In the names given to this Child – Jesus, Emmanuel – we find all we need for new life and refreshed spirits as we begin a new year in God’s care and love.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The feast of the Name of Jesus
texts: Luke 2:15-21; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
There’s some confusion (maybe only in my mind) about why we’re celebrating Eucharist today.
For much of the world, today is New Year’s Day. It’s likely the tradition of worshipping at Mount Olive on January 1st was originally a New Year’s celebration. Many German Lutheran congregations in America have long standing New Year’s worship traditions, either Eve or Day.
Today is also the feast of the Name of Jesus. Our liturgy is focused on that, not necessarily New Year’s. This is eight days after Jesus’ birth, the day of his circumcision and naming under Jewish law, as Luke said. For centuries Lutherans and Anglicans called today the feast of the Circumcision and the Name of Jesus. For some reason, in the late 1970s in both traditions the title was shortened (no pun intended) to simply “the Name of Jesus.”
It’s no coincidence there’s a Church feast on the first of January, either. From at least the 7th century today has been a Church holiday. Probably because from the second century BC onward the Romans had a major pagan New Year’s festival on this day, and the Church is always fond of transforming such things rather than banning them. We did it for Christmas, after all.
So are you here because it’s New Year’s Day and you want to begin the new year at worship, asking God’s blessing on the year to come? Or are you deeply inspired and moved by the story of Jesus’ circumcision and naming and must be at worship to celebrate that? Or do you desperately need another festival of Christ even though it’s only been eight days since Christmas?
Maybe we can eat our cake and have it, too. We can take the sanitized title for this day and consider why we might want to celebrate the name given this child, and in so doing might also find grace to carry with us into a new year on this planet.
But we have to deal with one other little confusion. This child was actually given two names.
The feast is called “the name of Jesus,” and Jesus is the name we know best.
Both Mary and Joseph are told to call him this, and Joseph is given the explanation: because he will “save his people from their sins.” The name means, “God saves.”
It’s a good name, but we might have missed the depth of what it means. We talk about Jesus “saving us from our sins” often simply as a transaction, a forgiveness. We won’t be punished for what we’ve done wrong before God. This is good, and it’s our gift.
But this child called “God saves,” the one who will save us from our sins, had a deeper hope for that role. In his teaching and death and resurrection he tried to do more than forgive us. He tried to truly save us from our sins, that is, get us out of the path that was leading us away from God.
The word “save” in Greek also means “heal,” and it is this that gives us life as we begin a new year.
Yes we begin with this grace: all we have done in the past year, anything ill-done, anything sinful, we can lay before God and seek forgiveness. On this New Year’s Day, that’s abiding good news, that any regrets and confession we have, we leave the Lord’s Table clean and ready for a new year of life.
But it is that new year of life that our Lord named Jesus is truly interested in. He would save us from our sins to come as well. By entering our hearts and lives, leading us down his path of self-giving love, healing us our sinful nature, our broken habits. Jesus, “God saves,” wants to walk with us in this new year and truly bring us life, free us, heal us. That has a lot more potential to transform us in the next twelve months than any list of resolutions we might make.
But remember, this child was given another name, too.
Maybe “given” is saying too much. The Gospels don’t record anyone ever actually calling him this name.
It’s only in Matthew’s comment to the birth story that we find it. The angel tells Joseph to call the child Jesus, and Matthew says all this fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of a child born who is called “Emmanuel.” Which, Matthew kindly translates, means “God is with us.”
Even if no one called Jesus that in his lifetime, at the end of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus promises that it is a true name: “I will be with you always, to the end of the age,” he says. This child brings God to live with us, in person, in the flesh, and in his resurrection and ascension, he is now able to do that.
This name is as important to us as the other.
God is with us.
There is nothing more we need or want to know as we begin a new year than God is with us. In our world of fear and hatred, where seemingly unsolvable problems arise every day, where we grow old and die, where our loved ones suffer and we can’t help, where there’s uncertainty everywhere, the only thing that gives us hope and life is knowing God is with us, knowing we walk our days and sleep our nights in the certain embrace of God’s arms.
We can’t expect this new year won’t involve pain for us or for the world or for those we love. But we know we will never be alone, whatever happens next. Because our God is with us in this child who became a man, who was God embodied in our own flesh.
This might be the point when we echo our psalmist: “what are we, that you should care for us this much, honor us this much?”
And Paul gives us our answer: we are adopted children of God, heirs to this child who is Jesus – God saves – and Emmanuel – God is with us – and who is our Savior. We have the Spirit of God given us as children of our heavenly Father, and we can turn to God in prayer always, because of this child who has brought us into the life of the Triune God forever.
So celebrate the Name – both of them – that this child and Lord bears. In them we have all the life and grace we need. And celebrate the beginning of a new year, hoping for peaceful and quiet times, resolving to live better lives, more faithful lives. In Jesus, our Emmanuel, we will have all the strength and healing grace we need to live such new lives, and be better than we were last year.
It might be a little confusing to articulate exactly why we’re here today. But it’s good that we are. Because so is our God, who saves us, who is with us. And as always, our lives won’t ever be the same.
In the name of Jesus. Amen