Name Him …

Fourth Sunday of Advent/December 18, 2016

Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25

 


When Jeff and I were awaiting the birth of our first child, we didn’t know whether it would be a boy or a girl.  Back then, ultrasounds were not standard protocol for all pregnancies, and mine was utterly normal.  But because we didn’t know whether the little Price would be a boy or a girl, we had to come up with two names.

Jeff was pretty adamant that he did not want a son to be name Jeffrey; he was partial to his middle name, Franklin – a name that I was not overly partial to.  As we worked our way through family names, we soon realized that we had a golden opportunity to name a boy, should we have one, for both of our fathers as well as for our paternal grandfathers.  But Jeff wasn’t overly fond of the name George.

In the end, I prevailed, and while that particular baby was a girl, the baby boy that we had three years later – who now has five children of his own – was named Christopher George.

Names are important.  They carry special meaning, sentiment for other beloved people, the one chance in our lives that many of us have to do something lastingly creative.  Maybe that’s why it is so hard for us to settle on a name for a child.  Our decision is one that will last, literally, a lifetime.  We want to get it right.

Joseph was not really thinking about baby names when God spoke to him in his dreams.  What he was thinking about was what a terrible mess he was in.  What he was thinking about was how he could – kindly and quietly – divorce his betrothed who had come up pregnant.

Joseph was a righteous man, righteous not only in the ways of the law, but also righteous in his spirit.  He would have been well within his rights to have publicly shamed her, to ruin her life by calling attention to her apparent promiscuity.  He went to sleep that night uncertain how to proceed, thinking maybe he could just quietly divorce her and get on with his life.

When an angel of the Lord appears in your dreams, you pay attention.  Joseph certainly did.  God’s message for Joseph was to offer Mary even greater mercy than he had planned.  Not only did the angel encourage him not to publicly shame her; this angel urged him to go forward with the marriage.

Go forward with the marriage, because the child she carries is a Spirit-child, God’s own son made flesh, not the result of some pre-marital fling, but the result of God’s plans for God’s people.  “She will bear a son,” the angel said, “and you are to name him Jesus.”  You are to name him, Joseph.  “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).  In naming this baby, Joseph will claim Jesus as his own.

At this point in the story, the gospel writer reminds us of the prophecy of Isaiah: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us.’”  In the space of three verses, this Spirit-child receives two names.  The first reminds us of God’s action through Jesus – God saves.  The second points to God’s own claims on this child and reminds us that in Jesus, God has come into our midst.  In Jesus, God is here; God is with us.

When Joseph woke from his dream, he did what the angel commanded him.  He took Mary as his wife, violating social convention not to be “rebellious or even to know his own goodness.  He violated convention and remained faithful to Mary because God, as God often does, intervened in an unexpected way.”[1]

Joseph obeyed, and when the child was born, he named him Jesus.  “The climax of the drama reaches its apex with the naming of Jesus.  Jesus’ name [is] the name that towers over all other names anyone can speak.  Jesus – God saves – is God with us.

All of this, because Joseph had a dream.

In Luke’s gospel, angels appear to people and tell them what God is about to do.  It is an angel who comes to Zechariah to tell him he and Elizabeth will have a son.  It is an angel who comes to the young girl Mary to tell her that she will have a baby conceived by the Holy Spirit who will be called the Son of the Most High.  It is an angel who appears to shepherds sleeping in the fields to tell them of the birth of one who has been born as a Savior for the people.

But in the Gospel of Matthew, Joseph is disturbed by a dream.  Troubled about his future, wondering how he will deal with this woman he was supposed to marry, tossing and turning in his sleep, he is visited by an angel in his dreams.  When Joseph finds himself “vulnerable and lost and anxious – and out of control – God discovers a way into his heart.”[2]

Isn’t that just like God?  To show up when we’re feeling most confused and scared and helpless?  Throughout the scriptures, “dreams are the way God frees us and rebirths us and pushes us into new life.  All dreams in Scripture have something in common.  They represent the intrusion of God into a settled world – an unbidden communication in the dark of the night that opens sleepers to a world different from the one they inhabit during the day – an intrusion that generates a restless uneasiness with the way things are until the vision and the dream come to fruition.”[3]

That night, God wrote a new vision on Joseph’s heart.  Marry this girl.  Name this child: Jesus, Emmanuel.  God saves, God is with us.

“In naming [this child], God confirms who we are and whose we are.”[4]  As Jesus grows into manhood and begins his ministry, he will teach us what that means.  And he will call us to lives of obedience and faith.  As the words of the hymn say, “Looking neither for wealthy nor wise ones; You only asked me to follow humbly.”[5]  Jesus will remind us, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).

[1] Aaron Clink, Feasting on the Word A/1, 94

[2] Susan R. Andrews, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Vol. 1, 10

[3] Walter Brueggemann, “The Power of Dreams in the Bible,” Christian Century, June 28, 2005, 28-31

[4] Carmelo E. Alvarez, Feasting on the Gospels: Matthew, Vol. 1, 12

[5] Cesáreo Gabaráin, “You Have Come to the Lakeshore,” Glory to God, 721

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