"What's In a Name" (Or, "Being called names by other people&
a sermon based upon Isaiah 9:2-7
In the first chapter of the first book in our New Testament, Matthew writes about the soon-coming birth of Jesus Christ:
When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they
came together, she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit. And her
husband, Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame,
resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered this, behold, an angel
of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, "Joseph, son of David, do
not fear to take Mary your wife; for that which is conceived in her is of the
Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will
save his people from their sins."
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet
[Isaiah]: "Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall
be called ‘Emmanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’)." When Joseph awoke
from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. He took his
wife [Mary], but knew her not until she had borne a son; and he called his
The prophet Isaiah had said that the awaited Savior-child would be called "Emmanuel". I can imagine the boys in his street as a child hollering: "Hey, Manuel, kick the ball my way!" "Hey, Manny, over here!" The prophet had said in no uncertain terms that his name shall be called "Emmanuel". In Hebrew, the word "Emmanuel" means "God with us".
And yet, the angel from the Lord, speaking to Joseph in that same dream, said that Mary would bear a son, and Joseph was to call his name "Jesus", for he will save his people from their sins. "Jesus" – Yeshua in Hebrew, the same as the name "Joshua" – meant "Deliverer" or "Savior".
As the rest of the Gospel record attests, the boy was named "Jesus", not "Emmanuel". Nowhere is Jesus called "Emmanuel" to his face. Nowhere do the crowds refer to him as "God with us." And yet, as the centuries rolled past, more and more people who learned about Jesus Christ became convinced that in his life-story (in his teachings and in his community of faithful followers thereafter) they saw God-in-the-flesh -- divinity dwelling in their midst -- God-with-us in a tangible, practical way as no "holiness" ritual (nor doctrine about God) had ever done before.
So both names came to be attached to Jesus Christ. Jesus, his real-life name – little Jesse, playing with his Mama’s necklace beads, young Jesus helping with his Daddy’s carpentering, Jesus going to synagogue schul with the neighbor-boys in Nazareth. Jesus, the Savior, was called "Emmanuel" (God with us) by people who remembered him.
Usually, when people call someone by another name than their given name, it’s a nick-name. John becomes Jack. Richard becomes Dick. Patricia becomes Pat or Patty. Cynthia becomes Cindy. You know. It’s usually a diminutive, a shortening of their given name.
Sometimes people pick up on a particular trait – a redheaded male becomes Red or Ross, a girl becomes "carrot-top". Nicknames are often not flattering. One boy I knew, who was tall and athletic and blond, was called "Banana" – because his real name was Bannon. (The other boys were shorter and dark-haired.) Nicknames often highlight what makes us different from them. Someone who wears glasses becomes "four eyes."
In this morning’s Scripture (as we read it responsively from Isaiah, Chapter 9), we heard four more names being attached to Jesus. In verse 6 we read: For unto us a child is born; to us a son is given. And the government will be upon his shoulder, and his name will be called: "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace."
"Wonderful" may allude to the many miracles and healings that Jesus was able to accomplish during his ministry years in the Galilee and in Jerusalem. He was a wonder-worker, a miracle-maker, a great physician! John’s Gospel often refers to the "signs and wonders" that Jesus performed which attested to his divine-status among the people, for those who had eyes of faith and were willing to see Jesus in that light.
In our day, the word wonderful rarely means "miraculous" – marveling at something out-of-the-ordinary, filled with admiration, amazement, or awe. No, in our more mundane world, to "wonder" may mean to speculate with curiosity (such as, we wonder about the origin of the solar system). To wonder may even be to doubt: "I wonder if she’ll really come, or just leave me hanging here?"
We wonder about all manner of curious things: we wonder what happened? We wonder where you went? We wonder at things that astonish or surprise us -- the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: How the monoliths of Stonehenge got set up, and to what purpose? We feel wonder mixed with awe upon seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time.
There must have been something about Jesus that caused people to wonder… Something surprising (or unsettling) in what he said, or what he did, or whom he did it with. Something that caused people to become curious and to speculate about what he was doing in their day, in their town, in their lives. For some, the astonishment led to admiration; for others, the strangeness was uncomfortable -- puzzling -- a reversal of what they had come to believe about themselves, & the world, and God.
There was something about the way Jesus approached life -- and the way that he gave advice -- that caused people to call him a Wonderful Counselor.
Others saw in Jesus a Mighty God! Now, the Romans & Greeks had no trouble imagining a God in human form. Their mythologies included Zeus (great Jupiter), and all their families of divine offspring: Apollos, Aphrodite, Mars, Athena, Europa, even Hercules.
But the Hebrews (the Jews) had only El Al – the Most High God -- El Shaddai, God Almighty… Yahweh. And their "biblical" God would not let Godself appear in the form of any creature, neither imagined nor real, in any form of medium: drawn, carved, cast in metal, sculpted in stone. But even if the Jews had allowed depicting their God in some form, they would have been hard-pressed to imagine a humble nobody like Jesus of Nazareth representing their concept of a Mighty God!
And yet, to this day, millions of people around the globe -- in every kind of society, racial group, ethnic enclave, and language -- have come to believe that Jesus Christ is a true representation of God the Father, the Creator of heaven & earth, known through the Laws of Moses and the Prophets of Israel, the writers of the Bible and the Church Fathers. Jesus of Nazareth, itinerant Rabbi, has been called "Emmanuel" (God-with-us), a Wonderful Counselor, and the Mighty God. Amen?
Ah, but that’s not all. Jesus has been called more names than that! Isaiah says that this Savior Messiah would be called "Everlasting Father" and "Prince of Peace." The fact is: rarely do we hear Jesus called "Father", but that was his personally preferred way of addressing God.
