A God By Any Other Name (August 19, 2018)
Matthew 1: 18-25
A God By Any Other Name
So I want to thank you all for being here and giving me a chance with this. The Christmas in July and Christmas in August idea began just as a thing that we could do to break up the monotony of Ordinary Time, something we could do with the “dog days of August” just to spruce things up a little bit. I was kind of playing into the joke of “It’s July 5; it’s Christmas season!” But then, as it got closer, I begin to see Hobby Lobby put up the Christmas stuff again, to see Hallmark rollout there a Christmas ornament set that is hanging as of August 1, and Wal-Mart is beginning to put up some Christmas things. You certainly have the feeling around us right now that Christmas is beginning to invade the rest of the year. And you look at Hallmark, and you look at Wal-Mart, and you look at Hobby Lobby, and you begin to say, “stay in your season! We give you a whole month; stay there. At least wait until after Halloween before the Christmas stuff shows up.” Maybe you understand that feeling. Maybe you’re screaming that feeling at the pastor right now. We don’t want Christmas to be here.
And yet, this is a timeless story that is foundational to the Christian belief. This is a story that we’re supposed to be shouting from the rooftops. That famous song who’s chorus we sing, “go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere;” that chorus is a Christmas song: “go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born!”
Perhaps we have this desire for Christmas to stay where it is because over the years we’ve lost what Christmas is really supposed to be about. What the story of Christmas is really saying has gotten lost in the presents, and the charity events, and the wreaths, and the garlands, and the family events that require such organization. And of course the Christmas songs that litter our radios to take over the popular music stations, the Coca-Cola adds with the polar bears. And everything all gets mixed in together and called Christmas; and we don’t want that to be the rest of the year. We can afford to max out our credit cards to give Christmas gifts only one time a year. Pastor, don’t make us do it in August.
I want to reassure you that I am not going to ask you to have to give any gift to anyone else. I am not going to ask you to give to a special charity. I’m not going to ask you to give it anything beyond the normal stuff for August. At least not today. Because that’s not what Christmas is about. Christmas is not about what you give; Christmas is about what God gave to us.
What God gave to us is right here in this passage. In Luke, Mary takes center stage and the angel speaks to Mary and Elizabeth: the females take center stage in Luke. But in Matthew, it is Joseph that takes center stage, and the angel speaks to Joseph. The most important line in this scripture is when the angel tells Joseph, “you shall call him Jesus.” The angel names the baby.
Names have meaning. This is especially true in Scripture, but I believe it is true here in 2018. I believe that what you choose to name a baby actually does influence their whole life. I believe that if they continue to be called a name, that has power over who they to begin to believe themselves to be. For instance the name of Michael is Hebrew, it means “who is like God?” (I like to point out there’s no punctuation in Hebrew so that could be a question mark or a period). But I think that has influenced my life; that being told every day to remember the question of who is like God has brought about an inspiration and wonder in my life that has led me to here as a pastor. I wonder if there are a few other Michael’s in the world who have heard a period at the end of that sentence and believe in themselves to be like God.
I believe this thoroughly. And when we named our son, I advocated for the name Caleb. Caleb is named after the biblical character of Caleb in the hopes that he would develop the faith that Caleb had. Caleb was one of the 12 men that got sent into the promised land and saw that the land was good: it helped it’s inhabitants to grow really big and gave the people fortifications that were really tall and really wide. And the group comes back and 10 of them say “it’s a great land, but the people are too strong, and the fortifications too big. We cannot defeat them. We need to just settle where we are.” But two of those men said, “yeah, the people are really strong and the fortifications are really big, but we have God on our side so who are they?” One of those was Caleb. And it is in the hope of developing that level of faith in God, and that level of confidence, and that level of coverage, that we named our son Caleb.
The other one of those men was named Joshua, which is Yeshuain the Hebrew, or Jesus in Greek. Joshua would ultimately take over for Moses, and he would lead the people into the Promised Land and on the conquest of Canaan. There was another Joshua in Scripture, at least in Catholic scriptures, who is Joshua Maccabee, or Jesus Maccabee. And he would lead the people in a successful revolt against Greece in about 200 BC, that would lead to 100 years of an independent Israel before the Romans came.
