Not some nameless nobody – Sermon for the Holy Name of Jesus

It’s tempting to say “Happy New Year” while I’m up here, but the Christian calendar actually begins on the first Sunday of Advent, not on January 1. That said, January 1 is an important day on the church calendar. Historically, this day has been called “The Circumcision of Our Lord” because it falls eight days after Christmas and so on this day Mary and Joseph brought the infant Jesus, as was the proper Jewish custom, to be circumcised. He was also officially named on this day, and so, perhaps in an effort to get away from some uncomfortable images floating through people’s heads, this day has been renamed in many traditions, including Lutheranism, to “Holy Name of Jesus.”

And so it is, that every year, on January 1, we celebrate the holy name of Jesus. In some ways, shifting the attention away from his circumcision to Jesus’ name has opened up more ways for us to consider just what it is exactly that Jesus is doing among us. Of course, his circumcision was and is important; by it, he was rightfully Jewish, fulfilling the law of the covenant with Abraham, and therefore unquestionably one of God’s chosen people. But we always run into problems that become shortsighted and misguided when we reduce or become too preoccupied with the legalistic satisfaction Jesus made for us. We forget so much more how his life is model for the Godly life—and, even more saddening, how his life, death, and resurrection are free gifts to us from a merciful and loving God.

And so as we redirect our focus today on Jesus’ name, and not so much on his status as a proper Jew, let us consider what implications that has for us who don’t claim Judaism as our heritage—either by culture or devotion. What does the holy name of Jesus mean for us who have been grafted into the family tree of Abraham by the grace of God in Jesus? Consider that as we go into the sermon today.

Let us pray. May only God’s Word be spoken and may only God’s Word be heard; in the name of Jesus. Amen.

The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen or national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.

Who knows where those words are from? That’s right. A passport. In a United States passport, those words are printed inside, on the second page, in English, French, and Spanish. These words, along with the passport that they’re printed in, grant permission to any US citizen or US national—that is, someone who’s born in American Samoa—to enter a foreign country or its jurisdiction. A passport serves as a marker of citizenship, of belonging in a particular country. Some people have multiple passports and therefore have citizenship in multiple countries. Some countries, on the other hand, will only allow you to claim citizenship in their country if you’re going to hold a passport from them—such places as China, Japan, Austria, or Poland.

For all intents and purposes, a passport isn’t much more than a little book that has information in it about who you are and keeps a record of all the places that you’ve been and any other specific permissions you may have when travelling outside your home country. It’s a functional document, if you will. But those words on the second page are what really make the passport important. Those words that ask for permission for the person “named herein to pass.” Those words carry with them a particular authority—the authority of the Secretary of State of the United States of America. It could just as easily read “to all whom it may concern, please permit the citizen or national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.”

But instead what we have is the Secretary of State requesting that the passport holder be given free passage. The Secretary of State, fourth in the line of succession to become President of the United States, should disaster strike, requests that you be given free passage because you possess this document with these words written in it. Someone, someone specific, someone who can be named—their authority backs up your freedom to pass freely from here to there when travelling abroad. It’s not just a nameless nobody, but someone with the authority.

Putting your name, or a symbol that denotes your name, on a document has long been a sign of a document’s power. An unsigned check is powerless, but if the account holder or an authorized signatory signs it—that is, puts their name on it—that check becomes valid and worth whatever amount is written on it.

When I bless a marriage for a couple, I sign the marriage certificate and the marriage becomes legal. Without the signature of someone recognized with the authority to sign a marriage certificate, the couple isn’t considered married. Likewise, I put my own name on that document and attest that the couple may lawfully wed.

Throughout history, before people travelled the globe round quite like we do today, when someone would move into a new town, they might request letters of introduction from someone they knew where they were currently living who knew someone where they were moving. These letters of introduction served as a means of vouching for the newcomer’s character. Whoever wrote the letter of introduction would put their own reputation on the line for the one who carried it, and the one who carried the letter trusted that they would be received in the same way that the letter writer would be by whomever they showed it to. But all that would be worthless without a signature—without the name of the one whose reputation and character backed up the newcomer.

What gives a check, what gives a marriage license, what gives letters of introduction—or deeds, or loans, or wills, or diplomas—what gives these things their validity is the authority of the names of whoever signs on them. Someone, someone specific, someone who can be named—their authority backs up what these things stand for. It’s not just a nameless nobody, but someone with the authority.

And so it is today that we celebrate the holy name of Jesus. Jesus—whose actual name would’ve been a shortened version, a nickname, if you will, for “Joshua”—was named before he was even born. Both Matthew and Luke’s gospels recount how an angel shows up, either to Joseph or to Mary, depending on the account, and tells the respective parents that the child Mary is pregnant with is from God and his name shall be called Jesus. Now—we hear this name so much that we might miss just why this name is so, so, so important, but we shouldn’t. Because the name “Jesus” is significant…It’s full of authority and power. In today’s gospel, the angel who speaks to Joseph in a dream tells him, “you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” When Matthew wrote this, he didn’t intend for us to simply gloss over it, but rather what he says in the original Greek is more like “and you shall call his name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins.” He is named Jesus because he saves us from our sins. And why is that so significant? Because the very name “Jesus,” quite simply and literally means “God saves.”

In his very name, Jesus reveals to us his purpose—and his authority and his power. He is called Jesus because he is the one who restores us to right relationship with God by undoing everything that would stand in the way of God’s love for us. Jesus is the one who comes down from heaven, wholly God and wholly man, who saves us, who heals us, who restores us, who reconciles us—and by his very name we know that he is the one who does these things. Someone, someone specific, someone who can be named—the authority of his name backs up our salvation, backs up our relationship with God, backs up our hope, our faith, and our love. It’s not just a nameless nobody who does it for us. It’s Jesus—who has a name, a name with power, a name with authority.

We call Jesus many names, but the holy name given him by his parents is still the one that most clearly reveals to us what difference it makes for us that he has all those other names. Jesus—“God saves.” And more importantly, God saves us through the one whose very name tells us that—Jesus. Whatever we call Jesus, be it Son of God; be it the Way, the Truth, the Life; be it King of kings and Lord of lords; be it the Lamb of God—whatever we call Jesus, his name is and remains what he does—“God saves.” And we who have been baptized with him into death and resurrection—we who bear his name upon ourselves, who call ourselves Christians, Christ-ians—we also possess the same authority and power of Jesus’ name. He has granted it to us, and so we too must consider ourselves reconcilers, healers, and restorers. We are to be named Christians because we are Jesus’ hands, feet, mouth, eyes, ears, arms, and legs in the world. We are to be named Christians because someone, someone specific, someone who can be named—because Jesus has given himself up for our sake that we might be free to lead lives that conform, that confess to the authority and power of his name.

“God saves”—the name with the authority and power for us to pass without delay or hindrance from death to life, to pass from hate to love, to pass from darkness to light. “God saves”—the name of the one who blesses us that we might be a blessing. Jesus—someone, someone specific, someone who can be named…by and for us for our salvation.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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