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What’s In a Name?

Reverend Philip Stringer

Luke 2:15-21

January 1, 2023

LET US PRAY: Lord Jesus Christ, be born in us anew today and speak to us through your word, that we may be living mangers who present you to the world. AMEN

Today we celebrate “The Name of Jesus,” and that got me thinking about names.

People names:

  • Patricia— Noble

  • Margaret/Peggy— Pearl

  • Philip— Fond of Horses

  • Rachel— story of her name in Chinese: “Beautiful Autumn.”

There are some wacky names out there, too.

  • Elon Musk named his 10th child, “X”

  • Frank Zappa named his daughter “Moon Unit”

Towns can have strange names, too.

  • Indiana

    • Cementville

    • Santa Claus

  • North Carolina

    • StateRoad

    • Whynot

    • High Point

Contrast that with the Illinois town, “Low Point.”

And then there is Jesus. We have heard the name of Jesus spoken so many times-- and in so many ways (both respectful and not) that it might begin to lose some of its wonder for us. We teach our children from their earliest days that Jesus is their friend, and we come to think of him that way-- as a friend whom we can speak of and speak to regularly. And that is good.

Today-- on the first day of the year-- we make a point to remember just how TRULY good that is. Because the name of Jesus represents everything wonderful about God. In Jesus, God shows you how wonderfully precious you are.

Eight days after his birth, his parents brought him to the temple to be circumcised according to Jewish law-- and as Luke tells us, “he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”

The name, “Jesus,” is the Latin form of the Hebrew name, “Joshua,” which means “Salvation comes from God.” A good name for this baby. But not the first one to have the name. In fact, one of the greatest heroes of the Old Testament was named Joshua-- and it is in the story of Joshua that we can come to understand who Jesus is, and what he IS NOT. In the story of Joshua we might learn something of what people may have expected from Jesus-- and we will also see how completely different God’s ways are from human ways.

I should admit to you first that I don’t like Joshua-- which isn’t really fair to say-- perhaps it is better to say that I do not like the book that tells about him, and I do not like what the authors of that book have said-- because Joshua slaughtered women and children without mercy. He showed no pity and no compassion. And it was all done in the name of the Lord.

Joshua was among those who came out of Egypt with Moses and wandered in the wilderness. And when Moses died, the Lord said that it would be Joshua who would lead the chosen people into the promised land. A land of safety and belonging. The descendants of Israel were to have a home.

But sin made the promised land a land that could not be shared. Those who lived there fought to keep it, and Joshua and the Israelites fought to take it.

Joshua was the human solution to a world of sin-- By the power of the sword, and the spilling of blood their enemies were defeated and the promised land became the home of the chosen people.

<<Story from Martin Buber>>

The book of Joshua is filled with terrible stories of merciless slaughter that could not have been pleasing to God. And many years later, in the words of the prophet, Isaiah, we hear God proclaim, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

So when the Angel gave the name “Jesus” to Mary’s baby, there must have been great excitement-- for the promised land was filled with enemies again. The Romans had occupied the land for more than a century. Just as Joshua had overcome overwhelming odds to defeat the great enemies long ago, so there may have been an expectation for Jesus to do the same.

But Jesus was not like Joshua in that way. Joshua represented the ability of God to crush and to destroy. Jesus represents everything wonderful about God. And God’s ways are not like human ways-- because the human way is shaped by the power of sin. What we do is done as a consequence of sin. And what we CANNOT do is also a consequence of sin.

Years after the enemies of the Israelites had been destroyed, and Joshua had grown old, he gave one last great speech to the chosen people. He told them to put away their sinful past and to avoid the sinful ways of the surrounding communities. “Choose this day whom you will serve-- either the gods of your ancestors or the God of Israel. As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

And the people answered him, “We will serve the Lord.”

And Joshua said to them-- and this is very important-- he said to them, “You CANNOT serve the Lord, for the Lord is holy and a jealous God-- and HE WILL NOT FORGIVE YOUR TRESPASSES AND SINS.”

The people cannot serve God because they are not worthy. God will not forgive their sins.

And this is where we see that the power of Jesus is so much greater than that of his namesake.

In Luke, the angel appears to Mary and tells her to name him Jesus. But in Matthew, the name is given to Joseph, and here is what the angel says: “You are to name him ‘Jesus,’ for HE WILL SAVE HIS PEOPLE FROM THEIR SINS.”

Here is what is wonderful about Jesus-- he does for us what Joshua could never do. He defeats our greatest enemy-- sin. That is why we worship him-- because the love of Jesus is greater than the power of swords.

When Paul wrote to the church in Philippi, he spoke to them about why the name of Jesus is so wonderful.

“...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 the way of this world for knees to be bowed under pressure. This is not the way of God, and it is not the way of the new Joshua, Jesus.

With Joshua, a merciless slaughter forced his enemies to their knees in capitulation. They submitted to him in fear and humiliation.

With Jesus, knees bend in awe and wonder at the power of God’s love. God IS love-- and this fills us with wonder. For WE were the enemies of God-- and we were not slaughtered. We were redeemed. Because God loves us, OUR enemy became God’s enemy. And Jesus destroyed the power of sin.

What Jesus has done changes everything about us and this world in which we live.

“The year A.D. 2023” is what we call this new year. A.D. stands for “Ano Domini”-- “the year of our Lord.” This is the 2023thrd year under Jesus’ new rule (give or take a few years).

He brings us into the promised land of God’s household. By the shedding of his own blood instead of ours, you have been given a new name-- you are the beloved Child of God.

Because of Jesus, the God who’s name wasn’t even to be written, let alone spoken, is known to us by a new name: “Abba”-- literally, “Daddy”-- Our Father.

Because of Jesus, the way and the WORDS of Joshua will never apply again. God HAS forgiven your sins, and we ARE worthy to serve him. And the power of sin over us has forever been destroyed.

So— what is in a name?

My name is Philip— “Fond of Horses”— not really. I was named after a relative; that’s all. No real meaning there.

But in Taiwan I was given a Chinese name by Father Chen, the rector of the Episcopal Congregation where I served. My Chinese name is, “Shi Chuan Le” and it means, “Happy to Share Good News.” It is a name I am both proud of and afraid of. With a name like that people watched my every move. My name made me a living billboard for the Gospel. That’s a lot of pressure….. except that by God’s grace, I am made worthy to bear it. And so are you.

“St. Michael Lutheran Church.” Michael, the Arch Angel is the defender of the truth. His name literally means, “Who is Like God?”

With “human eyes” we like to picture Michael the way that Joshua would paint him: with a sword in his hand, ready to do battle. But here is Good News— The people of St. Michael Lutheran Church do not need to go to war to defend the truth. Rather, we can picture Michael in the light of God’s love poured out for us in Jesus. As my pastor once told me, “the truth is not afraid of freedom of thought.” The truth is the truth. Jesus does not need you to defend him. But the world DOES need you to reveal him. Instead of a sword, what the world needs from us are knees that bend to serve in love.

Shi Chuan Le is a good name for all of us: Messengers of the Good News of God’s love that saves us. Good News that comes to us in the name, “Jesus.”



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