December 23, 2007
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. (19) And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. (20) But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. (21) She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." (22) All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: (23) "Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel" (which means, God with us). (24) When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, (25) but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus (ESV).
If a woman tells you that her child’s name is Kelsie, spelled K-E-L-S-I-E, what sex do you assume the child to be? Thanks to the popularity of TV star Kelsey Grammer, you might momentarily consider that the child could be a boy, but then the actor’s name is spelled K-E-L-S-E-Y. And anyway, how many males besides him do you know of who have that name, in either spelling? I don’t know any. So, probably your first thought is that the child is female.
In the case of Dr. Kelsie Harder, however, you would be wrong. That Kelsie, K-E-L-S-I-E, died earlier this year at the age of 84, but by then he had made quite a name for himself as an onomastician. Now if you know what an onomastician is, you would ordinarily know more than I do, but I have an advantage in that I looked it up. An onomastician is a student of names and their origins.
Kelsie Harder’s first name came about because his parents wanted their new son to have an unusual name. He already had a sister named Elsie, and they liked the sound of that, so they planted a “K” on the front of it and named him Kelsie. As a result, he spent a lot of time while growing up being bullied by older kids and explaining that he was not a girl. That reminds me of the old Johnnie Cash song about “A Boy Named Sue,” who had to fight all the time because of his name.
“We are at the mercy of our name givers,” Dr. Harder said in a 1987 interview with The Post-Standard of Syracuse. “These things influence us for the rest of our lives, and we have nothing to do with it.”
Dr Harder’s name influenced him. As an adult, he became a professor of English, teaching at several universities, and he also was the author of two books on baby names. In those books, he encouraged parents to give their children names that did not set them up for problems. He warned, for example, that boys named “Jr.” were likely to spend time on a psychoanalyst’s couch and that girls with names like Heather or Tammy were often thought to be not very intelligent. Kelsie Harder said that not me. I apologize to anyone named Heather or Tammy.
In addition to those works, Dr. Harder wrote and edited a wealth of material, much of it about the names of people and places. He presided over the American Name Society, led the usage committee of the American Dialect Society and served as an adviser for the Random House Dictionary and other reference volumes.
He must have made peace with his unusual name though, because when his own son was born, he named him — Kelsie. True to his own advice, however, he did not tack “Jr.” onto the end. [Martin, Douglas. “Kelsie B. Harder, name expert, dies at 84,” The New York Times, April 22, 2007.]
In the Scripture passage before us today, the naming of a child is important. In fact, there are two important names given, both belonging to the same person, but each helping us to know more about him.
The reading tells us that before Jesus was born, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, informing him that the child Mary was carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and that he should not fear to take Mary as his wife. Further, the angel even told Joseph what to name the child — Jesus.
That is the Greek version of the Hebrew or Aramaic Joshua. Jesus or Joshua was a common name. It was the Bob or John of the first century. We know of one other person in the New Testament named Jesus. He was a companion to the apostle Paul and is mentioned in Colossians 4:11. Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, mentions no fewer than 20 different men named Jesus.
Thus, the child whom God sent to be the Savior of the world was given a name common to the time and place, one that by itself did not set him apart from the rest of the human race. If they had kept birth records in those days—they generally did not—but if they had, “Jesus” was the name that would have been entered into the official record.
In the case of this particular child, that name was sometimes used in conjunction with further identifiers, such as Jesus of Nazareth; or Jesus, son of Joseph; or Jesus, son of David (referring to his ancestry). All these were labels referring to the one who was born to Mary around the beginning of the first century A.D.
But while it was a common name, it was not a meaningless name. Many names have very little meaning. The parents just like the way it sounds, and that is fine. But the name Jesus is not like that. Jesus or Joshua means “God is salvation.” The angel who appears to Joseph alludes to that meaning when he says, “... you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” This child was given a name that would be a constant reminder of the saving grace of God.
