What’s in a Name?

One of the hardest decisions Abbi and I have made was what we would name Noah. It took us a long time to name him. So long, in fact, that I honestly thought that the name on his birth certificate would read “Little P.K.,” which was the nickname we used for him before his birth.

Eventually we settled on the name of Noah David. His name combines two of our favorite Old Testament characters. To paraphrase what a seminary professor told us after we told him of Noah’s birth, his name combines unabashed devotion to God in Noah with David’s worshipful and dedicated heart for the Lord.

Part of the reason it took us so long to come up with a name was our recognition that a person’s name is one of the first things someone knows about another person. A name stays with a person for their entire life. So, we wanted to get Noah’s name right. We thought. We debated. We considered everything from “Alexander” to naming him after favored athletes and coaches. In time, we came up with a name that we felt is right and suits our young boy well.

Our struggle with naming Noah might be familiar to many of you. Whether it was naming your own child or watching a family member or friend struggle over a long list of names, we likely all know what is involved in naming a child. There is a lot to consider. Sometimes we think about family names. Sometimes we look for names from our favorite pieces of literature, movies, or television shows. Sometimes we find a name that just comes to us.

The experiences we have in coming up with a name for our children helps us to something that transpires in our passage, this morning, from Matthew 1:18-25. This passage is one of two that focuses on the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Unlike the story we have from Luke’s gospel, Matthew’s version focuses entirely on the events from Joseph’s perspective. This isn’t completely unexpected. Matthew wrote to context that was influenced by the Jewish patriarchal heritage. Focusing on Joseph’s experiences helped to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ to that context. By doing so, Matthew does us something interesting. He gives us the background to Jesus’ own name. This helps us to understand, in both our heart and mind, why Jesus came to the world at Christmas and the work he came to do.

First, however, before we can look at the names that Matthew gives us there is some work we need to do to understand this passage and all that took place with Joseph. We need to interact with Joseph, who would be given the task of being the earthly father to Jesus. Joseph was an ancestor to King David, who was the great king of Israel. Matthew produces an extensive genealogy in verses 1:1-17 that connects shows Jesus’ heritage tracing back, through Joseph, to David and Abraham.

There is a reason that Joseph’s heritage is important to understanding Jesus’ earthly ministry. It was expected that the Messiah would come through David’s lineage. Part of this expectation comes from 2 Samuel 7, where God promises to build a house for David. This idea of a house had two understandings. First, it was connected to a political dynasty coming from David’s ancestors. At the same time, it also fed into the hope of a Messiah to come who would be the heir to David’s throne. This promise of a long-awaited Messiah from David’s lineage would have been familiar to Joseph. He would’ve been among those holding onto to this hope for a Messiah.

We can forgive Joseph if this promise wasn’t on his mind when he met with Mary. She was his engaged wife and had told him that she was pregnant. This would not have been welcomed news for Joseph, because, in his eyes, it could have meant that she had been unfaithful. Mary’s pregnancy, then, would have been grounds for a divorce. In those days, to end an engagement, which was a legal relationship, meant that you had to get a divorce. Joseph did want to cause any harm to Mary, so he decided to divorce her privately before anyone could notice that she was pregnant.

It was likely after Joseph made this decision to divorce Mary that he was visited by an angel in his sleep. Matthew’s illustration of Joseph receiving an important visitation in his dreams brings to mind the dreams and visions that Joseph’s namesake had in Genesis while in Egypt. This particular angel comes to Joseph and says that he does not need to fear taking Mary as his wife. Everything that Mary told him was true, the angel said. She is pregnant with a child from the Holy Spirit. This child is the One that they had been awaiting. Mary would give birth to the Messiah, who would rescue the people from their sins and bring about God’s kingdom on earth. Joseph was being asked to take Mary as his wife and to care for both her and this child. Joseph would be Jesus’ earthly father.

This isn’t the only thing that the angel asks of Joseph. The angel also asks Joseph to give the child a very specific name of Jesus. It was a name that is not found in his genealogy. In those days, the father would likely have chosen a name for his son, especially the first born, that has a history within the family. But, the name the angel gives to Joseph is important. It is a name that tells us something about why Jesus came to earth. Jesus came to save all people.

Jesus is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for Joshua. The name of Jesus, and Joshua, means God saves. We see this in the story of Joshua, who followed after Moses and lead the people of Israel into the Promised Land. More importantly, we see this in how Jesus fulfills the very calling of his name. Jesus came with the specific purpose to fulfill the promises of salvation for all people. All of salvation history prepared for this moment where Jesus would enter the world. From the redemption in the Garden of Eden, to Noah and the ark, to Moses in Egypt, to the prophets of Judea, it all built up to this moment when the Son of God came to offer true hope, peace, joy, and love for all people.

Christmas looks forward to Jesus’ mission, because it was a mission that began in the most lowly of places of a manger. At his birth, Jesus began the work of making right what was wrong, and restoring hope in the world. The manger looks ahead to Jesus’ three-year ministry, to Good Friday and, especially, to Easter and his work offering himself for our wrongs.

That name given to Jesus is our promise today. As we await the celebration of Christmas morning, we celebrate not just this birth but the work Christ did and continues to do in each of us. Jesus came to do a work in us and our communities of redemption and restoration. That is the greatest expression of love. Jesus voluntarily came to show us the way to the Father and to offer himself for our acts of wrong. It is our faith that allows us to experience this hope and to truly surround ourselves in the joy of what took place at Christmas.

There is still one more name to consider and that is the name Matthew quotes from Isaiah 7:14. That passage included a promise from Isaiah to King Ahaz at a time when Israel was being threatened by Syria. The promise was a sign that said Israel would be out of a trouble by the time a child would be born and raised to maturity. Matthew takes this promise of a child and attaches it to Jesus. By doing so, Matthew says Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise of peace.

We see this in the second name attached to Jesus, which comes in this quotation from Isaiah. This child would be called “Immanuel,” which means “God is with us.” It is a word that signifies God’s presence. Jesus, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the embodiment of God’s presence. He is God. God came and dwelt among the Lord’s people when the Son of God humbled himself to taking on humanity. This name reminds us that God is always with us. There is not a moment in our lives where God is not already there, already beside us, or there after a situation has ended. Wherever we are God’s presence is there.

That is the thing about Jesus. There is never a moment in our lives where God’s presence is not available. He never lets us go. Christmas is the message to the world that God is here and active in our lives and this world. Christmas announces to the world that we are never alone. God is present in our lives.

The name of Jesus is truly the name above all names. A name that signifies that Jesus came to save us from our pains, hurts, frustrations, doubts, fears, and sins. The name of Jesus reminds us that God came to redeem all of us to a deeper relationship with the Lord. At the same time, the name of Jesus is the promise that God is always with us. There is not a moment, a situation, or a day where God is not with us. It may not always feel like it, but we can trust that Jesus, our Immanuel, is always there.

As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, this is the message that we need to share with our friends, our neighbors, our community, and the entire world. The name of Jesus is the message that we need to share. A name that promises hope through faith. A name that promises a loving and peaceful presence. A name that promises that God is the way to a truly deep relationship with the Lord and true salvation. A name that promises a joy among all joys.

It is the name of Jesus that we will celebrate on Wednesday. A celebration that looks to the manger and looks forward to what this child would do: Save the world, redeem us all, and bring forth God’s presence and kingdom in our lives and in each other. Truly, no other name is above that of this child who is our King.

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