The Rev. Arthur Halbardier
The Name of Jesus
Text: Luke 2:15-21
We heard Luke’s familiar Christmas story again, as we did on Christmas Eve, but today verse 21 is added: “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child, and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” (Luke 2:21)
The birth was announced by angels, first to Mary. Young Mary was engaged to be married, and she was still a virgin. To her the angel says, “You are going to have a child – don’t ask how, and when the child is born you must name him JESUS.”
Now there’s nothing like a surprise pregnancy to complicate wedding plans! Mary must have wondered, “How do I explain this to Joseph, to my family?” But the angel’s words, and especially the child’s name convinced Mary. “This child is God’s will, God’s plan. And I am part of it.” Some time later, an angel comes to Joseph, her future husband . . . who is not happy with the awkward situation Mary has put him in. Was it the Holy Spirit, as she claims, or the product of a brief indiscretion?The angel tells him, “Joseph, you must marry her, and name the child JESUS, because this child will be the Savior of the world!” This is God’s plan, and you are also part of it.
JESUS – “Yeshua,” means “GOD SAVES.” God plans to rescue the world from the power of sin and death through this child, JESUS. Mary and Joseph joined the long line of individuals invited to participate in God’s plans for the world: Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, the boy Samuel, Elijah, Elisha, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zachariah and Elizabeth, John the Baptist.
But could Mary and Joseph have imagined how complicated or frightening the birth might be? Caesar Augustus announced a new program for collecting taxes, which meant a risky late-pregnancy trip to Bethlehem. And that was only the beginning. I confess that, conditioned by years of participating in childhood Christmas pageants, I grew up with a mental picture of an exhausted Mary and Joseph going door to door in the city of Bethlehem, looking for a place to stay. Joseph trudging from the Holiday Inn to the Bethlehem Sheraton to the Motel 6, Mary sitting uncomfortably outside on the donkey. The desk clerk shaking his head “no” to a pleading Joseph. Every hotel and B and B in Bethlehem was sold out on this most important night.
But that’s not what St. Luke says. Luke wrote, “There was no place for them in THE INN.”
The prophet Micah declared Bethlehem to be “least among the cities of Judah.” Why Bethlehem is even called a “city” I don’t know. Bethlehem today is still a small town, fairly quiet unless there are tourists in town – what is sometimes called a “one-horse” town. Luke tells us that Bethlehem was also a “one inn” town . There is one innkeeper given the chance to have the Savior of the world born under his roof, but he was too busy.
So, as Mary’s labor began, Joseph did what homeless people still do when facing a night on the streets: He looked for a place to make a makeshift bed so Mary could give birth with a little protection from the winter cold. The couple huddled together for warmth in a dark, cold, unsanitary, smelly stable. Certainly no place to give birth to a fragile child.
Did they wonder that night, “What is God thinking?” “What kind of plan is this?”
God’s plan was to risk rejection, danger, misery – even death for us, from Day 1 of human life. Through Jesus’ life and preaching, and eventually his dying and resurrection, God announced a new world where justice, peace, and compassion ruled. For this plan, God enlisted Mary, and then Joseph to take part. And as the birth was happening, enlisted a small group of shepherds to help spread the news. Shepherds! As unlikely a group of messengers as can be imagined.
But then, shepherds are not the last unlikely messengers God would enlist. God still searches out unlikely and unreliable folk to participate in bringing about the new life of the world. Of course, almighty God could have created a new heaven and earth alone, with just a word. God did it once. Certainly recreating wouldn’t be a “heavy lift” for the almighty.
But instead, God engages unreliable humans, and still does.
In baptism, we are invited to carry God’s invitation to a lost and often hostile world. “Let your light shine before others;” to “bear God’s creative and redeeming word to all the world.” Why does God make us part of that plan? Teresa of Avila explained it this way: Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks with compassion on this world. Yours are the hands through which Christ blesses all the world. You are the body of Christ.”
We are invited to join the long line of the faithful who accepted the holy challenge of making God’s new era of justice and mercy real. But what can one lone individual do to impact the massive problems of homelessness, hunger, prejudice, systemic injustice? What can one individual do to challenge entrenched corruption and rampant greed which grinds up the poor and powerless to its own advantage? What can one lone individual do to alter the values of society, get the attention of political leaders, challenge cruel immigration policies, stop the curse of drugs and gangs?
There are things we can do. We can advocate, vote, campaign, contribute to organizations that support our values – and we must do those things. We can pray for the sick, the unemployed, the hungry – and don’t ever underrate the power of those prayers. Stacked against the weighty issues of our world, it’s hard to feel our individual efforts are more than small drops in a very large bucket.
God doesn’t call us to single-handedly create a new heaven and new earth. God has already accomplished that in Jesus Christ. But God does invite us to be faithful to making this a better world for someone. We can face with honesty the influence of our prejudices and behavior on others. We can discern in ourselves the fears and excuses that keep us at a distance from others. And consider how on a person to person level we can participate in God’s work of recreating this world. Remember the strong words of Teresa of Avila: Christ has no hands, no feet on earth but yours. You and I can put flesh and blood to the love of Christ for others.
During Advent, I read some devotions by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and these sentences of his have stuck with me these past weeks:
“God comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. God confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor.”
I’m privileged to be part of this community. Here, at Mount Olive I’m inspired by the witness of dozens of bold yet humble individuals. For months, Heather and Thomas have been a fixture on 31st street with their signs. I was deeply touched several times recently to see either Heather or Thomas in our East assembly room. Invited by one of you for a warm beverage, a snack – and to sit with you as you listened to their stories. I saw the words of Bonhoeffer acted out over a mug of coffee and a snack. Christ was there. For Heather, for Thomas, and for those who invited and sat with them.
I’m inspired by those who keep in ongoing contact with those who are sick or grieving. By those who faithfully give rides to others to church, to doctor visits, who visit in hospitals. Who write notes of encouragement and thanks, often to people they hardly know. These people encourage me. And they challenge me. If you shop in this neighborhood, it’s not unusual that someone outside the grocery store will approach you for help. “I’m hungry. I don’t have money to buy food?” I know of one person here who frequently will invite that person to come into the store to shop with her. They share a shopping cart, walk the aisles of the store together, discuss the foods they like. My friend will help her new friend select items, at the end she pays the bill for both of them. Christ is present there, also. For both persons, in that moment.
In our liturgy, we frequently have brief rituals when people take on a responsibility. They state their intent to do their best, saying “I will, and I ask God to help and guide me.” God invites each of us to be part of the holy task of bringing about a new world of compassion, love and care for others. What invitation may Christ be holding out to you? As Bonhoeffer wrote, Christ confronts me (and you) in every person that we meet. It’s a daunting notion, that God looks to us for a part in God’s holy work. Daunting to say “yes” to God. But this is certain: God will indeed help and guide us.