Sermon on the Feast of the Holy Name

Today is the Feast of the Holy Name, a feast we only get to celebrate on the not-common occasions when the first of January falls on a Sunday, as it does this year.  As a not-ver- common or well-known feast, the main question many of you might have is: "What's this one all about?"
 We spend weeks explaining Christmas, and Easter, and other feasts. Let’s take a paragraphs to explain this one. 

Because names are important. There is power and meaning in them. Yet they are also complicated.
You should appreciate that I will not go into the academic philosophical arguments about nominalism versus essentialism, regarding the importance of names.  Medieval scholars would draw knives over these issues.

Let me just point out that names define things for us, but they have their limits.  For example, names are not actually the things they name: they are symbolic representations; but names we choose for things or people also help shape what we think about those things or people we name.

Just consider names used in history and politics by those who want to label something or someone as good or bad.  These names are shaped by choices and points-of-view. For one example, depending on one’s view, a guy named William could be "Bill" or "Billy" and have added "the Great" or "the Bastard."
Most names do not encompass complete truth or reality, but are mere partial perceptions of reality.

Let’s just look at the Name of Jesus.
Of course, you all know it’s the same name as Joshua, which my nephew is named.  Sometimes white folk think it strange that so many Hispanics are named Jesus (HaySoos), but it’s no different than the name Joshua, very popular in America.

The first biblical Joshua was, of course, the general of the Exodus, the lieutenant of Moses, who took over the conquest of the Holy Land for the Israelites. Joshua’s original name was Hosea; Moses renamed him YeHoshua, abbreviated to Yeshu’a (obviously our Joshua). 

The first part of that name is the name for the Hebrew God, often pronounced "Yahweh" by modern scholars. The Hebrews of course did not pronounce the name of their God at all, it was too sacred. 
They preferred to use the word "Lord" (Adonai) or "Lord" (Elohim), or "theName"(Hashem); while Jerome who translated the Hebrew into Latin used "Lord" (Dominus), most often used in English translations today.
Anyhow, the second part of Joshua means "saves" or "is salvation."
So the name Jesus means "God saves" or "God is salvation."  The Greeks turned Joshua into Iēsous [ΙΗΣΟΥΣ/Ιησους] (pronounced EE-YAYSOOS), which the Romans turned into Jesus [pronounced YaySooS],which we speak as JEE-zuss.  It’s all the same thing. 

There were other kids then named Jesus, even mentioned in the Bible.  How do we know we’re speaking about our particular Jesus?  Today family or last names help us to differentiate, but the Hebrews did not have last names.  They might have used their father’s name, such as Jesus BenJoseph; or they might have used a place of origin, such as Jesus of Nazareth.

We usually call him "Jesus Christ" (and "H." is not his middle initial, despite some people’s fondness for swearing on “Jesus H. Christ”)! You all know, of course, that "Christ" is not his last name: it means “anointed one” in English, and is a Greek translation from the Hebrew word “Messiah.”

What does it mean to be the Messiah?
That question is a hugely complicated issue.
For our Jesus in the scriptures today, though, it meant to be born a poor baby in a manger, "taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross" [Phil 2:6-10].
That is not what is supposed to happen to a god or a king—to die the worst way imaginable at the time.
But Pontius Pilate had written above the dying Christ his name in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin:  "Yeshua - Iesous - Iesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews."
The image of a Messiah, the Son of David, is often that of a king.  But in Jesus we have a different kind of king.  And that should influence not only our theology, but our lives.  We can and have talked about that on the feast of Christ the King, though.

Today, we can mention a few of the lots of other names for Jesus in the New Testament, directly and indirectly: Son of Man (with which he usually referred to himself), Son of God, Son of the living God, Son of the Father, the first born, the Beginning and the End, Eternal Life, the Word, the Lamb, the Bridegroom, the Door, the Way, the Tree, the Bread, the Light, the Star, the Rock, the Cornerstone, a Babe. 

All these names flesh out what we are to believe and act on about this person named Jesus. The Nicene Creed is mostly about trying to define who Jesus is, by name.

Non-believers, of course, have never accepted Him.  They would use other names for Him:
a mortal, a fool, a fraud, a fake, a liar, a blasphemer, a criminal, for which the crime of treason he was condemned to die.

What is Jesus the Christ really?
How do we make the Truth about him known, especially in an age of "post-truth" where lies and falsehoods are readily embraced by people to fit their agendas?
What does it mean for any of us to adopt that Holy Name of Jesus, to call ourself a Christian?
That is a name we take on for ourselves, by being in church, by our baptism.

And what does that name mean?
At St. Stephen’s, our task as Christians is to know Christ and make him known in word and deed.  But such a simple statement does not include the details of who he is and how to spread the word.

How do we do that?
We could learn from Paul’s epistle to the chapter on Philippians, where he appeals to them, right before what we read today:
"If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others." [Phil 2:1-4]

I don’t know that all of us could be of the same mind, of one mind, being of one accord, or even have the same love....
But can we look to the interests, not of ourselves but to the interests of others? To the interests of others rather than ourselves? That is what Jesus was born into the world to do. Not to live and die for Himself, but for others. We also are to do the same.

The name of Jesus, as said in the gospel today [Luke 2], references the GREAT JOY to ALL People: the "Savior who is the anointed Lord." Living according to his name as the Christ, we take on His name as His followers, as Christians, which means that God is at work in us, to do His will and work [paraphrase of Phil 2:13].


Delivered at St. Stephen's Pro-cathedral 2017 January 1

Last Updated: 2017 January 01
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