A sermon preached by the Reverend Trevor Jamison at
Saint Columba’s United Reformed Church, North Shields, 22nd December 2019
What’s in a name? Whenever a baby is born one of the first things that people want to know is the child’s name. Legally, in England, I believe you have forty-two days in which register a birth, so you don’t have to name the child until then. Leave it more than a couple of days, however, and tongues begin to wag. These days, people think that names are important, though probably not as much as they did in ancient times. Nowadays, someone may be named for someone else or for somewhere or something that is important to a child’s parents. That was also true a couple of thousand years ago, but in addition, people also named a child with their future in mind.
Today’s reading from Matthew’s Gospel introduces us to two names about a baby Mary was soon to have. One name was designed to tell people who this child was, and the other was designed to tell people what he would do. And these names were ‘Emmanuel’ and ‘Jesus’. Since we are almost at Christmas, and since the whole Christmas thing first got going as a celebration of the birth of Jesus, I think it would be good to remind ourselves who Jesus is and what Jesus does, and why that’s worth all the fuss.
Who is Jesus? ‘All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’ (1:23) So, there you have it: Joseph is engaged to Mary. She’s pregnant and he knows he’s not the father. In previous times, legally, he could have had her stoned to death for this but in his times a public writ of divorce was the accepted way to go. We’re told that Joseph was a ‘righteous man’ (1:19), which means that he was law abiding. His decision not to have a public divorce which would, ‘expose her to public disgrace … [but that he] planned to dismiss her quietly,’ (1:19) shows he was a righteous man who interpreted the law in the sense of it being a command of love.
Then came Joseph’s first dream in Matthew’s Gospel. Like his Old Testament namesake, the one with a technicolour dream coat, this Joseph was a bit of a dreamer. And in his dream God’s messenger tells him not to be afraid to stay with Mary, for this pregnancy is a special work of God. Matthew then comments, ‘All this took place to fulfil what has been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us.’’
Now, you don’t need me to tell you that claiming that a young woman who was a virgin had a child, is, to say the least, controversial. Arguments have raged over this, though mostly only since the nineteenth century. Some people, seeing that Matthew points back to our reading from the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, claim that not only did it happen, it was predicted. Others argue that the child referred to in Isaiah is a different one, perhaps a son of the prophet himself; that what was said in Isaiah was that a child was coming who would be a sign that God was still with his people even at a difficult time. Then, they would argue, Matthew picked up the reference and applied it to Jesus because he was the one who, more than anyone else, truly was Emmanuel: God with us. Others still, they just dismiss the whole thing as an impossibility.
Was Mary a virgin when her child was conceived? I’ve got to say that my view on that tends to bounce back and forward in a way that’s a bit like the arguments I have just described. I don’t lose too much sleep over that or devote much time to it, though, because, the question about whether Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived and born is actually pretty small beer in comparison to the magnitude of the assertion that he was born at all.
‘And they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God is with us.’ The claim in the Gospels – in the books of New Testament as a whole – is that God was born into the world in the person of a human being; it’s known as the doctrine of the incarnation. In a specific place, at a specific time, carried by and born to a specific mother; named by, and so legally accepted into the family of a specific father, God came into the world, a human being. Not, as some argued in the early centuries of the Church, God coming to earth, just appearing to be a human being; nor, according to the arguments of some others, an outstanding human being who was god-like, or promoted to godly status; but God/human, in some way we can’t explain but only witness and experience.
And that’s what Matthew signals for us: ‘and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, God with us.’ That’s who he is. But why go to the bother? Why should God take the trouble to ‘be with us’ in or as a human being in first century Bethlehem and beyond? Well, the clue’s in the other name that Matthew reports in his Gospel. The angelic messenger in Joseph’s dream tells him, ‘She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ (1:21)
The name Jesus, or Yeshua, or Hosea, or Joshua, means something like, “God saves.” And the message for Joseph is that you will call him “God saves” because ‘he will save his people from their sins.’ Being saved from our sins is traditionalist in-house Christian language that I wouldn’t rush to use when talking with others about the meaning of Christmas. In fact, it seems a little odd to be doing so in a sermon today. And yet, we blithely sing about it at Christmas time:
‘Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long’: verse 3 of ‘It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.
‘No ear may hear his coming; but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in’: verse 3 of ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem.
‘When sin departs before his grace, then life and health come in its place’: verse 3 of On Christmas Night All Christians Sing.
And although it doesn’t mention the “S” word itself the sentiment is certainly there in,
God rest ye merry gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember Christ our Saviour
Was born on Christmas Day
To save us all from Satan’s pow’r
When we were gone astray.
So, if Jesus was born to save us from our sins why don’t we talk about it more at Christmas time? Perhaps I could devote my three-minute reflection at our Christmas Eve carol service to the topic of sin. How do you think that might go down? Maybe not, then.
I suspect that we don’t want to talk about being saved from sin at Christmas time for at least three reasons. First, it might spoil people’s enjoyment of Christmas, and we have thoroughly bought into the idea that Christmas is about enjoying ourselves. No one loves a sin-obsessed party pooper. Second, we are too accepting of an inadequate understanding of sin that sees it simply in terms of breaking rules that are impossible to keep anyway, but that churches have been over eager to police all the same. Third, we don’t like to think of ourselves as sinners in the wider sense of the term that reflects the reality of life in this world.
Sin is not just about rule keeping, though that’s part of it; God’s rules about loving God, loving your neighbour and loving yourself. Sin is a condition from which we suffer. Its signs and symptoms are seen in our failure to love others as we would be loved, in failing to do what we know is the right thing, in failing to avoid doing things we know are harmful; it’s a falling short of what we know we should be, and what we believe God desires us to be. It’s a broader, deeper, bigger thing than keeping some rules (or at least appearing to do so).
And if you want to see sin at work, consider how, as a society, we celebrate Christmas. Personally, I love all the Christmas razzmatazz – lights, trees, get-togethers, food, drink … and getting presents! It is all human, joyful stuff, the sort of thing that our creator likes to see; people enjoying life. We know, however, that we fall short of the ideal in celebrating Christmas. Relationships can come under immense strain, especially if we feel we have to fake it for Christmas. Our Accident and Emergency departments will be awash with those who have overindulged, especially on the drink, And the decorations and the trees and the illuminated reindeers, and the food and drink, and the perfect gifts, come at a financial price that those with little can least afford; people driven deep into debt by unrealistic expectations heaped upon them. And don’t get me started in television advertising …. The human race: trapped into being less than God wants us to be, and suffering consequences at Christmas.
BUT! That’s not the whole story. This condition, this societal sin-sickness does not have the last word. The last word, the good news, is that rather than reject us for such shortcomings God instead chooses to be with us. The good news is that God, in Jesus, is at work to save us from this situation: ‘you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ From his birth and throughout his life of Jesus, God was with and is with us: ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,’ says Jesus elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel. (18:20) And this Gospel of Matthew, whose opening verse proclaims ‘Jesus the Messiah’ (1:1) concludes with, ‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ (28:29)
So, what’s in a name? Quite a lot, when Emmanuel tells us that God is with us, wherever we are, and whoever we are, and that in Jesus this God is here to save us, whatever we have done or whatever has been done to us. And that’s the good news that the cause for our Christmas celebration.