The Holy Name of Our Lord
January 1, 2020
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Amen.
We’re not so easy to surprise these days. It might be that we have access to so much information, day in and day out, that nothing much gets past us. Or it might be that the massive advertising machine that constantly bombards us has left us numb and we’ve simply stopped sifting the incoming information—to much, too fast, too much the same. What would it take to surprise us?
When the Jewish people had lived outside of the land for some time, and had all but forgotten their God, God declared through the prophet Isaiah:
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness.
It was time for something new, or at least something not done for a long time. God would save his people from Babylon, bring them back, though they had forgotten their God and perhaps forgotten why they had been banished to the ends of the earth. I wonder if they were surprised.
In a way, this scenario is replayed in Jesus, and it begins with the announcement of his name, first by the angel—to Mary in Luke, to Joseph in Matthew—"you shall name him Jesus.” But the new thing God was doing would not be seen immediately in the name Jesus, not if you looked directly at it. Joshua, Moses successor, first bore the name, Yeshua, which means God saves, or the salvation of God. Transliterated into Greek, it becomes Iesous, and eventually it becomes for us, Jesus. Over the centuries, from Joshua to Jesus, the name proved to be a popular one, probably because of the ancient memories it evoked. It was a common name in Jesus’ day.
Now, it is tempting to imagine that Joshua and Jesus bear a prophetic sort of connection, that the former launched a program to be completed by the latter. But whether this is so or not, they bear the same name to illustrate a crucial difference, to exalt that difference, a new thing, an unprecedented thing, that God would do. Joshua was a savior, an instrument of divine intervention, but his power to save was military power. He saved via conquest, and to read the accounts of his military exploits in the land flowing with milk and honey, it was a violent, terrible conquest. The son of Mary and Joseph too would be called Yeshua because he would save his people. But how vastly different a salvation! Joshua brought the kind of divine intervention that the people would become accustomed to, that they would imagine of the coming Messiah. Israel firmly believed that the danger, the problem to be dealt with, was out there, the enemies of Israel and of Israel’s God. The baby was to be named Jesus, Yeshua, because he would save the people from their sins. This was unheard of, or almost so: some of the prophets whispered of such things. The name Jesus, as explained by the angel, would echo ancient Joshua but break the ancient mold, redefining salvation and divine power all at once.
The name given to Jesus is in the first instance an expression of His humanity. The three Gospels speak of One who bears this common name. It is by this name that as an adult he is discussed among the people. This is the name by which he is addressed. To distinguish him from others of the same name there is added his name was linked to a place, Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Nazarene, or his name was linked to his parents. The phrase “son of David” is also added to show that he belonged to the house of David. But at root in the name is his humanity: a human instrument of salvation like the first Yeshua, but a human instrument of a different character and composition, used in an entirely new way.
The difference, the utterly surprising thing about Jesus, is celebrated in an equally surprising set of comments worked into a creed-like piece that forms the central statement of Paul’s letter to the Philippian church, and perhaps the most profound theological statement about this Jesus in Scripture. This piece surprises in multiple ways. First of all, like most theological statements in the NT, it is given to illustrate something as ordinary as humility (ordinary in theory if not in practice). But then come the real surprises, which reach their climax in, of all things, the name of Jesus.
5 Let the same humility be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
8 And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Here, from the perspective of Jesus’ divine status, rolled into just a few lines, is the pre-human existence, the becoming human, dying, resurrection, and exaltation of the Son of God. But whatever the climax of this might be, the central point, described here as an “emptying out,” is the entrance of this Jesus into human being. The same reality celebrated in the eighth-day naming of the baby boy by his parents. When Joseph and Mary named their baby “Jesus,” without knowing the immensity of what they were doing, they were acting out the script later written by Paul in Philippians—they were in effect gathering together the past and the future of God and declaring it all present in this moment of naming, in this eight-day old infant who would bear the name “God’s salvation.”But I’ve saved the biggest surprise for last. The meaning of Paul’s reference to Jesus’ “emptying himself out” (kenosis) has provoked no end of interesting interpretations. It is some kind of “letting go”—of equality with God, Paul says explicitly, of entitlement, and so on. But above all it is a metaphorical description of incarnation, which is further described as the service of slavery, and the exercise of obedience. All of these things Jesus performed perfectly, to the greatest extent possible, but that is not the surprise. In fact, the Philippian text does not say that Christ gave up anything. Rather, read carefully, it suggests that he added to himself that which he did not have before—“the form of a slave,” “the likeness of human beings.” In becoming incarnate, the Christ, the Son of God, became more than God, if this is conceivable, not less than God. He became what God could only become by a surprising bit of divine arithmetic—a subtraction (at least viewed from one perspective) that produced an addition, becoming what God could not otherwise have become, a slave, a servant; experiencing what God otherwise could not have experienced, death, resurrection. All of this is the surprise hidden away in the common name of Jesus, given to an eight-day old baby boy. Today we celebrate this ordinary moment, and in it, if we look closely, we can see that God has consecrated the ordinary, made it holy, declared it special. Perhaps that comes as a surprise. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
© 2020 Philip H. Towner