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January 1, 2006 (The Name of Jesus)—“He Was Called Jesus”

Pastor David Barber

Luke 2:15-21

Sisters and brothers, grace be unto you and peace from God our loving Creator and from our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today, on the first day of a new year, we celebrate the Name of Jesus. This day used to be called “The Circumcision and The Name of Jesus” since both take place in our Gospel for today.

I don’t know if the focus on circumcision was too gruesome, or if it was just too embarrassing, or if it didn’t have any contemporary application for us Christians, but an emphasis on this ritual was dropped.

In a predecessor hymnal to our Lutheran Book of Worship, the “Prayer of the Day” did try to make some application by praying: “Grant us the true circumcision of the spirit, that our hearts maybe pure from our sinful desires and lusts.”

I don’t know which one is more painful—circumcision of the heart or circumcision of other body parts! But both, in different ways, can cause a little bit of hurt and affliction!

According to custom, as a child of Jewish parents, Jesus was circumcised and given a name when he was eight days old. The pain and the blood of circumcision are coupled with the joy of naming a new baby.

This made Jesus just like any other male child born to Jewish parents. He was circumcised, and circumcision for the Jew acted as a sign of the covenant between God and God’s people. There was always that mark on the body that reminded the Jewish male of whose child he really was.

Why did it have to be circumcision? Once again you have the men making the rules, and once again, the men didn’t have it biologically correct. So what’s new?

Believe it or not—and women, please don’t laugh or throw anything at me—they believed that the life giving process had everything to do with the male. The female was only the receptacle, and the male was looked upon as the life-giver.

Therefore, through the act of circumcision, a person was giving their life unto God, and it was nothing less than the totality of one’s whole being.

It was the same for Jesus. In this ceremony his life was dedicated to God, and he was given a name—the same name that was given by Gabriel when he appeared to Mary. “You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”

There was certainly nothing earth-shaking about this name. Many male children were given the name Joshua or Jesus. In fact, it made the “top ten list of names” several years in a row. Even today, in some cultures, Jesus is a fairly common name to give to a baby.

Around this place the pre-school children sometimes refer to me as Jesus, and I try to do everything to foster such an attitude. Where I get into trouble is when I expect it at home, and Karen just refuses to call me by that name—God maybe, but not Jesus!

What’s in a name? For some folks the choosing of a name is very important. A name is who we are, and sometimes it shapes us and gives us something to grow into. The giving of a name can have a powerful effect on a child’s life and what this child becomes.

Sometimes the name we’ve been given leads to all sorts of ridicule especially for children. For instance, I have a cousin through marriage who grew up with the last name of Stuhl.

He didn’t want his child to experience the same torture that he experienced as a child so he changed his name. He’s not alone. Apparently 50,000 people a year go to court to have a name change.

In the Bible the choosing of a name is monumental. A name in the Bible tells much about who and what a person is, and biblical names are frequently changed to match an individual’s personality.

Issac, the child of Abraham and Sarah’s old age, means “laughing boy.” Jacob, the one who stole Esau’s birthright, means “cheater,” and Abraham means “the father of many.” Simon, the disciple of Jesus, became Peter, which means “rock.”

It’s also interesting that in regard to the Ten Commandments—commandments that speak to the “biggies” like adultery, murder, and theft—there are two commandments that address the honoring of a name. That’s 20% of the commandments.

The second commandment tells us not to take God’s name in vain, and the eighth commandment tells us not to bear false witness against our neighbor—which also implies the honoring and the healthy use of our neighbor’s name.

Our names are important to us. They’re a gift, and when we give that name to someone else to use, it, too, is a most special gift. “Please call me—day or night—if there is need,” we sometimes say.

This morning we are given the gift of a name—the name of Jesus. Our lessons for today make it clear that something special is being given to us.

Certainly the naming of Jesus is important, but what is even more significant is that Jesus is named at all. Through this name, God is committed to us. God chooses to become one of us, to become vulnerable among us.

In Jesus we are given a handle on God and God becomes vulnerable to us. “This is God loving us at face value and allowing us to know a name, a face, and a life lived among us.”

This is a God who is with us in life and death and a God who loves us in the name of Jesus with an everlasting love. This is a God, who through the common and ordinary events of circumcision and a name, becomes fully human and accessible to us.

For us, this is a name of forgiveness. This is a name of mercy. This is name of grace and unconditional love. This is name which gives us life. In the name of Jesus, we become who we are fully meant to be—loving God with all our being and loving our neighbor as we love ourselves.

Unfortunately, we also dishonor the name of Jesus—not just by using his name as an expletive when someone cuts us off in traffic. We dishonor the name of Jesus when through his name we exclude and condemn others, we go to war, or in our self-righteousness, we make pronouncements about who is worthy and unworthy.

In our world much good has been done in the name of Jesus, but we’ve also seen far too many acts of hatred and violence committed in his name as well.

A couple of weeks ago, someone anonymously put in my puka in the office a picture of Jesus. Jesus was shaking his head in bewilderment, and said, “Why do my followers have to be such idiots?” Of course, I believe this applies to all those other followers who misuse the name of Jesus—like Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson—but certainly not me.

The name of Jesus has been given to us as a gift. This means we belong to Jesus. He doesn’t belong to us especially when we use his name for our personal crusades and our personal agendas.

It’s not up to us to decide whom Jesus should love or save. And for that matter, we as well don’t get to decide whom we will love and forgive and to whom we will proclaim the good news. If we are sent out in the name of Jesus, that’s not our call.

Through the waters of Holy Baptism, we, too, bear the name of Jesus. We are baptized into Christ Jesus, and we, too, are marked—not with the mark of circumcision—but with the mark of the cross. We bear his name only to die with Christ but also to be resurrected through him as well.

Jesus is the name that we carry with us into the world. We carry the name of hope, love, friendship, courage, and the name that will persevere come what may.

This morning we heard these familiar words from the benediction:

“The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord’s face shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord look upon you with favor, and give you peace.”

How do you suppose God blesses and keeps? How do you suppose the face of God will shine upon all those places where folks sit in darkness and be gracious to them? How will God’s favor and peace be given to a world so desperately in need?

Might I suggest that it will happen through you as you leave this place with the crucified Jesus upon your foreheads and the name of Jesus upon your lips. It will happen as we become Jesus for others.

In other words, wherever we go, people out there have a right to expect that Jesus will be seen through us as individuals and through this faith community. As God is seen in the face of Jesus, so is the face of Jesus seen in us.

What a wonderful gift and a fantastic status has been bestowed upon us! But it’s also very scary as well, isn’t it?

This day—on this very first day of 2006—we go forth with the assurance that we have been named and claimed, adopted and forgiven through the gift of our baptism.

What a tremendous way to begin this New Year—with the name of Jesus upon our lips and within our lives—bearing this name to all the world in our words and actions in our daily roles and obligations.

In this New Year, may God bless you as you bear the name of Jesus and become a blessing to others.


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