Sunday, December 23, 2007

Names Come First

Names Come First

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© copyright 2007 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Matthew 1:18-25
Fourth Sunday of Advent: December 23, 2007

Something I notice about Matthew’s description of the arrangements surrounding the birth of Jesus is the way it differs from Luke’s. While Luke reported the visit of an angel to Mary, Matthew described Joseph’s angelic dream-visitor bearing God’s message to him. Then Luke reported Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, and her extended and exquisite song often called the Magnificat. By the time Luke got to the actual birth story, he provided little with which to make up a picture of Joseph, except perhaps that he went with Mary to Bethlehem, and was present for the open house with the shepherds. Luke presented that familiar roll call of important but now obscure first century figures and places which pass in review like a sort of parade of factoids: Caesar Augustus; Quirinius, governor of Syria; enrollment; Nazareth in Galilee; Judea; Bethlehem; the house and family of David... We wonder if it is possible to understand any of this apart from the assistance of a World Atlas and a copy of a “Who’s Who” of important first century people.

Matthew — as we heard in our reading — has none of that, or at least very little. It is as if the Holy Spirit chose two gospel writers to report the story of the birth, one observing from Mary’s point of view, the other taking Joseph’s. In Matthew, it is Joseph who appears to have the important deciding to do: should he remain true to his faith and set aside his engagement with an apparently unfaithful Mary, as gently as possible? It is to Joseph that the meaning of the name of the child is given: “you shall call him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And, as Mary acquiesced to the angel’s request in Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth, so in Matthew did Joseph do as the angel commanded him, marrying as planned and when the baby was born, naming him Jesus.

Significantly, Jesus was a fairly common name then, as it remains today. It is the Greek/Latin form of the Hebrew name Joshua, and Joshua was one of those brave characters from scripture whose story inspired many people to name their sons after him, the way children today might be named after famous athletes. The full form of the name was Yehoshuah, and as with all biblical names, it has a meaning, which is, “The Lord will save.” That’s why, when Joseph was instructed to name him Jesus or Joshua, that particular name was chosen, because this child would be the means by which the Lord would save his people from their sins.

The naming is important. In some cultures, the choosing of a name might have been delayed until the child had grown enough to demonstrate some characteristic to which his name could point, like “Lefty” or “Shorty.” Isaac — whose name means “laughter,” was so named because his elderly mother laughed when she heard it suggested that she would give birth in her old age.1 Even later in life, significant life experience could call for a change in name, as when Abram became Abraham, and Saul the persecutor of the church became Paul the apostle to the Gentiles.2 In Joseph’s case, the choice of the name was absolutely perfect.

There are three significant aspects of this story which bring its power to life, all of which are derived from that name.3 The first is the conviction that God moves decisively toward people to save them. This is the uniform reality about God from one end of the scripture to the other. God moved toward enslaved Hebrews in Egypt to save them, moved toward exiled people in Babylon to save them, and here moves toward people estranged from their own faith and tradition to save them. Beyond that day, Jesus would be the means by which God would move toward all people the world over, even toward us. The arena of God’s salvation is with people, as much now as it was then.

The second significant aspect of this story is that while God moves decisively toward us, it is still up to us to respond to his initiative. Joseph could certainly have awakened from his dream, shaken out the cobwebs, figured the dream was just a result of indigestion, and proceeded with his plan to divorce Mary quietly. To take the path he took meant risk and the chance of ridicule. It was necessary that following God’s move toward Joseph here — and toward Mary in Luke’s account of the story — that each of those people make a choice to open themselves to God’s initiative. That Joseph proceeded with marriage plans and named the child as he was instructed meant that he responded to God affirmatively, trustingly.

The third significant aspect of the story is that it has application well beyond the confines of the story itself. We all may respond to God’s initiative through our own personal experience of that initiative. We just have to know it when we see it.

A pastor friend of mine recently reflected on the fact that even with the power of modern technology, there are moments when the Spirit has a difficult time getting through to us. Early on a Sunday morning, he was madly rushing about his church building preparing for worship, setting up for a class he was to teach, and so on. As he made a pass by the fax machine, it began to ring. If the machine at his church is anything like ours, the only thing that comes across it on a Sunday morning will be something like an automated fax ad from some company trying to sell vacation packages to the Bahamas — a particularly cruel sort of thing to fax into a minister’s office on a dark, wintry Sunday morning. Of course, it is often simply a wrong number.

Rather than let it ring, my friend picked up the receiver on the fax machine and said, “You’ve got a wrong number,” and hung up. As he went about his busy business, it rang again, and he didn’t have time to get to it. As he passed it by on his way to his class, he discovered that, in fact, there was a fax waiting there, and it was a message from a long-time friend in California asking him to pray for a mutual friend who had been stricken with a life-threatening illness. My friend stopped in his tracks as he realized how often his own busy-ness becomes an excuse for not paying attention, not looking for God’s movement toward us. There just could be times when a wrong number is really a right number, when what at first seemed like an interruption to our pre-arranged plans is really the work of the Spirit, moving toward us to save us.

Have you noticed that when a nativity scene is within easy reach, children seem to gravitate to it? They rearrange the figures, they seem to want to climb into the story, to put on a shepherd’s cloak or hold Joseph’s staff and become part of the story. And part of this childhood fascination with the nativity scene expresses itself in naming the characters. Ask any child of seven, they will know exactly which character is Mary, which is Joseph, which are the shepherds, and which is baby Jesus. They name them. It is a comfort to know that these people carry names, have a part to play as we do.

And, as with adults, so with children, they sometimes read a line from Luke’s story about this in a way that one of my graduate school speech professors cautioned us never to do. They read that the shepherds came to the barn and “found Mary and Joseph and the babe lying in the manger,” as if it were an extra large manger, built to accommodate two adults and one child.

So we were warned to be careful to include the punctuation in our reading, to place a comma after Mary and Joseph, and a pause before “and the babe lying in a manger...” so as not to communicate the impression that it was a manger for three. But in a way there is something strangely appropriate about placing the whole cast of characters in that manger. At the very least, they all belong around it. They are all held together by this bit of barn furnishing in this most familiar of stories, and each year we add our names to theirs as we sit or stand or kneel alongside the manger in our living rooms or on the front lawn, or in the department store. We are not just looking at a painting, we contemplate a human scene, we have arrived on the scene too, that we might add our own adoration to that which comes from those original characters. We complete the circle, and in the process we too are named among those for whom he was named: “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Someone once asked Dale Carnegie how a person could best make it in the world, and his advice was “Remember the name of everybody you meet.” It is good advice, though far from an easy task. But for us there is one name in particular to remember, the name of the one whom Joseph determined to claim yet who ultimately claimed Joseph and all those others who once gathered around his manger and crib, as well as all people everywhere for all time. One name summed up both his life and his salvation-purchasing death. “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

1. Genesis 18:9-15, 21:1-7.
2. Acts 13:1-3, 9
3. Thanks to Dr. George Chorba and his unpublished paper presented to the Homiletical Feast in January, 1998.