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They Gave Him a Name
December 18, 1977

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

MATTHEW 1:18-25

A Bible scholar named his first baby boy Theophilus. He was asked, “Where on earth did you get that name?” He said, “Well, he's the awfulest looking baby I've ever seen.” Naming a baby is a big event. There's a certain mystique about naming a baby. Young couples prepare by buying a crib, clothes and diapers. But the preparation somehow just isn't quite final until the baby is named. It's a great adventure to name a baby, an awesome event because that name stays for that entire life. There’s a certain mystique about it, a little mystery. And of course, it is of great interest to all of us to know how our parents arrived at our names. We always want to know where they dug the name up, and what possible meaning it could have and does it have any families significance. We like to look in dictionaries and find out the original meaning of our names. 

I suppose that naming the baby was a big event for Mary and Joseph as it is for us even though they had unusual events surrounding the birth, a little more unusual than what we have had. They had to leave home. They had to go to another place for the census. There was no room in the inn and they had to go to the barn, the stables. It was a strange star in the sky that evening. Shepherds came out of nowhere to see the baby. There were a lot of unusual events surrounding the birth. 

But I suspect that naming the baby was an awesome experience for them. Names were even more important to Biblical people than they are to us because it was believed in biblical times that the name of a person captured some of the essence of the person. So to name a person was to pronounce some kind of future upon the baby. The essence, the essential character of the person was wrapped up in the name. There is power in a name. We've kind of forgotten that. But actually, we tend to live up to what we are called. If we're called “Dummy”, we're apt to live as if we are a dummy. If we are called inferior, worthless, stupid, nigger, we tend to live up to the name.

Mary and Joseph were helped in their task of naming the baby by a dream. An angel came. God spoke to them in dreams and told them to name the baby “Jesus”. Jesus is the Greek translation for the Hebrew name “Joshua”. Joshua was the hero in the Old Testament that led the Hebrews into the land of Canaan. Joshua took the place of Moses. The word Joshua literally means “the Lord saves”. Matthew spells it out a little further in the New Testament lesson. He said, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” That is the meaning of the name of Jesus. “He shall save his people from sin.” 

And that is the essential meaning of Christmas. If you wonder what is the real meaning of Christmas that you can capture in one phrase, it is Jesus. Jesus will save us from sin. Sin is not a word customarily used at Christmas. It is rarely used anywhere. We don't like the word. Especially at Christmas time, we don't want to hear about evil, ugliness, cruelty, war, oppression. The popular idea of Christmas in our culture is that Christmas should be sweet, joyful and light. Like a fantasy, we tell each other fairy tales. People are disturbed and say, “Don't bring that sin talk into Christmas. Let's keep it joyful. Let's keep it light. Let's keep it beautiful.” But, in popularizing Christmas, commercializing Christmas, trying to keep it in fantasy land, we lose the real, essential meaning of Christmas. We lose the real significance. Christmas has to do with sin. It has to do with ugliness, cruelty, evil. Jesus came into such a world, the same kind of world we live in. That's why the Herod stories appear in the Christmas stories. And that's why it's so important to keep Herod in Christmas—ugly, horrible King Herod who tried to find the Messiah, tried to destroy the Messiah. So that no king could grow up to take his place, he issued the order that soldiers should go to Bethlehem and kill every male baby under the age of two. 

The first Christmas of angels singing in the skies, shepherds coming from their fields and wise men bringing gifts, that beautiful Christmas also includes the brutal, horrible slaughter of babies by soldiers. We don't usually see that in Christmas pageants, do we? We've eliminated that from Sunday School and school programs. We don't put that on television because we want to keep Christmas peaceful, joyful and beautiful. But, when we forget Herod, we forget the real meaning of Christmas. Jesus came into a real world. Jesus comes into our lives to help us deal with ugliness, cruelty, disasters and unanswerable questions. 

Jesus came to save his people from sin. Sin is a word which is used to describe the human situation. Sin in Greek means to miss the mark, to not quite make it, to be off center. Sin means to be separated, to be removed. Sin means to be estranged. That’s the kind of world we live in. That is the human situation where we are all separated, estranged from God, other people, and ourselves.

