Name of Jesus
January 1, 2017
Luke 2: 8-21
“What’s in name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet….” so says Romeo Monatgue. He’s trying to make the case that being in love with the daughter of his family’s sworn enemies should not be forbidden. The name of Montague or Capulet are not what defines these young people, he argues, but rather their existence as people who find much to love about each other. Well and good, Romeo, but what you’ve forgotten is that the name “rose” summons up so much that calling it by another name diminishes the power of those connections to that flower’s spectacular beauty and aroma.
Names are so powerful. In medieval and magical fiction, characters often keep their true names hidden, because to know the name of something is to own its power. The names of Jesus are no different. The stories we’ve been reading about the birth of Jesus keep summoning up the names used by the prophets, “Emmanuel, Prince of Peace,” and even this morning’s reading of the proclamation of the angels spins out a whole lot of names, “Savior, Messiah, LORD.” This is the only place in the New Testament where all of these titles appear together. Each of them has a meaning to the shepherds who hear them and to the people who will read this text when it was written later in the First Century. So, Justo Gonzales in his commentary on Luke, points this out and takes us on a little journey through this exceptional announcement and its meaning.
“Savior” was not an uncommon title in the ancient world. “Soter” is the title Savior that Luke’s Greek version of the Hebrew Bible used. It refers both to God and to the special people God sends to liberate God’s people. It is both a theological title and a political one, as the people who bear this name liberate God’s people politically so that they can serve and obey only God. But it is also a title claimed by political leaders of the time who claimed special powers over their subjects. Antiochus I Soter was a ruler of ancient Syria, and Ptolemy I Soter was a ruler of Egypt. So assigning the title of Savior to Jesus declares that he will free his people from bondage to their sins and to their oppressors.
“Messiah” is a Hebrew title. Its Greek equivalent is “Christ.” It means “anointed.” In ancient days, kings and priests were anointed as a sign of God’s approval and their authority. Things had gotten so bad in Israel that by the time of Jesus, the expectation was that God’s final “Messiah” would bring in the reign of God to look something like the reign of David, the last time they were powerful and at peace. So, by claiming this name for Jesus, Luke is claiming that he would bring in the blessings of peace and justice made all the way back to Abraham about his descendants.
But the kicker is the title “LORD.” Lord is the word which the Hebrew Bible uses to indicate the unspoken name of God YHWH, a name so holy that mortals could not use it. In using this name, Luke indicates that this Savior, this Messiah is not just one more in a long line of liberators and anointed leaders, this one is truly God’s own self, dwelling among us. Luke will go on to elaborate on what it means that Jesus is truly “the LORD,“ but here in the very first story about him, this is the claim we hear.
Mary’s reaction to the astonishing events of the night – the birth and the shepherds’ words that indicated to them that this was the Savior for which their people had been waiting so long goes right to my heart. She treasures them, and ponders them deeply. When I learned to meditate on Scripture, this phrase was my guide to letting the words fall into my own life in a way that would open my heart to God’s presence in them for me. We ponder when we can’t take it all in at once and need time to touch our experience again and process all that has suddenly changed for us.
The final piece we hear in our reading today is the actual naming of this baby. As all obedient Jews, Mary and Joseph bring him to the temple to be circumcised and named. They gave him the name which the angel gave to them, “Jesus.” The root of this name is the same as the name “Joshua,” and means ‘rescuer’ or ‘one who saves.’ His name is his title, “Savior.” The final piece of this birth story, according to Luke is that he joins his people by tradition, that he is named for the work for which he came, and that he is blessed by his people for the work ahead of him.
On this auspicious day, the first day of this new year, I’d like to invite you to join in a little naming and blessing, too. Please turn to someone near you, make the mark of the cross on their hands or their forehead, say their name, and offer them a blessing for the coming year. It can be as simple as ‘bless the work of your hands,” or “blessings for the year ahead,” or something more specific. Once you are named and blessed, it’s your turn to name and bless your partner…….
May this blessing remain deep in your heart as you go forward into this year, reminding you that you are called to be part of God’s family, here in this place and in the world, that you are never apart from God’s presence in your work and your life, and that you are blessed to be a blessing. Amen.