So what it’s in a name really. Shakespeare wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” In that very brief prayer that I begin every sermon with we call out the names Lord, Our Rock, and Our Redeemer. Three different names that distinguish some unique characteristic of how we understand God.
The Holy Trinity consisting of God, Jesus Christ, The Holy Spirit; all three distinct persons with distinct names and yet, as three-in-one and one-in-three sharing the same name. That name is God.
Or in Hebrew, God’s name is represented by four letters; the Hebrew letters Yod, Hey, Vav, Hey. A name with a name itself, the Tetragrammaton. This name of God largely considered too sacred to be said aloud which we think would be pronounced Yahweh and also where the name Jehovah comes from. When a Jewish person is reading the Torah and they come across this name they instead use the title Adonai which means Lord. Every time you see the word LORD in all caps in the Old Testament of your Bibles, that is where the Hebrew Name of God, that Tetragrammaton, was inscribed.
I could really probably talk about the intricacies of God’s name for much longer than a fifteen minute sermon, but I suspect the sound of you all snoring would be heard in Anchorage, Alaska. I would need Adam to make a rather loud sound on that organ to wake you up when I was finished.
In our text this morning, it says, “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus…” and then goes on to say, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the LORD through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.’”
OK. They named him Jesus in order to fulfill the prophecy that they would name him Emmanuel. Now when I was younger, that confused me to no end. That would be like my parents naming me Avery in order to fulfill a prophecy that I would be named Jason. Confusing, right??? I have to throw out a thank you to Rolf Jacobsen for that little joke.
Our names are important. Someone gave me a book that tells a fictional story of Jesus’ childhood and his best friend who was called Biff. Called Biff because that was the sound of mother smacking him upside the head when he done something wrong. ‘Biff’
As much trouble as I got into as a teenager, it is a wonder I was not named Biff for that very reason. I love you Mom…hahaha But no; instead they named me Robert Avery. I am the 4th Avery in a row I think it is. Father-son-father-son, etc… I lose track. Either way, it goes back to a however-many-great grandfather named Lance Lott. I kid you not… Lancelot. HAHA…
Robert Avery has a meaning itself. A meaning that makes me wonder if they would have kept naming us Avery had they known what the name meant. Avery is a Welsh name which means… Ruler of the Elves. Mix that with Robert which mean Great or Bright and you a name that means the Great or Bright Ruler of the Elves. Is my name the reason that I love Lord of the Rings and especially the elves? Doubtful… or… Maybe? Doesn’t matter.
What does matter is what is going on in 1st Century Palestine during the time described in our text. The majority of the region was under the control of the Roman Empire. The Jewish people, subjugated, yet again and seeking and waiting for what they believed would be a great military leader and king who would called the Messiah. A reigning king named King Herod afraid of a true Jewish King coming to dethrone him and desperate to remain in power was not beyond any crime against the people.
Political, social, and religious elitism had divided humankind given them names to keep humanity grouped not-so-neatly together and divided. Jew vs. Gentile. A good Samaritan was something unthinkable and of course the question was asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth.” And to be named unclean would strike fear into the hearts of anyone.
The Jewish people cried out for God, but God’s love and grace had gotten lost within a labyrinth of law twisted by human corruption until the law itself became something of the mythical beast known as the Minotaur hunting down those trapped within its own labyrinth of rules and regulations. It can be hard to see the true nature of God when you are constantly looking over your shoulder and running from your own shadow out of fear of judgment.
The people needed God to save them. Jesus, his name in Hebrew being Yeshua, means God saves. God would save by sending God’s son and becoming human; by becoming Emmanuel, God with us. The people needed their daily bread. They needed to know that their needs would be cared for. Jesus would be born in Bethlehem; or in Hebrew, Bet-lechem, which means “House of Bread.”
Fast forward 2000 years or so…
One of the saddest realities is that despite, or should I say, in spite of the fact that God became human and brought the bread of salvation from the true House of Bread to us all, dismantled the labyrinth of law and made our road straight with Love of God and Neighbor as a star to light our path. In spite of this we still live in a world of political, social, and religious elitism where our imposed names, which could be so uplifting and strengthening, are instead great weights which hold us down.
Some names that can harm us are not so obvious. Not that I want to give a political discourse in the slightest, but simple names like Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Conservative, Liberal, Green Party, etc. all perfectly innocent in the organization of ideals; however, when we see these terms used as reasons why we must not deal or associate with the one of the others, then the titles inhibit the ability to hear our neighbor.
Several years ago, my band was hired to play for a political fundraiser. We were standing around talking with this particular political figure. Now that area of Kentucky where I was living was very limited on recycling options. With my background in Environmental Biology, I simply asked him why he thought that recycling was considered so unimportant our region. I thought it would be enlightening to hear his thoughts on the matter. His response, caught me completely off guard. He said, “Oh, you’re not one of those [DANG] tree huggers are you boy?” For the record, he did not say dang.
Some of the ways our imposed names hold us down are obvious. The derogatory terms we use for each other; racial and ethnic slurs which I will not utter. To name something is to give it power. Those words we use to give us the appearance of boosting ourselves by pushing others down have been given way too much power over the years.
Maya Angelou said:
“Words are things. You must be careful, careful about calling people out of their names, using racial pejoratives and sexual pejoratives and all that ignorance. Don’t do that. Some day we’ll be able to measure the power of words. I think they are things. They get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper. They get in your rugs, in your upholstery, and your clothes, and finally in to you.”
So what do we do with this? It has been said that to give something a name is to have power over it; to be able to influence it in some way. People going through almost any kind of treatment for addiction are told that they need to name their addiction for what it is and that gives them power over it. Likewise, we have to name what afflicts us. What afflicts the human condition and separates and focuses our attention away from God and toward ourselves… we name that Sin. So as I said, what do we do with this?
The upside is that, God is still with us. We still have Emmanuel and God has already saved us through the name of Jesus. However, this is still technically Advent. Even though we know God has already come and saved us, we also wait for the coming God. We wait for the time when all the names that separate us and create fear, anxiety, and loneliness will be destroyed.
In the mean time, while we wait, we are called and are given a job to do. The Gospel message of love for one another and the power of God’s grace is that it, even today, right this very moment, can affect our very being and destroy the boundaries that our imposed names create. So much so that we live our lives in a sense of duality. We are named both saint and sinner and it balances the scales for us all. Despite the fact that we are sinner we can also be saintly.
In that moment when we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, provide shelter to those who have no where to go, carry groceries in for someone for whom that is a challenge, lovingly squeeze someone’s hand in their moment of despair when they need it most, or a simple hug, or merely an ear to hear when they think no one will listen. It is in these moments that we get to be not only sinner; we get to be saintly.
That is our call. That is what we do while we wait. The angel, the messenger came and brought Joseph the name that Christ would bear to the world. What if that same messenger were to name you? The reality is, we don’t have to wonder the ever troubling “what if” question. We already have been named. In our Baptism, each and every one of us are named Emmanuel, “God with us” to those in need. That is our call. That is our blessing. Our blessing is the privilege to be the the expression of God’s love within the world for another person.
And for that I say… Thanks be to God and