January 1, 2012


             Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith 
 at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 1 January 2012
                                                                                Reading for the Epistle: Philippians 2: 5-11
                                                                                Reading from the Gospel:      Luke 2: 15-21 

On the west wall of our Lady Chapel hangs a banner with the many titles given over the centuries to the Babe of Bethlehem, who, if we follow the Gospel according to Luke, received his name today in the course of the ritual of Circumcision, which Jewish and Muslim males are impelled to undergo.  Indeed, this day used to be called the Feast of the Circumcision and preachers would focus on how Jesus was forced to shed his blood at both the beginning of his life on Earth and at the end of it.  But with the revisions to the Book of Common Prayer in the 1970s the focus has shifted to the Naming of Jesus rather than his Circumcision. 

Yet, as the old saying has it, what’s in a name?  Given the names that we see in our newspapers or hear on newscasts on radio and television, it might be a fair question to ask what parents were thinking about when they gave their children the names that they did.  What was in the mind of the mother who called her son Leviticus, the name of a recent escapee from the prison in Indian River County?  Certainly that young man did not live up to the implications of his name!  Folk have often given their children names out of the Bible, but Leviticus is more than a little odd.  I like the story, and I hope that it is not apocryphal, of the mother who called her son Likewise After, to commemorate the man who took the cup at the Last Supper and brought it to Jesus.  You know the verse in the Kings James’ Version about Likewise After and how he took a cup!

In the past I have suggested that you might like to look up the names that you were given and find out their meaning.  My mother gave me a pair of names indicating that I am an herb-eating lion!  What does your name mean?  And where did your mother get your names from?  Mine came from the first names of my grandfathers, and there are times that I wish she had used their second names, especially when I am trying to order books in the United Kingdom!  But naming sons for grandfathers and daughters for grandmothers is a practice that is found in many cultures, European, Asian and African.

So what about the baby whose naming we celebrate today?  Where did his name come from?  What is the meaning of his name?  But before we consider those questions, perhaps we should think about the meaning of the word, “name”, itself.  Obviously we use it as a means of identification.  And we do not do so just to identify an individual, but to identify his or her position.  

Here in the United States we are about to witness the quadrennial nomination of candidates for the presidency.  In due course someone will be named the candidate of the Republican Party and we are going to spend the next several months watching members of the Republican Party argue over the candidate’s name, even more than family members argue over the name to be given to a newborn child.  But we also witness each year the naming of the MVP in various sports and at all levels.  So “name” can also mean “title”, and we see this usage so often in academia and the Church when so-and-so is named the Professor of this or the Bishop of that or the Dean of the other.  We also see the word used in the world of diplomacy when a person is named to be Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of one country to another.  In this case a person is seen to be the representative of his or her country, with full authority to act on behalf of the interests of that country and its citizens. 

Are these elements, or some of them, to be seen in the name given to the Babe of Bethlehem?  He was certainly named Rabbuni, My Teacher, by Mary Magdalene in the Garden of the Resurrection.  And in the First Epistle General ascribed to Peter he is described as Shepherd and Bishop of our souls.  And since Dean is simply an Anglicization of the Greek word, diakonos, meaning “Servant”, and Jesus calls himself a servant, then certainly among the titles he was given we see some of these elements.  But let us look at those names, and not just at the one that he was given on the eighth day of his life but during the whole pre-natal process.  If we follow the account in Matthew, we discover that there are three names, or perhaps one name and two titles, or two names and one title. 

In chapter 1: 1, and again in chapter 1: 18, the child is called Jesus Christ.  Now if you struggle through all those “begats” between verses 1 and 18 you will see that there is not one of his ancestors named Jesus.  There is a Jesse and a Josiah (or Josias), but no Jesus.  This should be the cause of a red flag or the ringing of a bell.  Might Jesus be a title rather than a name?  What does the word Jesus mean?  Now we must admit that the word Jesus is an Anglicization of the Greek word Yeshua, which is a Hellenization of the Aramaic word Jeshua which is the same as the name, Joshua, in Hebrew.  Oh, and there is no Joshua in the genealogy in Matthew 1!  Joshua means “saviour” and so Jesus means “Saviour”.  In verses 1 and 18 is Matthew using the word as part of a title?  In both cases the word, “Jesus”, is immediately followed by the word “Christ”, which is the Anglicization of the Greek word Χριστος (Christos), which translates the Hebrew term, Messiah, meaning “anointed”. 