The Bible opens with the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. It is a parable of humanity. Adam and Eve stand for all of us. When they tried to be like God, they were banished from the garden. A wall was built and that illustrates the human situation. We are estranged and separated from God. We are not in tune with the Creator from which we've come. We're not in tune with the deep essence of life. We are estranged. We're not readily in touch. We don't readily hear God speaking to us in our dreams, or in silence, or in prayer or in the events around us. We don't readily hear. We are not living as we should because we are not in relationship with God. Sin separates us. We are estranged from each other—nation against nation, races living in prejudice, hatred of one another, minorities against the majority. We're living in the kind of world where we are estranged from people.

Christmas is a time when we are especially reminded of the estrangement that exists in our families, that exists with our loved ones. Christmas is that traditional time when families come together. How obvious it is when some are missing! Or how obvious it is when there's discord, when there's disharmony and that is sin. Murray Livingston Roy describes a strange moment, she wrote, “It’s dreary here today. And the world is filled with a longing for the warmth of you. Loneliness is aggravated by the empty mailbox. This just doesn't seem to separate us so much as indifference does. Nothing special. Just a few lines to say, ‘I thought of you today.” Jean Dudley prayed, “Lord, someone I love is lost to me. Will you reach out and cradle this one in your almighty hands, those hands that threw and scattered worlds and suns to blaze in your sky?” Will you reach out and cradle the one who is lost to me? Sin is the word that describes this kind of isolation. Sin is the word that describes the reality of estrangement. Life is not as it should be. Relationships are lacking because we're not living as we should. 

And we're estranged from ourselves, separated from our central beings, separated from our best, separated from our bodies. We have disease, illness because we lack harmony. We lack unity because there are wars going on inside us. There are conflicts going on inside us. It tears us apart and pulls us apart. We are estranged from ourselves. Sharon and Thomas Emsmiler describe it this way. (There must be something in here that will speak to you.) “We confess that often we do not like the bodies we have. Sometimes we long for different families. Or we would exchange our jobs for the jobs of others. And we would like to do away with parts of our history. We are afraid of our moods and feelings. We wish we had more time, we would like to start over again. We lust after the prestige of others. We think more money will solve our problems. We resent the injustices we have suffered and we cherish our sorrows. We want to be appreciated for our small graces. We are enchanted by the past and enticed by the future. We have never really been understood. In short, we have refused to live because we have held out for better terms. We have tried to put distance between ourselves and life.” 

That is sin—to live in estrangement, isolation and separation from our life as it has been given to us, wishing for something else, feeling guilty about the past, wishing we could do something over again, or living in a fantasy world like an idyllic Christmas. Not really living the life God gave us to live is sin and sin has to do with Christmas. Sin is the direct reason Christ came into the world. And that's the good news of Christmas. To forget and to ignore the realities of ugliness, cruelty and evil is to ignore the real meaning of Christmas. Jesus came to save his people from their sin. The Bible is the story of God doing something about the human situation. The Bible from cover to cover is the record of God doing whatever possible, about the human situation—to pull us out and put us back together, to put us back together with God, to put us back together with each other, to put us back together within ourselves. God has done something about it and the Bible is the record. 

God made a covenant with the nation of Israel. Through this nation, God wanted to save the world. God sent patriarchs like Abraham to lead them. God sent leaders like Moses to keep them in his covenant. God sent prophets like Isaiah to call them back but to no avail. Finally God sent him himself. He came himself. He came into the world as a man in the person of Jesus. He took upon himself all the limitations, all the frailties, all the sorrows and sufferings of our lives. As demonstrated in Christmas, God came into the world to save us. He came in the world to bring us back and to put us together. 

Christmas is that salvation event and the coming into this world cost him his life. A little girl was all dressed up in her in her new clothes when the cat ran through the wet grass. She reached down and picked up the cat. Her father said, “Put the cat down, you'll get yourself all dirty.” She said, “Well, this cat needs loving, and how do you expect me to love it without picking it up?” This cat needs loving and so do we. That’s why Jesus came and picking us up made him dirty. It hurt and killed him. But Jesus picks us up, hugs us, embraces us and holds us to himself. 

That is the great, good news of Christmas. Trust in the name of Jesus. Call on the name of Jesus for in his name there is power. Believe in Jesus’ name. Obey and follow Jesus’ way. Try his words. Try his ethics. Believe and trust for whoever calls upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ will be saved. Merry Christmas.

© 1977 Douglas I. Norris