Friday, December 23, 2016

What's In a Name?: Reflection on Matt 1:18–25 for Advent and Christmas

Names are important. Modern parents to be spend significant time selecting just the right name for their unborn children. Dozens of “Baby Name” books are available for purchase. Moms and dads can scan through thousands of names to find the perfect one for their son or daughter. Some families carry on longstanding traditions of naming the firstborn after the father; others name a child after a favorite aunt or uncle. Whether they name the child in honor of a beloved relative or after a famous person, they do so in the hope that the child will embody the best qualities of his or her eponymous predecessor.

 In Matthew 1:18–25, we read about the naming of Jesus. Let us ponder this passage to experience its power this year:

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
    and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
 Our Scripture text recounts the naming of Jesus. In previous verses, Matthew has offered a detailed genealogy that links Jesus to Israel's history. In particular, Jesus is called Son of Abraham, Son of David, and Messiah (Christ). Abraham was the fountainhead of God’s people. The LORD had called Abraham to serve as the father of a new people through whom all peoples would be blessed.[i] The LORD had raised up David to serve as the earthly ruler of God’s kingdom.[ii] To call a person “Messiah” was tantamount to declaring that the era of the fulfillment of God’s promises was at hand. All of these titles would have resonated deeply with the people of Jesus' day. They would have raised expectations and reestablished hope of a new and dramatic work of God.
  Yet our text does not burst forth in a birth announcement complete with trumpet rolls and fireworks. The birth of the Messiah will mark the beginning of the most important life in the history of the eternity. But it is not one marked with fanfare. There will be no headlines in the newspapers. It will not occur in the center of political and religious power in Jerusalem. Instead it will occur under the shadow of scandal. Moreover the familiar names of Jesus and Emmanuel will offer us a glimpse of the essence of Jesus’ life and mission.
A Scandalous Beginning? 
Given Jesus’ pedigree as son of Abraham and son of David, it seems inconceivable that God in his wisdom would send his son to be born under questionable circumstances. At least it does to those schooled in the wisdom of the world. The world values tidiness, symbolism, and appearances. If Jesus were running for political office, his opponent would be running negative ads against him reminding everyone of his possible illegitimate birth. But God does not play by the rules of the powerful and the rich. In fact, God tends to work from the outside and backsides of life to bring about his salvation. If we reexamine Jesus’ ancestors, it is remarkable that his family tree includes four other named women (Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, the wife of Urriah [Bathsheba]).[iii] This inclusion of women in a male-dominated genealogy is unusual in its self, but these four women were all involved in unseemly or at least unusual relationships. Tamar tricked her father-in-law Jacob into having sex with her in order to have a son; Rahab was a Canaanite and perhaps a prostitute in Jericho; Ruth was a foreigner, a Moabite; and Bathsheba was involved in an adulterous relationship with David.  Yet, God worked through these women and these unusual circumstances to advance the line of people through whom Jesus would be born.
So it should come as no surprise that Jesus the Messiah was born to a woman who was a virgin. However, Joseph her fiancé was no dolt. He knew how a woman became pregnant. He must have been feeling both betrayed and humiliated. He could have demanded a public accounting for her indiscretion. But our text describes him as “a righteous man.” Joseph was a person who actively lived a life of integrity and wholeness before God. He sought to value and serve God and others above his own rights and prerogatives. Thus, Joseph made the decision to end his engagement to Mary, but to do so in such a way as to not draw attention to Mary’s supposed immorality.

   At this point, God appears to Joseph in a dream. This is not God’s first appearance in the story. The narrator has already informed the reader that Mary is pregnant due to divine action through the agency of the Holy Spirit. Now Joseph learns the truth and when he wakes up he takes Mary for his wife. This remarkable story illustrates the reality that God can work through the messiness of human life and how the faithfulness of God’s people can help God advance his mission.
Two Names
In our culture, Christmas has become a secular holiday. This is epitomized by the tradition of decorating homes with lights. How often today do we see heavily decorated yards filled with images of Winnie the Pooh, Santa Claus, the Grinch, reindeer, and other holiday décor? Yet often in the middle of these displays, one finds a plastic baby Jesus lying in a manger. The baby Jesus becomes an alien add on to the Christmas holiday. He is far separated from the Crucified and Risen Lord of the Church. In the 2006 comedy, Talledega Nights, Will Farrell’s character Ricky Bobby offers grace over meals in which he consistently prays to “Lord Baby Jesus.”[iv] When challenged by his wife to acknowledge that Jesus grew up, he replies, “I like the Christmas Jesus the best.”

But in his presentation of Jesus, Matthew forces us to reflect on his adult life from the beginning. The central focus in our text is the naming of the child because this is no ordinary baby. It is in the naming of Jesus that Matthew forces us to confront the power and potential of Jesus’ life and work.
He will Save his people from their Sins
The Lord reveals to Joseph in the dream two names for the child that capture and epitomize the boy’s life and mission. First, the Lord orders Joseph to name the child “Jesus for he will save his people from their sins.” Jesus is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew name Joshua. It literally means, “The Lord saves.” Just as Joshua embodied this name as he led God’s people into the promised land of Canaan. Jesus will inaugurate a new era of salvation. Yet notice that the salvation that Jesus will bring involves salvation from their sins. Since this is the goal, it is profound to observe that Jesus fulfills his name by dying on the cross. Years down the road, on the night on which he was betrayed, Jesus celebrated the Lord’s supper with his disciples saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.”[v] In other words, Matthew is announcing from the beginning of his story that the focus of Jesus’ life will be bringing salvation from sins by means of Jesus’ death on a cross.

Who will be the beneficiary of this salvation? Our text says, “his people.” This begs a crucial question for us: Who are his people? Jesus’ ministry will subvert any attempt to define narrowly “his people.” Jesus intentionally breaks down religious and cultural boundaries by healing the sick, interacting with women, and even extending salvation to gentiles. By the end of the Gospel, he sends out his disciples to engage “all nations” with the Gospel message.[vi]
Emmanuel: God is with Us
Matthew adds a footnote to the name, Jesus. He reminds the reader that Jesus’ birth brings to fulfillment an ancient prophecy from Isaiah about a virgin giving birth to a son. Isaiah had foreseen the child being given the name, Emmanuel. Emmanuel means, “God is with us.” Profoundly this second name for Jesus sounds a critical theme for understanding the mission of Jesus. It is more than an affirmation of God’s presence in Jesus during his earthly life. If the name Jesus points to the cross where Jesus saved “his people from their sins”, then Emmanuel affirms the on-going presence of the Resurrected Jesus in the life of his people.

For disciples of Jesus, this is critical. We are not merely persons who admire a life well lived by attempting to emulate Jesus’ life. Instead, Emmanuel is a promise that God will be eternally present with his people through the person of the Risen Jesus. Most profoundly Jesus promises to accompany his people as they spread across the globe to fulfill Jesus’ final command to make disciples of all nations. Matthew’s Gospel ends with this promise: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[vii]
Jesus fully embodies his names. But what about us? Each of us has been given a name by our parents. But in Christ, God has granted each of us a new names—Christian, child of God, son or daughter of God. Jesus came to deliver us from our sins and to lead us into the world with good news to share. In this season as the world awaits the light of Christ, will we follow him?

[i]Genesis 12:3b
[ii]2 Sam 7; Ps 2
[iii]Matt 1:1-17
[v]Matt 26:27-28
[vi]Matt 28:19-20
[vii]Matt 28:20b

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