December 22, 2019
Categorised in: Sermons
Preached by Canon Roly Riem using Matthew 1.18-25, at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 22nd December 2019, the 4th Sunday of Advent.
At home, at the foot of the stairs, my wife has – ‘curates’ would be a better word – an owl table. It’s full of all sorts of owlish-ness: some owls stitched and stuffed, some made of glass or pottery, some of metal or wood. And this is because my wife is called Sophie, and Sophie discovered at the age of twelve that her name means something. How exciting is that! Sophia is the Greek for wisdom.
It’s a name to live up to. Being a Sophie must be quite a hoot.
Names are important and parents often spend considerable time picking something suitable for their children. And what people get called and what their given name is can be different. For example, I know someone called Sophie whose real name is Charlotte – the whole owl thing could have been so easily avoided.
Today, we’re thinking about names and naming, as in a familiar story we hear from an angel, ‘You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’
A more literal rendition of the Greek would be, as the older translations have it, ‘You shall call his name Jesus’, and that’s quite a difference.
It’s a Semitic turn of phrase. Way back in the first book of the Bible, Sarai the wife of Abram is told, ‘Now you have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call his name Ishmael’, and a bit later God tells the now renamed Abraham, ‘Your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac’.
And as we heard in today’s first reading, over 700 years before Christ was born, the prophet Isaiah promised Ahaz King of Judah deliverance from his enemies; and the sign that God would do this was, ‘the young woman is with child and shall bear a son and his name shall be called Immanuel’.
There is, if you like, a template into which this nativity story fits, where a name is given by God which holds great significance for the future.
But I’m still interested in the small difference between naming and calling by name. We can hear it better in English if we ask, what’s the difference between giving someone, or something, a name and calling someone by name.
At school I was introduced to the poem The Naming of Parts, by Henry Reed. It’s about soldiers being trained in the use of a basic rifle while fighting to subdue the call of the natural world. It begins:
Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday,
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all the neighbouring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.
This is the lower sling swivel. And this
Is the upper sling swivel, whose use you will see,
When you are given your slings. And this is the piling swivel,
Which in your case you have not got. The branches
Hold in the gardens their silent, eloquent gestures,
Which in our case we have not got.
The rifle is named and pulled apart while the blossom and branch of Japonica call to the heart by name, by what they essentially are.
Being called by name is always intimate because by calling we’re drawn closer into recognition and response. Not for nothing does Matthew tell of the wise men travelling from afar to be close to Jesus, to offer their gifts in recognition and do him homage.
So when the angel of the Lord says, ‘You are to call his name Jesus’, he means you are to draw close to him and recognise him as the one who has come to save his people: for the name Jesus, or Joshua, means salvation.
This naming is so important that over a half of Matthew’s version of the nativity is taken up with it. Joseph is the only one who can name Jesus, and at one point it looks as if he’ll disown the baby altogether, until the angel intervenes.
The angel issues a command to name this unexpected baby Jesus, and the story only ends once Matthew has obeyed the angel and has indeed called his name Jesus.
By Joseph naming Mary’s son as his, Jesus is taken into a family line which stretches back past King David, even to the patriarch Abraham – and you’ll remember the promise given to Abraham that ‘through your offspring all the nations of the world would be blessed’.
How blessing this would come about and God’s promise fulfilled is hidden even more deeply in this naming story.
Did you noticed that in it Jesus is given one name by Joseph but is called by two names? What happened with Mary and Joseph fulfilled what the Lord had spoken by the prophet Isaiah,’ A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel’ – the second name he’s called, other than Jesus.
The name Jesus rekindled the promise of salvation, but this had not been achieved so far. In fact, Joseph’s family line told a sad story of deportation, exile and oppression. None of his ancestors, not even the great David himself, had been able to save his people from their sins.
God’s people needed more than human help, more than someone from any human line; they needed God himself to fulfil the promise of the generations and bring deliverance once and for all.
This is why we hear not only the name of Jesus, reflecting that the child will save his people – but also a name reflecting who this child is – Emmanuel, God with us.
When we call this Jesus Emmanuel we confess that in this child God himself has come to us, fully and finally, and has opened a fresh Chapter in his story with us.
In the birth of Jesus God steps directly onto the stage, make himself vulnerable to despots and zealots, so that we can name him and draw close to him on human terms.
That’s the good news of Christmas. Jesus is a study in raw humanity, ‘little, weak and helpless’. He draws compassion and curiosity from all but the most hardened of hearts: how will this tiny life turn out; what should he be called?
When we hear that his name shall be called Immanuel, we begin to understand that, even in this weakness, God himself is with is. This strange birth which sets the righteous Joseph into a spin, mirrors the strangeness of the child’s identity, human yet also divine – the one person, sent and chosen by God, who could bring decisive deliverance.
The story doesn’t get any less strange or marvellous as it goes on, because how this new-born king wins deliverance doesn’t fit into any of the old scripts either. You wouldn’t expect it to, if Christ’s coming were a genuinely fresh start for humanity.
The ones who the adult Jesus calls to follow him, people like you and me, will keep asking the question of who he is – the one who even the winds and the sea obey, the one who washes his disciples’ feet, the one who casts out oppressing spirits, the one who lays down his life out of love for his friends. And we will never fully know who he is, because this Christ has many names.
But if we return to his birth we’ll hear the name that turns the key in the lock: Emmanuel, God with us.
God comes to us so that we may name him Jesus; Jesus dwells with us to call us back to God, and in that coming, naming and calling we find our full deliverance and the whole glorious wonder of the Gospel.