On What’s in a Name
December 18, 2022
Isaiah 50: 4-5
The Lord God has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word.
Morning by morning he wakens— wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backwards.
Matthew 1: 18-24
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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and he shall be called Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife.
Today’s sermon is titled On What’s in a Name.
Throughout my first pregnancy, I was absolutely sure I was growing a girl. The thought that I could grow a boy seemed so entirely unlikely that I did not even bother considering boy names at all. I called the yet-to-be-born baby Sprout (short for Bean Sprout). When I birthed a baby boy, we continued to call him Sprout for almost three weeks until we settled on a name. Naming him was a daunting task. We considered Lithuanian names, family names, names from favorite literature, and not one of them felt right.
We were living in Hawai’i at the time and I was absolutely determined not to give him a Hawaiian name. So much had been taken from the native Hawaiians; to take a name felt like cultural appropriation. My mother checked out a book from the library of Hawaiian baby names and she urged us to look at it. As days turned to weeks, I finally agreed. There was only one name that I liked; it meant “life force of the sea.” Without telling my husband the name I liked, I encouraged him to look at the book. The next day, he said there was only one name that stood out to him. “It’s long,” he said. “The one I like is long, too,” I said, “Kamanakai.” “That’s the one,” he said; ‘it means life force of the sea.”
So our son was named and christened with sea water and prayers. A four syllable name with nine letters has been a burden at times, I am sure. I am also sure that his name means a great deal to him.
I would imagine that nearly all of us have researched the meaning of our names. Names matter. Our names may have been chosen because of the meaning, or in honor of someone else by that name, or because one of our parents liked the way it sounded, or perhaps a name came to them in a dream.
We heard in our reading from the book of Matthew that Joseph was instructed in a dream to name the baby Jesus. Jesus is the Greek interpretation; Jesus’s name would have been pronounced Yeshua. This name, in Hebrew, means “God saves.” Yeshua was a fairly common Jewish name and what a beautiful meaning it carries: God saves.
There is a bit more to explore in this piece of scripture, but before we go any further, it is important for us to remember the history and the context of this writing. Biblical scholars mostly agree that the book of Matthew was written within 40 or 50 years after Jesus and the book was written for a Jewish audience and used as teaching material in Jewish synagogues. At the time this work was authored, the debate was raging as to whether or not Jesus was the Messiah that had been foretold. I wish I could say that the debate was over; I wish I could say that people agreed to disagree and there was peace on earth. I am sad to say that the debate is still a divisive issue that has fueled full-scale wars and countless acts of violence and what we today call hate crimes.
I remind us of this because what the author of Matthew includes next in the text is an attempt to link the life of Jesus with a prophetic message from the prophet Isaiah 800 years before. It is in linking these two that the author attempts to convince a Jewish audience that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah.
This is the point where I am going to climb out onto a theological limb and that limb is hanging over a frozen pond with a very thin layer of ice on top, so please, Friends, hear me out and consider what I have to share with you. For over a thousand years, Christians have been so excited about pulling scripture, out of context, from the First Testament to make a case for Jesus being the Messiah. This is a habit we humans have and it even has a name: confirmation bias. We look for information that supports our beliefs while we ignore information that challenges or contradicts our beliefs. You may think, “I don’t do that.” I am sorry to tell you, we all do it; we can not help ourselves. In most instances, it doesn’t really matter a great deal, but when I consider the violence that has been, and continues to be, perpetrated against the Jewish people, I am obliged, in the deepest sense of the word, to shed light that will guide us to deeper understanding.
Between November of 2021 and November of 2022, there have been 545 hate crimes reported in the United States targeting Jews and/or Jewish communities. 545…that’s more than one every day and surely there are hundreds that never get reported. Like any hate crime, the motivation is complicated, but we, as Christians, must do whatever we can to heal the hurt, to heal the divide, and it begins, I believe, with a more honest use of the scriptures.
The author of the book of Matthew is trying to convince the Jewish community that Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah and nothing could be more effective in promoting this belief than using the words of the beloved prophet Isaiah. In our reading for today, the author of Matthew writes, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet [Isaiah]: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and he shall be called Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’” This piece of scripture comes from Isaiah 7:14 and when we consider this scripture in its historical context, we learn that Isaiah is offering this prophecy to the king at the time, King Ahaz. Isaiah and the king disagree about whether or not to engage in war and Isaiah, in an effort to establish peace, makes what may be the most tender of promises. Isaiah foretells that a maiden (note: not a virgin, but a maiden, a young woman) will give birth to a child and will name him Immanuel, meaning God with us.* Isaiah is saying, essentially, “Do not make war; there is a child that is to be born and that child carries the promise that God is with us.”
This is a beautiful, poignant story in and of itself, is it not? It does not need to be lifted out of context and used to add weight to the life and ministry of Jesus. We have a plethora of literature to support the extraordinary messages of our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth. In my opinion, there is absolutely no need to draw inferences from the sacred Jewish texts. It was an effective teaching tactic in 80 B.C., but for over a thousand years now, it has been offensive to the Jewish community. It’s time to correct what we can; it’s time to heal what we can. I think if Jesus were standing here, he would be setting the story straight.
So on Christmas Eve this year, as we celebrate the birth of our teacher, Jesus of Nazareth, we will not include scripture taken out of context from the prophet Isaiah. We have been doing that long enough. This year, let’s celebrate the birth of Jesus because of what we learn from him, not because his birth was foretold 800 years before it happened. Let’s celebrate the birth of Jesus because he proved that love is the most powerful force in our lives, more powerful, even, than death. Let’s celebrate the birth of Jesus because he did not judge others by their past mistakes; instead he looked for the Godspark within each and every one. Let’s celebrate the birth of the one known as Jesus, Yeshua, because he lived true to his name, reminding us at every turn that God saves us. Love saves us. So be it. Amen.
*Matthew Myer Boulton, former faculty of Harvard Divinity, writes, “One of Matthew’s primary concerns is to emphasize how Jesus stands in the stream of Jewish history and tradition, and accordingly, this week’s citation of Hebrew Scripture is the first of many in Matthew’s Gospel. In the referenced section of Isaiah, the prophet is assuring King Ahaz that God will protect Judah from external enemies — and as a sign of that abiding protection, a young woman will give birth to a child named, “Immanuel,” or “God is with us”
In the stillness of winter, we open our hearts to the love and the light that is Christ. In him, God offers us all that is most precious- all the unseen, the invisible…the sadness that deepens us, the compassion that connects us, the unexpected joy that restores us, the pain that humbles us, and the divine love that knows no bounds. May we take this moment to give ourselves back to God, back to the source from where our spirits come. From this state of surrender, comes a union with the Holy Spirit, and through this union all that is holy, and from God, can pass through us to others- we are made strong and can offer strength, we are given vision and can offer clarity, we experience a love like no other and we can then love with a love that transcends all differences. We are so grateful, Lord, for all we have been given. Through your grace, we can celebrate our abundance. For all those traveling, we pray for safety; for all those struggling, we pray for serenity; for the dying, surrender; for the fearful, faith and peace. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. All this I pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.