What's in a Name? (Eve of Holy Name / New Year's Eve)
"What’s In A Name?"
Eve of the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus / New Year's Eve
December 31, 2019
Luke 2:15-21 (CEB)
15 When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16 They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.17 When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18 Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20 The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told. 21 When eight days had passed, Jesus’ parents circumcised him and gave him the name Jesus. This was the name given to him by the angel before he was conceived.
Philippians 2:5-11 (NRSV)
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.
Luke 2:21 says, "When eight days had passed, Jesus’ parents circumcised him and gave him the name Jesus. This was the name given to him by the angel before he was conceived." This is the occasion we are celebrating tonight. We gathered eight days ago on Christmas Eve to honor the birth of Jesus the Messiah. Tonight we prepare for the feast on January 1, The Holy Name of Jesus. It’s the holiday that commemorates the day when Mary and Joseph brought their child to be circumcised and have him his name: Jesus.
We are of course also here to usher in the New Year. In our civic calendars, January 1 is when we begin a new year. But it’s only fitting that we also have a church holiday on the same day that honors the wonderful and holy naming of Jesus.
So what’s in a name? Why do we call Jesus’ name Holy? Why is it his name at all? To answer those questions we’ll need to investigate a little deeper.
Was Jesus a family name? No, Jesus’ mother is named Mary. Her father was called Joachim by tradition. His adoptive father was named Joseph, and his father is named Heli according to Luke 3:23. All of these are traditional Hebrew names, the names of great characters from the Old Testament. But none of them is named Jesus.
Was Jesus a unique name? Was he the only little boy in Israel with that holy name? Actually, no.
Jesus was a very common name. I mean a really run of the mill Jewish name. See, Jesus is how we say this name in English after it has been translated a few times (through Greek and Latin). But in Hebrew, Jesus was pronounced Yehoshua, a name we would recognize as Joshua. That’s right. Jesus and Joshua are the same name! And Joshua, you might remember, was the name of Moses’ servant. In the Old Testament times when Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, and they wandered through the wilderness for forty years, Joshua was Moses’ right-hand man. And when they arrived at the Jordan River, ready to cross over into the Promised Land, Moses died. So Joshua led the Israelites into the Promised Land. He led Israel and its small militia to wage war with the Canaanites and take over the land that would come to be known as Israel.
Joshua/Jesus was considered a great warrior, a faithful servant of God, and a national hero. So lots of Jewish people named their children Yehoshua. It was like naming your kid John or Jordan or Jaiden. (There are multiple Jordan’s and Jaidens in our church alone.)
And, as a side note, even today, in many other Christian cultures, it’s common for people to name their children Jesus or Jesús or whatever. It’s really only in the English speaking world that Jesus is almost only used in religious contexts to talk about this Jesus.
So why would our Jesus have the same name as the biblical Joshua? And why would God want him to have that name? Luke reminds us in verse 21 that “This was the name given to him by the angel before he was conceived.”
And what reason does the angel give for the name Jesus? We actually have two different sources on this. The angel told one thing to Mary in Luke 1:31-33 another to Joseph in Matthew. Here we will focus on Matthew’s account:
“An angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins’” (Matthew 1:20b-21)
“You will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” This reason makes perfect sense once we understand what the name Jesus actually means. Jesus, or Yehoshua in Hebrew, means “YHWH saves.” YHWH is the sacred, unspeakable Name of God that is revealed to Moses in front of the burning bush. Our English translations usually render it as “the LORD” in all caps. But it is the Name that God chooses for Godself to distinguish this God from all the other gods and idols that people worship. YHWH God is the God of Israel, the God of the Bible, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and indeed the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Our Savior’s Name is Jesus, YHWH saves. From the beginning, his whole identity on earth, his mission, his whole reason for existing is salvation. God became flesh in the person of Jesus in order to save us from sin and death. Jesus saves.
So when we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus on this night, we are celebrating the whole story of God’s salvation, beginning with Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, the judges and kings, and all the prophets. That story continues with a God who saw the sorry state of the world, humanity destroying itself with sin, and wept with us, having compassion on us who could not save ourselves. So this God sent a Savior and called him YHWH Saves, I save, Jesus. This Jesus was The Loving God who created the world and reached out to Israel. But this Jesus arrived in lowliness and meekness, as a little baby born under scandalous circumstances. This Jesus grew up in wisdom and stature and taught with authority and power that exceeded every other religious leader. He taught the way of love to crowds of the poor and needy. He offended the rich and powerful by calling them to do right by everyone else. And they killed him for it. They laid the blame on him, and it turned out he took on the blame for all the sin of the world. Jesus, YHWH Saves, was crucified, died and was buried. Jesus, YHWH Saves, descended to the realm of the dead and destroyed the powers of death. On the third day he proved this by rising from death back to life; Jesus, YHWH Saves, is risen. And this Jesus, YHWH Saves ascended into heaven and promised to come again. We thank and praise God for the Holy Name of our Holy Savior, Jesus. What a wonderful Name it is.
As we enter the new year and new decade of 2020, many people make New Year’s Resolutions. I pray that our resolution at St. Matthew’s is to get to know Jesus better. Get to know his name better. Get to know his story better. Make a resolution to share the story of Jesus, the Good News of Jesus, the saving power of Jesus. Make a resolution to tell people you know, the people who are hurting and need to hear it, that YHWH Saves, and his Name is Jesus. Amen.