THE NAME OF JESUS
Sometimes the ancient biblical story seems to select an already existing present-day story. In translating the passage from Matt 1:18–21, in which Mary is found to be pregnant and the angel convinces the understandably reluctant Joseph to marry her and name the baby “Jesus,” I noticed that the opening sentence (usually translated “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way”) contained the Greek word “genesis,” translated here as “birth.” Literally, “genesis” means “beginning” or “origin” or “birth.” Here the parallel between the beginning of all life in the first book of the Old Testament and the beginning of new life in the first book of the New Testament is too important to miss.
In both cases genesis is the work of the Spirit of God and it is very good. And in both cases the name of the creature conveys the point: “Adam,” meaning “humankind”; “Jesus,” a form of a Hebrew word meaning “God saves.” Each one is the rare person whose name means exactly what it says. “Adam” identifies all people as God’s creatures (and later, also as sinners). “Jesus” tells us who he is and what he does: he is God, and he does salvation. That’s why we sing “Jesus, Name All Names Above,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” and “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds.”
“Jesus” would seem to be the most widely known and respected name in the whole world, even if at that moment it must have sounded to Joseph like the worst imaginable suggestion for naming that baby. He wanted to break off the engagement, yet not only was he not to do that, but the angel was saying that the baby ought to have a highfalutin name that would call even more attention to an already embarrassing situation. Why not something less attention-getting than “Jesus” (God saves)?
Some years ago, when personal computers were first coming in, I was just learning to use a word processor–one step up from a typewriter. It was slow and cumbersome but it had one feature I liked a lot. Whenever I made a typing error the word processor beeped. Or when I typed a word it didn’t recognize, such as “hermeneutics,” it beeped. Imagine my surprise when I typed the most famous name in all the world and my word processor beeped.
It knew Adam and Eve and Abraham and Sarah; it knew Isaac and Jacob, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Amos; and Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, and Paul. For goodness’ sake, it knew Muhammad and Confucius and the Buddha, Aquinas and Luther, Calvin and Wesley. It knew Herod and Nero and even Lady Godiva and Madonna! It knew all of these, but it didn’t recognize “Jesus.” It beeped every time I typed Jesus.
I could have fixed this, of course, but I left it–to remind me that Jesus was and is a scandal: God hidden in human flesh; one who is righteous precisely in relating to sinners; an offense from conception to crucifixion, unrecognized by wisdom both human and mechanical.
Christmas is about the genesis of Jesus, the second great creative work of the Spirit. Just as the Spirit once was the sole source of all life, so now again the Spirit is the sole source of new life–first in Mary’s womb, now in us. As someone has said, “Every conversion is a virgin birth.” Mary bore a child. His name was “Jesus.” “Christ,” “Messiah,” “Son,” “Lord”–these are all titles; but his name is Jesus. That may have seemed to Joseph to have been a mistake, just as it did to my word processor. Yet a “beep” calls attention to something important–like a tornado warning moving across the bottom of a television screen or the surprising name of Jesus.
Some other connections I have made with stories, doctrines, or artifacts and aspects of Christmas include the following:
- I recently used the details of my birth certificate, with all of its names, dates, times, and place –which lock a person into historical, social, familial, and legal reality–to get at the importance of Paul’s words in Gal 4:4–5. In the fullness of time God’s Son was “born of a woman, born under the law [emphasis added], in order to redeem those who were under the law” (which here, in the context of Paul’s letter, means “enslaved to sin”). Notice that in this passage Jesus’ birth in itself does not redeem us from the law; his birth is his submitting to its dominion in a particular time and place in historical, cultural, and political reality. Our deliverance is the result of his taking the curse of the law upon himself in his suffering and death, thereby setting us free from it, so that we might receive adoption as sons and daughters of God (v. 5b).
- In Luke 2:8–20, after hearing the angelic announcement of the birth of the Messiah, listening to a choir of angels praising God, going to Bethlehem, and seeing Mary, Joseph, and the child in the manger, we learn that “the shepherds returned.” After the most astonishing night of their lives (or anyone’s life) they went back to their sheep and their fields and their work. They didn’t go to seminary; they didn’t start a crusade or write a book or appear on a talk show or create a website. They went back to where they had come from. Why? Their action fits perfectly with the story as a whole. The God of heaven and earth becomes incarnate (enfleshed) in the baby Jesus. In him we see God deep in the flesh. We see salvation that does not save us from the world but for it. Here we meet the God who calls people to obedience precisely in their ordinary lives, because nothing created by God and assumed by God’s enfleshment is adequately described as “ordinary.” Meeting the God who is in Christ is not about spiritual transcendence or being especially “religious” or fleeing earthly life for that which is novel or extraordinary or mystical, for that is not where Jesus is. He is in, with, and under the creaturely, amid the historical, physical, political, economic, and social stuff where humans live, love, serve, and celebrate. As with those shepherds, we too may return in good faith to those people and responsibilities that God has given us.
On Sundays, unlike in a brief weekday chapel sermon, a preacher can take enough time to retell the biblical basis for the sermon and make the connection more explicit between the “what” of the text and the “so what” of the sermon. Failing to allow people to see how the biblical text “authorizes” the proclamation makes sermons more difficult for hearers to follow and may undercut even a good sermon by implying that it is only the preacher’s opinion.
Stories or examples must not replace the text but instead should help to establish its claim as God’s word on the hearer.6 Yet with the Christmas stories in the Bible, their association with childhood and miraculous occurrences may have already eliminated any claim those stories by themselves can make on many adults. That is the reason for trying to find new ways into those biblical passages, even with the risks such attempts involve.7
Used with permission: Word & World, Volume 27/4 (Fall 2007) 441-443.
6Cf. Scott Cormode, Making Spiritual Sense: Christian Leaders as Spiritual Interpreters (Nashville: Abingdon, 2006). Cormode offers careful analyses of how stories help to legitimate meanings of texts, doctrines, or practices–a key responsibility for Christian leaders.
7A few of my sermons have been published and may be consulted as further examples of how I have tried to approach Christmas preaching. See “‘Dominus Vobiscum’: Luke 1:26–31,” Currents in Theology and Mission 21 (December 1994) 455–457. “People of His Pasture: Psalm 95:7a,” Currents in Theology and Mission 18 (April 1991) 122–124, is not a Christmas sermon but I include it here because a short story served to break open a biblical text in a way that had not happened for me previously.