What's in a Name?

Matthew 1: 18-25

“What’s in a name? ” That which we call a rose by any other name is still a rose,” Juliet Capulet utters with deep sadness and melancholy from the balcony of her room as she ponders her fate at meeting and falling for Romeo Montague. In Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare’s lyrical tale of “star-cross’d” lovers, Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet meet and fall in love and, as we all learned in high-school English class, their relationship was doomed from the very beginning because of their names. Montague’s hated Capulet’s and Capulet’s hated Montague’s. From her balcony Juliet speculates on Romeo’s willingness to give up his name and declares, in the name of love, her willingness to abandon hers. For Juliet, a name is an artificial and meaningless convention, and she declares that she loves the person who is called “Montague”, not the Montague name and not the Montague family. Romeo, standing under Juliet’s balcony, hearing her sad lament agrees out of his passion for her, to reject his family name and vows, as Juliet asks, to “deny (his) father” and instead be “new baptized” as Juliet’s lover. This one short line encapsulates the central struggle and tragedy of the play

Today when people fall in love and contemplate married life together they may also confront the problem of names, but happily with a bit of a different twist. After a growing trend in the end of the last century for women to keep their maiden name, today about 33 percent of brides do so for a variety of reasons. Where prior generations felt a need to keep their own names as a way to make a statement, Claudia Goldin, Harvard economics professor says that need isn’t felt as urgently by today’s young women, who may be looking for ways to bind their new families together, as sharing a last name can. “There’s an inner urge to bond – and [there are] crazy glues that bond people together. Sharing a name is one of them.”

When I was growing up people were named after their grandmother or their aunt or their great uncle Ralph. Today there are hundreds of books to help people choose just the right name for their child. Still people come up with some rather fascinating names. Here are just a few I found on the internet: Birdie Buckle, Bunion Moore, Liz Lips, Adam Zapel, Gene Poole, Hazel Nutt, and my favorite Chris P. Cream. A name can greatly enhance or detract from who you are. It used to be that a name could tell where you came from as well as who you came from. From a name you could guess a person ethnicity or national or religious origins. Today names and those who have them are getting more and more jumbled together. It’s harder today to tell who you are from and where you are from by your name.

I never really understood why my mother-in-law was unhappy about the name we chose for our daughter. I wish I had thought to tell her, that like Joseph, an angel had suggested the name to me. It was an angel that came to Joseph and announced to him what he was to name his child. No questions asked, no consultation with a baby book or a mother-in-law. You might think that a baby announced by an angel and conceived by the Holy Spirit might have had a magnificent or commanding name like Theodore Delano Roosevelt or John Davison Rockefeller but Joseph was told to name the baby Jesus, as common a name as Bob or John today. The record shows that Josephus, the first-century historian, mentions no fewer than 20 different men named Jesus in his writings. It was a name that was common to the time and place. But it was also a meaningful name because Jesus meant “God is salvation.” Unlike our names that say whose we are, Jesus was given a name that described his very essence.

Matthew also gave Jesus another name when he reached back into the Hebrew Bible and turned a passage from the prophet Isaiah into a prophecy. “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” In outlining the lineage of Jesus in the first seventeen verses of the first chapter of Matthew and then describing these two names for Jesus , Matthew was stressing to his Jewish audience that Jesus was the legitimate Messiah for whom they had been waiting – God’s representative who would come to be with them and save them.

What meaning do these two names, Jesus and Emmanuel have for us? What images are conjured up for us at the mention of these names? Author and pastor Brian D. McLaren writes that he has a love hate relationship with the name Jesus and that sometimes it makes him squirm. In his book, Finding Faith, he says he can’t hear the name “Jesus” without thinking of , “a big-haired lady caked with too much makeup, or a toupeed man whose face moves way too much when he talks as he stares at you through the television screen….entreating you to believe in Jesus,” or, “overlong, boring church services where things like “Jesus is God, or Jesus is Lord are said so often and with so such familiarity that it seems inappropriate to ask what they mean…even though you realize that you have next to no idea,” or “the slogan Jesus is the only way!” – which seems to you frightfully narrow-minded, exclusive, arrogant, and insulting,” or, “some of the schmalziest and weirdest music you’ve ever heard,” or, “road side signs or bumper stickers that say ‘Jesus Saves’. What this….is supposed to communicate remains unclear.” What should we, as those who call themselves Christians, do with this name Jesus? Drop it, hide it, and just talk about God?

When we dig down beneath the glitz and emotion of Christmas as well as all the historical misunderstandings of this man we claim was God, it is possible to find new joy, meaning and hope in his name. When we liberate our understanding from old and constricting understandings of God’s presence and salvation we are able to celebrate Christmas with new passion and hope.