The angel then explains to Joseph about the divine origin of the child and how the name fulfilled something Isaiah had written about centuries earlier. Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”
In its original context, that statement referred to the fact that the nation of Judah would be delivered from the threat of an invasion by the time a young woman of that day gave birth to the child she was already carrying. That is probably what Isaiah thought when he made that prophecy. But Matthew, looking at it through the lens of what he knew about Jesus, saw it also as prophecy. And thus he took the name given to that child born in Isaiah’s time, Emmanuel, and applied it symbolically to Jesus. And that name, Emmanuel, as Matthew hastens to tell us, means “God is with us.”
Thus, between his given name, Jesus, and his symbolic name, Emmanuel, this child to be born to Mary makes two important affirmations about God. God saves us and God is with us. So when you use the name of Jesus, you are talking about the activity of God, what God does.
This name tells us that God is the author of our salvation. We were originally created for a close relationship with God, but sin came in and destroyed our relationship. We destroyed our relationship with God by our sins. This is sometimes called the “Sin Condition.” Everyone in the world who is without Jesus Christ lives in the “Sin Condition.” Everyone lives with a destroyed relationship with God. We cannot come to God. We cannot have communion with God. We are all condemned to perdition by our sins.
If you read old sermons, and I am probably one of the few people in the world that does that, ministers of previous generations were reluctant to use the term “hell”—because it was often considered profanity. So they spoke of tophet, of fires of perdition, or eternal torment. Same place. Everyone is condemned to tophet, because everyone is a sinner. That is just and right. No one has any complaint. God gives justice. Justice is condemnation.
As the apostle Paul points out he did not see why the Jews were so proud of having the law, the Torah, because no one kept it, and the Gentiles were no better, so all are condemned.
But, fortunately for us, God is not only just. God is merciful. God sent Jesus to save us from the Sin Condition. His name tells us what he does. Jesus changes us and makes us fit for communion with God. In other words, Jesus saves.
Now in our society, we have heard that so much that it gets trivialized. This is a true story, but the names have been changed. A family gathers in New Jersey for the wedding of the oldest son. The Jersey community was not far from New York City as the crow flies, but in terms of ground transportation, it required some effort to get there from the Big Apple.
The first event of the weekend was a dinner for family and friends at a local restaurant. Rachel, the groom’s sister was living in Boston at the time, and she traveled by bus to New York City. From there, she had planned to take a train to the Jersey town where the dinner was, but when she got to New York, she discovered that the train was not running that day due to a fire at a crucial junction point.
Learning of that development, Rachel called her brother Alex for an alternative idea. Alex turned her over to his Hispanic friend, Jesus, who was a long-time resident of the area. Jesus directed her to take a different train, picked her up where it stopped, and took her to the dinner.
So when Jesus drove up with Rachel in his car, someone — predictably — observed that Jesus had “saved” her, and everyone had a good chuckle. Well I guess no harm was intended, and there is an application we can make from that story.
What God did with Jesus was to send him to move us from where we are, from where we cannot be in communion with God, to where we need to be to sit at table with him in the Kingdom of God. We were moved from separation from God to fellowship with God in the daily round of life as well as in the kingdom to come.
“God is salvation.” That is what the name Jesus means. God is our salvation and Jesus is the way God provided for salvation to come to us.
Jesus’ symbolic name, Emmanuel, adds a further dimension to our understanding of God. “God is with us” is a message we need to hear. Our world has layer upon layer of troubles, and our own encounters with life are sometimes hard and difficult. So the reality of God being with us is critical. God is present where we are, in whatever actual situations we find ourselves. We need to know that.
Now recall that we said about God bringing us salvation through Jesus. God makes us fit to be in communion, in connection, with him. People often talk about networking today. Well, Jesus makes us “networkable” with God. Jesus makes us “connectable” with God.
Thus, even in the naming of Jesus, there are two powerful testimonies to remind us of how God comes to us. No matter what we go through, no matter where we are, God comes to us, and God comes with salvation.
That’s plenty of reason to celebrate the birth of the boy named Jesus. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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