A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, December 25, 2011
What’s in a name? as they say. Well, a whole lot when you stop to think about it. For a name sticks with a child his or her whole life long, for good or for ill. Our name impacts us all of our lives, and we have no control over it. The late Johnny Cash sang a song about “A Boy Named Sue.” Now, the name “Sue” is a good name. We have some wonderful Sues in this congregation. It’s a beautiful name. But maybe not the best name for a boy. The ballad told of all the troubles the young man had because of his feminine name. You wonder sometimes what parents are thinking when they give their children such odd names that are sure to cause them problems.
And then the flip side of the issue is the fact that other parents go to great lengths to choose just the right name so that the child’s life will be blessed. When it comes to choosing a name for their child, some parents-to-be agonize over the name for weeks, or for months even. This point was driven home to me yet again a few weeks ago by an article in USA Today titled “What’s in a name choice? Major pressure” (Dec. 1, 2011). The article noted that some parents spend a lot of time googling possible names to make sure a name they have chosen does not match some serial killer somewhere. The article also listed the top boy names and top girl names for the year. Are you interested in hearing the top baby names for 2011? The top five girl names of the year are Sophia, Emma, Isabella, Olivia, and Ava. The top five boy names are Aiden, Jackson, Mason, Liam, and Jacob.
Yes, what a privilege it is, and what an awesome responsibility, to name a child. So it was with our good friends Mike and Sherri, co-pastors of a church in NY. After finally being able to conceive, they agonized for months over what they would name their child. In a two-page announcement that they mailed to friends and family following the birth of their first baby, a boy, Mike and Sherri explained the choice of the name they had chosen. They explained that as pastors they felt it was their duty to give their child a name with a positive meaning and a name that had positive associations. They wanted a Hebrew name. After long consideration, they settled on the name “Samuel.” Samuel means, “the Lord has heard.” You may remember that Samuel was one of the ancient Hebrew prophets and judges. Like Hannah, Samuel’s mother who had been barren and who prayed for a son and felt that God had heard her prayer, Mike and Sherri felt that God had heard their prayer and that their son’s conception and birth was a miraculous gift. But there is more to the story. Years ago, when Mike and Sherri first started dating, they attended an international missions conference. As they walked and talked together, the first five people they met were named Samuel. They started making jokes that when they got married, they would have to name their firstborn Samuel. As it came time for them to actually name their child, they said goodbye to a dear friend named Samuel. And then they realized that they had never met a Samuel they did not like. And so, Mike and Sherri believed that all the signs pointed to the fact that Samuel was to be the child’s name. And so it was.
The Bible in general, and Matthew in particular, invests great power in the act of naming. The Hebrews often chose names for their children based on the child’s character or appearance, or the circumstances surrounding the conception or the birth. The naming of Mary’s baby is an important part of the gospel reading for the day. But as Matthew tells the story, Mary and Joseph didn’t have to agonize over what to name their baby. According to the story, before the baby was born an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him what the name of the child should be. “You are to name him Jesus,” the angel is reported to have said. Jesus—not an unfamiliar or unusual name of the day. On the contrary, Jesus was a very common name; it was the Bob or the Bill or the Jim of first-century Palestine. Josephus, the famed Jewish historian of the day, mentions no fewer than 20 different men named Jesus. So in receiving a name common to that time and place, Jesus identified with the common people of the world. To distinguish him from other boys named Jesus at the time he would be referred to as Jesus of Nazareth, or Jesus the Son of Joseph, or Jesus the Son of Mary.
But while Jesus was a common name, it was not a name void of meaning and power. The importance that Matthew attaches to the name Jesus is attested by the fact that he mentions the name Jesus well over 150 times in his gospel. Jesus, or Yeshua in the Hebrew form, means “God is salvation” or “God saves.” As Matthew saw it, his name was to be his destiny—to save his people. His name would be a constant reminder of the grace of God at work in his life and in the world. As one who would save, Jesus would point toward the grace of God and show how to embrace life abundant, and how to be spared an aimless, self-centered, hopeless life.
But then Matthew took it upon himself to give Jesus a second name, a symbolic name or nickname, if you will. “They shall call him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” Matthew, of course, based the name Emmanuel upon that passage of scripture in Isaiah 7:14 where the birth of one who would be called “Emmanuel” was predicted. “God is with us” is a message the world needed to hear 2,000 years ago. And it is a message we need to hear today. Our world is filled with trouble and violence. The problems and stress of living press down upon us until sometimes we think we will be crushed. The ever-present hope of humanity is that we are not left alone in a dark world. But rather, that there is a loving, caring God who is ever-present with us to help us along the way. Such was the early church’s experience of Jesus, one in whom they experienced “God with us.” In fact, Emmanuel, or God with us, frames the entire gospel of Matthew. It tells the story of what God is about. Matthew’s gospel begins with a baby who is Emmanuel, God with us. In the life and teachings of Jesus, as recounted in Matthew’s gospel, people encounter God and experience God’s grace and loving, healing presence. Then Matthew’s gospel ends with that same child (now crucified and resurrected) promising he will always be with us. “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” are Jesus’ final words as Matthew closes his gospel.
And so, these two names—Jesus and Emmanuel—would say a lot, not only about the child born to Mary and Joseph, but also about the nature of God. Jesus revealed a God of love and a God who is with us in our daily struggles. That’s the good news of Christmas. If we miss out on that, then we have totally missed out on the message of Matthew’s gospel and what Matthew believed the birth of Jesus was all about.
I love that great African American hymn that says,
“Mary, Mary had a little baby, uh-huh, a pretty little baby,
Yes, pretty little baby, glory be to the newborn King!
Oh, Mary, what you gonna name that pretty little baby,
Pretty little baby, pretty little baby?
What you gonna name that pretty little baby?
Glory be to the newborn King.
Some call Him Emmanuel, think I’ll call Him Jesus!
Uh-huh, yes, think I’ll call him Jesus,
Yes, pretty little Jesus,
Glory be to the newborn King!” Amen.