In the hilarious book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham (Christopher Paul Curtis, New York: Scholastic, Inc., 1995) 10-year-old Kenny Watson recounts how he is saved from the teasing of other children in an unexpected way. “Every once in a while, Momma would make me go to Sunday school with Joey. Even though it was just a bunch of singing and coloring in coloring books and listening to Mrs. Davidson, I had learned one thing. I learned about getting saved. I learned how someone could come to you when you were feeling real, real bad and could take all of your problems away and make you feel better. I learned that the person who saved you, your personal saver, was sent by God to protect you and to help you out.”

”Then, one day, [two new boys came to town]. When the bigger one of the two boys who got on the bus late [one day and] said to the driver in a real down-South accent, ‘Thank you for stopping, sir,’ I knew right away. I knew that God had finally gotten sick of me being teased and picked on all the time. As I looked at this new boy with the great big smile and the jacket with holes in the sleeves and the raggedy tennis shoes and the tore-up blue jeans, I knew who he was. Maybe he didn’t live a million years ago and maybe he didn’t have a beard and long hair, and maybe he wasn’t born under a star, but I knew anyway; I knew God had finally sent me some help; I knew God had finally sent me my personal saver!” Salvation and presence entwined with one another – that’s the message of Christmas.

Walter Brueggemann writes that throughout the family stories in the Hebrew Bible – the stories of Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Jacob, Jacob and Joseph, and Moses – God established himself as a God who makes promises. (Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament) The tricky part for the Israelites was that sometimes God’s promises were fulfilled. But more often than not Israel was forced to “wait and hope, in perplexity and in eager longing but also in wonderment and near-despair” for God to fulfill the promises that had been made. It was in the midst of the exile, when the Israelites were far from home and living under the domination of the Babylonians that God made an amazing promise to them, “I will be your God and you shall be my people.” Bruggemann writes, “God is with them in the midst of exile allowing for exile to be transformed into a viable place for life. Not even in the worst circumstances imaginable would Israel be abandoned.” God assures them that because of the presence of God with them they can trust that a sense of well being is at work in the world saving them in the present for the future.

Today we are gathered here as a Christian community to celebrate that God’s promise of presence and salvation came about in the life and person of Jesus whose birth we celebrate tomorrow night. When we hear his name we tend to hear those promises in the context of receiving eternal life, that Jesus’ came in order to save us by answering the question, “How does one go to heaven after death?” This traditional understanding of Jesus has focused Christianity’s attention away from life here and now and has detracted us from hearing the powerful life changing message of Jesus. There is an emerging understanding, according to McLaren, that Jesus came, not to answer the question, “How does one go to heaven after death?” but that he came to “[explore] a very different set of questions – namely, “what kind of life does God want people to live? What does life in the [world God’ dreams of] look like? What is a truly good (or righteous) life?…Rather than directing our attention to life after death in heaven, away from this life and beyond history, these questions return our focus to the here and now…” We are not saved by what we believe about God in order to spend eternity in heaven but by living in an awareness of God’s moment by moment presence with us and grappling with what it means to live faithfully as members of God’s family here and now.

Max Lucado tells the story of a man who had been a closet slob most of his life. He just couldn’t comprehend the logic of neatness. Why make up a bed if you’re going to sleep in it again tonight? Why put the lid on the toothpaste tube if you’re going to take it off again in the morning? The man admitted to being compulsive about being messy.

Then he got married. His wife was patient. She said she didn’t mind his habits … if he didn’t mind sleeping on the couch. Since he did mind, he began to change. He said he enrolled in a 12-step program for slobs. A physical therapist helped him rediscover the muscles used for hanging up shirts and placing toilet paper on the holder. His nose was reintroduced to the smell of Pine Sol. By the time his in-laws arrived for a visit, he was a new man.

But then came the moment of truth. His wife went out of town for a week. At first he reverted to the old man. He figured he could be a slob for six days and clean on the seventh. But something strange happened. He could no longer relax with dirty dishes in the sink or towels flung around the bathroom or clothes on the floor or sheets piled up like a mountain on the bed.” What happened? Well he had lived in the presence of someone who lived life very differently and in the living with that person he had become a new person.

Jesus came to live among us, to bring God’s presence with us as close as humanly possible and save us by showing us a new way to live. He came to love the world, so we must love the world. He came to bring freedom not fear, so we must work for the freedom from fear. He came to shine light in the darkness so we must not fear the darkness for God is there even in the darkness. He came in the flesh, “so we who believe this and trust it and stake our lives upon it have worldly work to do,” says John Buchannan. “If God loves the world so much to come to it in a child and live in it, we can do no less than take the world seriously and live in it intentionally, and serve its people, and work to make all human life more humane, more secure, more just, starting with the children, all the children.” As you live in God’s presence may the name of Jesus inspire in you great hope and joy, confidence and humility and the energy to work to make God’s dream for us a reality Amen.