Sunday, January 1, 2012

Name of Jesus or First Christmas
Numbers 6:22-27
Psalm 8
Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11
Luke 2:15-21
Isaiah 61:10-62:3
Psalm 148
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

And his father and his mother were marvelling at the things which were spoken concerning him.

When I was pregnant with Victoria, I was absolutely certain that she was a boy. Bruce and I had decided that he would name the boy and I would name the girl. Since I believed that I was carrying a boy, I didn't think I needed to worry about coming up with a name. About a week before she was born, Bruce said, “Honey, this really might be a girl. You should have a name prepared just in case.” I said, “Fine” and blurted out “Victoria.” Even though I had not spent much time thinking about it, I had been through all the books and for some reason that name was on the tip of my tongue. I don’t regret the decision and I don’t think Victoria minds, either. Though we have used the nickname “Vicki” over the years, as an adult she has generally referred to herself as Victoria.

There was nothing particularly special about the way we chose our kids’ names or the way we gave them their names. We didn’t go through a ritual or wait a period of time. We picked a name, wrote it on the paper and began calling them by those names immediately. We may have solemnly announcer their names to those who were nearby, and we sent notices to our friends and family announcing their births, but we didn’t follow any age old traditions in choosing or giving their names, as happens in many societies.

Some traditions use family names, especially those of deceased loved ones to keep their memory alive through the generations. Others honor the living by naming children after grandparents. Many cultures wait a few days to have a naming ceremony, often at seven days, with special food and rituals. In China, they have eggs died red to symbolize new life and good luck. Other traditions use rice and saffron in the ceremony. Some traditions use fake names in the beginning, to ward off or fool evil spirits. In some places the baby’s name is given when he or she is thought to be able to hear, and it is whispered in their ear first. Some families provide a sacrifice as an offering of thankfulness for the baby. In one Native American culture, the baby sleeps with an ear of corn for a month and then the corn is rubbed on its skin while the baby is faced toward the rising sun and is named at the moment the first rays hit.

Some of the rituals and traditions sound so odd to us because we are used to naming our children whatever we want. We go through baby books and listen to trends; we make up our own names, using creative juxtapositions of letters from other names or words. Some celebrities have become infamous for their odd use of words as names for their children. In some societies, however, the parents did not even have a choice. The names are given by elders or masters. In others, the expectation is to give names that will help the child rise in stature or succeed in their world. Names mean something, which is why we go to so much trouble giving our children the right name.

January 1st is the day we celebrate the naming of Jesus. As a young Jewish boy, Jesus would have been dedicated to the Lord on the eighth day, circumcised according to the traditions of the Jews. According to Luke 2:21 He was named Jesus that day; He was given the name that had been told to Mary and Joseph before He was born.

The Gospel lesson shows how Mary and Joseph followed all the traditions according to the Law of Moses. Forty days after Jesus was born Mary had to go to the Temple to be purified. They offered the proper sacrifices, but the visit was something special; it was the fulfillment of more promises. While at the Temple, Mary, Joseph and Jesus met two people who were awaiting the arrival of the Messiah. They knew, without a doubt, that they had seen Him in flesh. Simeon, an old man who was righteous and devout, was promised by the Holy Spirit that he would see the Messiah before he died. The moment he saw Jesus, Simeon cried, “Now lettest thou thy servant depart, Lord, According to thy word, in peace; For mine eyes have seen thy salvation, Which thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples; A light for revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of thy people Israel.”

What a marvelous promise fulfilled in a baby! And yet, we are reminded that with the promise of salvation came great pain and suffering. Simeon blessed the family, but turned to Mary and told her the truth. “Your soul will be pierced.” Salvation would come at a price, and Mary among all people would feel the pain in a very real way.

The other person that Mary, Joseph and Jesus met was a woman, a prophet, who was aged and had been living in the Temple for many years. She worshipped, fasted and prayed constantly. At the moment Anna saw Jesus, she knew that God’s promises were fulfilled in Him. She began to praise God and tell everyone that the Redeemer they were waiting for had arrived. Isn’t it amazing that these two people, Simeon and Anna, seemed to live to an old age for one very specific purpose: to praise God for Jesus.

I think the most interesting verse in the Gospel lesson for First Christmas is verse 33. “And his father and his mother were marvelling at the things which were spoken concerning him.” They marveled? They were amazed? I suppose that could be true, but I have to wonder what it means that they were amazed? Was it surprising to hear these things about their son? How could that be? After all, they both were met by angels who told them all these things. They knew going into this parenthood that Jesus was special. They knew He came from God. They knew He was the promised one. How could they be amazed by the words of Simeon and Anna?

