(Isaiah 7, 10-16; Romans 1,1-7; Matthew 1, 18-25)
You can sometimes tell when a person was born by their name. I don’t just mean the time of year (we have probably all met people called Holly, or Noel, or Natalie because they were born on Christmas Day) but the decade. There are names like Herbert, Hilda, Ada, and Elsie that were typical of my parents’ generation; the Marilyns and Jennifers and Brians who are the same age as me; and others like Tracy and Darren which came into fashion in the Sixties and Seventies.
When we chose names for our own children, we tried to choose names that were timeless, and that wouldn’t identify them as being born in a certain era. We also tried to find names that wouldn’t be easy to shorten, though we failed in that – schoolchildren can manufacture a nickname no matter what name you choose!
What we didn’t give any consideration to was the meaning of our children’s names. I only found out recently that the name of our son means exactly the same as the (different) name of our grandson. Both their names mean ‘God has heard’. I wonder if any of you know what names they are?*
In Bible times, the meaning of a name was very important. That was unfortunate if you were the child of a prophet, since you were likely to be given a name which was in itself a prophecy – and some of them could be very long and complicated! Hosea called his first child Jezreel, meaning God plants, but when his wife was unfaithful and he saw that as a metaphor for Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, he called their next two children Loruhamah (no more mercy) and Loammi (not my people) as a warning to the nation.
Isaiah (whose own name means Salvation of God) also gave his two sons prophetic names. The first was a hopeful name: Shearjashub, meaning a remnant shall return; but the second was called Mahershalalhashbaz, which can be translated ‘quick to plunder, swift to spoil’ a prophecy about the actions of the kings attacking Judah.
It is no surprise, then, in our O.T. passage today, to find him advising on the name of a baby soon to be born. Ahaz, King of Judah, is terrified by the prospect of being attacked by the combined forces of Syria and Israel. Isaiah says that a child soon to be born (probably in the royal family) should be called Immanuel, meaning God is with us, and that before he is old enough to be weaned, the threat from Syria and Samaria will have vanished, as both kingdoms will be destroyed by the Assyrians.
In English (as in most of Northern Europe) surnames often come from the occupations followed by our ancestors, or from their personal names. Hence the large numbers of Smiths, Bakers and Cooks, and the Johnsons, Jacksons and Richardsons, descended from people in those occupations or with those names. Names help us to recognise, identify and explain people – and the names given to Jesus are no exception.
In the opening of the Letter to the Romans, which we heard as our N.T. lesson, Paul defines Jesus as the Son of David according to the flesh. So he identifies his place among the rulers of the Jewish people, and argues that he is a continuation of God’s provision for them. Then he calls him Son of God, identifying his coming as a new initiative on God’s part, since he is proclaimed Son of God by being raised from the dead, something which has never happened before. Paul also gives Jesus the surname (which is really a title) of Christ, the Greek form of Messiah, meaning ‘anointed one’. Kings and priests are anointed, and Jesus is both.
Finally, Paul gives all of us names: He calls us ‘saints’ and also those who belong to Jesus Christ, or ‘Christians’. In that name we receive the gifts of faith, obedience and peace.
Our third reading, from the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, also centres around the giving of a name.
Usually, on the fourth Sunday in Advent, we concentrate on Mary, the mother of Jesus; but Matthew’s account centres on Joseph. He and Mary were betrothed when she conceived Jesus. In Jewish law, this meant that they were already considered to be a married couple, even though they had not yet started to live together. When she was found to be pregnant, Joseph would have been entitled to accuse her of adultery and have her and the father of her child punished. At the very least, he would have been entitled to divorce her. Joseph seems to have been a man who knew his Bible, so he was very clear about the options open to him.
But Joseph was also a man whose knowledge went beyond the written law; he knew the name of God, which is another way of saying he knew the character of God; and because he believed that God was merciful, he resolved to be merciful too, and to divorce Mary quietly. Of course, that might have spared her from death, but it would have left her very little in the way of life. In a small town, everyone would have known he had rejected her, and when the child was born, no-one would have been prepared to marry her or care for the child.
Joseph’s name means ‘one who adds’ that is one who goes beyond the minimum that is necessary. He shared the name with a major character from Israel’s past: Joseph of the coat of many colours, Joseph the dreamer, Joseph who saved the people of Israel from famine and kept them in safety in Egypt.
The New Testament Joseph is also one who hears God speaking in dreams, and who acts to save those of God’s people who are vulnerable. His dream contains an instruction to take Mary as his wife, and an assurance that her child is not the result of sin, but the work of the Spirit of God. He is given a personal name to give to her child: Jesus, or in Hebrew, Joshua, which means ‘God saves’.
Joseph married Mary and gave her son the name announced by the angel. But in marrying Mary, he also gave Jesus a family name. In the Aramaic which they all spoke, Jesus would now be known as Yeshua bar Yoseph: Jesus the son of Joseph. Joseph gave to Mary and her son not just a name, but a home, respectability and a place in society.
The Bible and the Christian tradition have given many names to Jesus, as well as those he bore during his lifetime. They look both backward into Jewish history and forward to his unique role. From the Old Testament, he has been given the names from Isaiah’s prophecies; Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. In the New Testament he is known as Messiah, Saviour, Word, Light, Redeemer. In this same passage, Matthew applies to him the name given in Isaiah’s prophecy that we heard earlier, Immanuel, God with us.
One of the hymns we sang this morning, contains another list of names, taken from the Advent Antiphons, traditionally sung during the last days of the season from 17th to 23rd December at Evensong. Jesus is called Adonai, or Lord of Might; Rod of Jesse, from another of Isaiah’s prophecies, which predicts that a new shoot will rise from Jesse’s stock. He is named Key of David, a reference to another passage in Isaiah, where the Key stands for royal authority, a reference taken up by John the Divine in Revelation; and finally he is called Day Spring or Day Star, reflecting Zechariah’s prophecy in the Benedictus, that he will initiate a new dawn, a new beginning in the history of God’s people.
Some of the names given to Jesus in the New Testament have more importance for his earliest followers, since they look back to his Jewish heritage, and proclaim the continuity of God’s provision for them; but others have a more universal appeal. Jesus is the Day Spring, whose coming initiates a new dawn in the relationship between God and the human race. The name Jesus reminds us that God comes to us, not as a ferocious judge of our failings, but as one who saves us from our selfishness and error. The name Immanuel tells us that, no matter how dark and difficult our life seems, God is with us.
Names are so much more than just labels. They can be full of riches if we think about them carefully. In these last few days before Christmas, as we prepare to greet our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, at his birth, may we meditate on his names, and so come to know and love him better, and be ready to receive him more fully into our hearts and lives.
* Samuel and Simon