Jesus is a savior’s name. Remember that the author of this book lives in a post-Easter world, and that view of the story knowing what would happen colors how he tells the Christmas story. The author takes time to point out that Jesus means something about salvation. He says that Jesus is going to be named Jesus “because he will save [Israel] from their sins.” Jesus was a savior’s name.
Jesus was also a popular name for the time. Parents would name their children Jesus, which means “God saves” or “God helps,” in the hopes that God would save the people, or help the people. Those who were attempting to take on the mantle of Messiah and overthrow of the Romans would take on the name of Jesus, just like Maccabee so many years earlier. One of these men makes Scripture, in the Gospel of Matthew at least. We are told that Pilate offers to the people to release either Jesus of Nazareth or Jesus called Barabbas. “Which Savior do you want?” Last Easter I said that Pilate was offering that question: which savior do you want? The one that will save you with the cross or the one that will save you with the sword. They had before them two saviors. By naming this child Jesus the angel is saying he will be a savior.
But Jesus was a popular name. Jesus would have appeared on the first century Coke bottle if they had existed. Jesus appears on a Coke bottle now. So does Joshua. But this name was not only a declaration that Jesus would save the people from their sins, but that Jesus was one of us.
There is another name that is given to Jesus in the course of this scripture. That name is Emanuel. And again the author of Matthew takes time to point out what that name means; it means “God with us” or “God is with us.” He actually pointed that out in the Jesus line too. I had paraphrased it earlier, but the real line was that “he should be called Jesus for he shall save hispeople from their sins.” Not God’s people, not the people, but he shall save hispeople. Jesus is God, come to be one of us.
And this is important. One of the moments in my faith that I think was not intended to go this way but did anyway, is from listening to an Eagles song call “Learn to be Still.” The second verse of that song goes like this:
“We are like sheep without a shepherd
We don’t know how to be alone
So we wander around this desert
And wind up following the wrong gods home.”
Side note: does that not sound like your life?
“But the flock cries out for another
And they keep answering that bell
And one more starry-eyed messiah
Meets a violent farewell.
Learn to be still”
This was the story of Jesus Barabbas, who was yet another starry-eyed Messiah that would’ve answered the call of the flock and is to be meeting a violent farewell at the hands of the Romans. Jesus of Nazareth could be yet another. But we say that this was not just another starry-eyed Messiah who meets a violent farewell; this was God with us. That in this death, and in this Resurrection, God saved us. This was God with us who had died. God did not send a savior to save us; God was the savior. God did not send a stand in, God himself died for us. And we know this because all the way back in chapter 1 it said this was “God with us…who would save hispeople.”
And every December in the Christian faith we remember that because God has come to be with us, that means something. We believe that when God comes to us, God brings some things into our lives. Every December we light the candles on this wreath, and we say what they mean: we have hope, and peace, and love, and joy; that because God has come to us in this baby, that those things come into the world. Because of Jesus there is hope for the hopeless, peace for the restless, joy for the joyless, and love for the unlovable.
That sounds wonderful doesn’t it? That qualifies as good news. But are you feeling it? Do you feel hope, and love, and joy, and peace in your every day life, now on August 19? Do you even feel it in December? We claim the radical claim Jesus brings that when he comes into the world. And not just for 1/12 of the year; not just for when the vestments turn purple. Jesus brings that for the entire year. Maybe the problem we have with Christmas is not the Christmas is trying to invade the other 11 months of the year, but that it’s only gotten to August when in reality Christmas should have invaded the entire year. Christmas, the true purpose of Christmas, should be something we remember every single day.
If there’s one thing I have learned in my meager 31 years of life it is that you’re not going to stop the corporate America from moving Christmas further and further up. You’re not going to stop the slow creep of Santa Claus coming into our lives. So what I want you to do is to change your mindset this year. This year when you see the Christmas stuff show up in the stores, as it already is, every time you see that I want you to stop and to give a quick “thank you” to God for Jesus, and a quick “thank you” to God for hope, and peace, and love, and joy. And don’t worry if you can’t remember all four of those, sometimes I can’t remember all four of those. Whatever one you are remembering is probably the one God wants you to be focusing on in that moment anyway. Just stop and give a quick thank you for Jesus; for the joy he brings, for the love he makes you feel. If you do that then I believe every day of the next year, but certainly by the time Christmas actually rolls around, you will truly be experiencing God with you, who will be your savior. Let that be so. Amen.