I think what this says to me is that even Mary and Joseph continued to be amazed at what was happening to them. Even though they had knowledge about Jesus and His future, they continued to experience the faithfulness of God in new, miraculous ways. Perhaps we can read this story about Mary and Joseph and realize that no matter how well we know God and understand the scriptures, we should still view God as surprising every day.

We often study the scriptures from a very intellectual point of view. While it is good to know and understand the history and language behind the passages, we let it become something rational and scholarly. We look at the text from a point of view that lifts facts above faith. When we see what we think are inconsistencies, we question the entire text. Take, for instance, the final verses of our text has Mary and Joseph returning to Nazareth when Jesus was still a baby, right after their trip to Jerusalem. Yet, Matthew tells us that the wise men visited Jesus in Bethlehem and then the family fled to Egypt. Intellectually this makes the whole story difficult to believe. Yet, there is no reason to doubt the reality of God’s presence in the world based on two different stories without clear timelines. We can believe even if we can’t come up with a day to day lifeline for Jesus. We can still be amazed by the stories our neighbors tell us about Jesus.

Why should we be so concerned about the name of Jesus? By any other name, Jesus would still have been the salvation, the redemption, the promised child of God. God is given dozens of names in the scriptures: Creator, Almighty God, Father, the Lord our Righteousness, “I AM.” Jesus is identified by certain names : the Light of the World, Savior, Redeemer, the Son of God. Even the Holy Spirit has a special name: Counselor.

In the Psalm 8, God’s name is exalted. “O Jehovah, our Lord, How excellent is thy name in all the earth, Who hast set thy glory upon the heavens!” The Psalmist goes on to prophesy about Jesus. “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, The moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? And the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him but little lower than God, and crownest him with glory and honor.” God's name is excellent, but the day would come when a new name would bring salvation. It is not the name of another god, but a new name for God: God in flesh, Immanuel. That is why the name of Jesus is important: Jesus means Savior.

Paul writes to the Philippians that the name of Jesus is the name above all other names, that at His name every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. It is His name we take when we are baptized, we become Christians by faith. His name is written on our hearts and on our heads. In His name we are adopted and made heirs of the Kingdom of God. And then as Christians we bear His name into all the world that all those who hear might be blessed and become heirs with us to the promises of God.

In the Old Testament lesson from Numbers, God established a naming ceremony for the people to become His people. They became part of Israel through a blessing; God’s name was spoken over them. “Jehovah bless thee, and keep thee: Jehovah make his face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: Jehovah lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. So shall they put my name upon the children of Israel; and I will bless them.” They are blessed by the name of Jehovah. The name they received was “Child of God.”

The world is going to question the words we speak. They are going to think intellectually about the facts of Jesus’ birth, life and death. They will see the differences in the stories and doubt whether there is anything to believe. We, however, are called to be like Simeon and Anna. We’ve been created with one sole purpose: to praise God for Jesus. Oh, we have other work to do. We are called to live our gifts and share the Gospel. We are called to be disciples and to share our resources with our neighbors. We are called to be just and generous and faithful. We are called to live as Christ in this world and to invite others into His presence.

It doesn’t matter what the world thinks. The speaker in Isaiah rejoiced in the promises of God even as God’s people were waiting to be restored to Jerusalem. Salvation was assured because God is faithful. The same continues to be sure for us. In the name of Jesus, we are assured salvation even as we wait for the day when everything will be fulfilled. God is worthy to be praised, and our words of praise will reveal God’s magnificent work to the world. By them, they will see that God has vindicated His people, they will see the glory of God and know that we are called by a new name: “Child of God.”

There is now and will always be something to marvel about when it comes to God. Though we know Him and we know the Salvation He has promised, He continues to surprise us daily with new glimpses of His glory. Though we know He loves us and that He has guaranteed forgiveness for those who believe, He surprises us with moments of grace.

Our names mean something, but even more importantly, Jesus’ name means something. However we come by our name, whether we keep it the same throughout our life or change it for some reason, the name that really matters is the one that we are given by our God. He has promised that by the name of Jesus we will be saved. With faith and joy, we can go about the world telling our story to our neighbors, glorifying God by sharing His grace so that others will hear and be transformed by the blessing of His Word, so that they too may be called “Child of God.”

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