarantee comes only through the One who “will forgive his people of their (our) sins.”

Celebrating God’s Salvation,

The Reverend Kelley Smart