So in verses 1 and 18 it is legitimate to read “anointed saviour”, seeing the two words as part of a title rather than just a given name.  Oddly enough this is precisely how the angel is said to describe the Babe of Bethlehem in the story in Luke 2: 11, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ, the Lord”, or “anointed saviour”.  The evangelist Luke wrote in Greek for his Greek readers, but the angel would have spoken in the language of the shepherds, presumably Aramaic or Hebrew, and so it would have been something like, Joshua Messiah, or Jeshua Messiah. 

But let us go back to Matthew 1.  The next mention of a name for the Babe comes in verse 21 and here the words are, “Thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.”  Joseph would have dreamed in his native language, as we all do, and so he would have heard something, which when translated, could have been, “You shall call him Saviour, for he will save his people from their sins.”  And then, when the baby is born, Joseph named him JESUS, as we see in verse 25.

But wait a minute!  There is another name in this first chapter of Matthew, for the angel quotes from Isaiah 7, verse 14.  Matthew writes it in Greek, we have it translated into English from the Greek, so that it is just a tad different from the English translation of the Hebrew of Isaiah, but the gist is the same, even though the Greeks did not have a term to express exactly what Isaiah wrote in Hebrew about a certain young woman.  But whether we read Isaiah 7: 14 or Matthew 1: 23, this time the babe is to be called Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, “God is with us”.  Is Matthew merely quoting Isaiah 7: 14 in extenso, or was the name of the Babe of Bethlehem meant to be Emmanuel? 

Jesus is never referred to as Emmanuel again in any of the New Testament writings, but in the very last verse of his Gospel, chapter 28, verse 20, Matthew has Jesus say to his eleven disciples on the mountain in Galilee from which Matthew has Jesus ascend, “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”  And he has Jesus affirm this with his final word, “Amen”.  So the notion of God being with us, Emmanuel, does recur in Matthew’s version of the life and ministry of Jesus. 

Now if Jesus is never referred to again as Emmanuel, what about the name or title of Saviour, Jesus.  Although the evangelists all use the term, no relative or close associate of Jesus ever refers to him to his face by that name.  In the two major instances recorded in the Gospels where there is direct contact between them, Mary, his mother, never calls him by that name.  In Luke 2: 41-51, when the Holy Family goes to the Temple at Jerusalem for the Feast of the Passover and he stays behind, the only time the word, Jesus, appears is in verse 43 when Luke tells us that “Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem.”  The name appears nowhere else in the story in these verses.  Even when Joseph and Mary find him in the Temple three days later, his mother does not call him by name but addresses him as, “Son”.  In the other instance, the marriage at Cana as recorded in John 3: 1-11, although the word, Jesus, occurs in the narrative passages, it never is put on the lips of Mary.  Indeed, she only says four words, at least in the English text, “They have no wine!”

Elsewhere in the Gospels several people refer to him by the word, be it name or title, Jesus.  And we have read those stories, or have had them read to us, so often that we may miss the significance of this detail.  It is those who need his help or who do not want to admit that they need his help that refer to him as Jesus.  Is that not significant?  Let me make a suggestion here.  Perhaps we have become too familiar, too “palsy-walsy” with him, and we drop his name from our lips in far too casual a manner.  Perhaps Paul has it completely correct when he writes to the Philippians, in chapter 2, verse 10 of his letter, “That at the Name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in Heaven, and things in Earth, and things under the Earth.” 

Now far be it from me to advocate genuflection, bending the knee, as a kind of routine dip every time the word Jesus is mentioned.  Yet we really do need to take to heart very seriously who this Babe of Bethlehem really is.  He is not just some little doll-like figure, or a goo-goo-ga-ga image as shown in so many greetings cards at this season of the year.  No.  This is Jesus Christ, the Anointed Saviour, who has come into this sinful and sin-filled world with extraordinary and plenipotentiary power and authority to overcome Sin in all our lives, the lives of us who are citizens of another realm, the Kingdom of Heaven.  He might call me his friend, as he did his disciples in John 15: 14 as he walked with them from Bethany to Jerusalem on the night that he was to be betrayed.  He might call me his friend, but he is not my chum. 

In the world of the Bible, it is anointed ones, kings, who choose to call ordinary people their friends, not the other way around.  It is a recognition by the King of one who is a loyal and trusted supporter.  It is a title that carries with it the responsibility and the honour of doing things in the way that the anointed one, the Messiah, the Christ, directs.  Should we have the nerve, the gall, to call this Babe of Bethlehem “Jesus Christ”, we better be prepared to follow him wherever he leads us, if only to assure ourselves that he is Emmanuel, the one who is with us, even to the conclusion of all things in the way in which he intends to conclude them.