We carry that metaphor forward when we pray the Lord’s Prayer -- our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name -- every Sunday. It is traditional for Christians to speak about God as a "Heavenly Father," or to pray to the "Father Almighty," or simply to say "Abba" ("Daddy") which in how Jesus spoke whenever he spoke of God… When we use the name "Father" when speaking of God, it indicates a relationship. In particular, "Everlasting Father" points to a relationship in which God is faithful… relentlessly there for us... one who knows us and who loves us, like a parent would their child, and upon whom we can rely, forever… come what may.
I realize that "father" language has come under critique in the 21st Century church, because it is (admittedly, first of all) a patriarchal symbol of family dominance from past generations… and (secondly) because in too many American homes, "fathers" have been perpetrators of "domestic violence" on their wives and children.
Women, in particular, who have been hurt by men in their lives -- by domineering fathers, alienated brothers, abusive husbands, rebellious sons -- are reluctant to use a male-image like "father" as a symbol for anything approximating divinity (God, forbid!), nor for anything loving, let alone reliable. That’s because the men in their lives have far too often proven themselves unreliable.
The long list of male celebrities (in newsrooms and in politics, in sports and in business) who have recently been accused of sexual offenses against girls and women only underscores the prevailing problem of male dominance, bullying, groping, and harassment by predatory males who think it is acceptable. ("Boys will be boys", you know -- wink-wink, nod-nod.) These are not "father" images.
In fact (in my opinion), it is precisely here where the concept of an everlasting father -- a personal relationship of care and nurture, sustenance and support… in which God is faithful (relentlessly there for us) as one who knows us intimately and who loves us passionately, and upon whom we can rely forever, come what may -- is all the more powerful… and precious. When people thought about Jesus, the man of Nazareth who provided a new and compassionate experience of God, they spoke of an Everlasting Father… and a Prince of Peace.
Peace. A concept easy to imagine, but hard to achieve.
Peace is the absence of war, the absence of violence, the absence of abuse in one’s life. It is an experience of wholeness, transparency & integrity. A world at peace would be a world of justice for all where there is flourishing for all. Peace… in one’s heart, in one’s relationships, in one’s world.
To be a "prince of peace", whose government would be dedicated to ending hostilities and freeing people from strife and anxiety, was no small thing to imagine when Isaiah first articulated it, and it still is!
For Jesus to be called a "Prince of Peace" (as he is in this morning’s text from Isaiah), his kingdom would have to be established with justice and upheld with righteousness not just for the present moment but (according to Isaiah) from this time forth and forevermore. That’s a long time for Peace to rule! For that to happen, it would not just be due to a change in ruling parties, nor a change in the laws… it would require a change in the hearts of people... young & old, rich & poor, us and them.
Can we be real? It seems to me that so much of our American society relies on government regulation and legal coercion, rather than persuasion. In a world in which power still seems to collect at the top, funneling down through a whole hierarchy of insider henchmen and special interest groups, until it trickles down to the lowly commoner at the bottom of the hierarchy... where can we look for deliverance? Not to politicians in Washington DC or Lansing; certainly not to the big name celebrities and sports heroes surrounded by paparazzi who play to the masses but don’t know what it’s like to live on a shoe-string.
Where is that One (long promised) who will "lift the yoke of our burden" (as Isaiah puts it) and "remove the staff" from across our (and others’) shoulders; who will break the rod of the oppressor, and bring light into our deep darkness? Where is that child "who has been born to us" who will "establish justice... from this time onward & forever more" that Isaiah said would (one day) save the world?
Isaiah made his prophecy in Chapter 9 in what was then a war-torn and godforsaken place called "The Galilee," Northern Israel. The prophet said that God was preparing to embark on a new approach (making a fresh start) cutting a brand new way through the wilderness.
"Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is, but it is gonna be great!" That’s a song from West Side Story, but I think that it captures something of Isaiah’s hopeful projection: There’s a New Day dawning…
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light! Those
who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined!
"The air is humming, for something new is coming!" Isaiah described "an increase of peace" which would have no end… a realm established and upheld by justice and righteousness, from this time forth and for evermore…
But it wasn’t the present situation by a long shot. The people of Northern Israel (which Isaiah refers to as lands of Zebulun & Naphtali) – the Israelites in Galilee & Samaria (what we today call the Palestinian West Bank) – were stumbling around in grief and abject poverty, for they had been openly defeated and publicly humiliated by their Assyrian conquerors. They were living in the rubble of a lost war, in refugee camps.
Isaiah was speaking to people who, in their shame and despair, seek only darkness -- who hide in their pain, avoiding the light -- to them, says Isaiah, a new dawn is coming… A healing light, a liberating light, God’s light is coming... says Isaiah. A deliverer will be born to them. Hang in there; hang on; have hope; trust God!
As I said earlier, the word "Deliverer" (Yeshua, in Hebrew) is transliterated in the Old Testament as "Joshua" and in the New Testament as "Jesus." The name "Jesus" means "Deliverer." That is what Joseph is instructed by the angel to name Mary’s baby: "Jesus".
The Jews saw in their Biblical ancestor "Joshua" the quintessential "Deliverer-Savior" of the people, for it was Joshua who had conquered the tribes of Canaan (after the passing of Moses) and who settled the refugee Hebrew slaves from Egypt in the "Promised Land." Now, in their worst time of national disintegration, Isaiah promises the forlorn, war-torn remnant in Galilee that a new "Yeshua" (a new Joshua, a new Jesus) would arise in their midst like the dawning of a new day.
But Isaiah says this promised "Deliverer" will be called many other names as well: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. He will start small, baby-size, but his authority will grow continually, until there shall be endless peace; established by justice and up-held by righteousness. The zeal of the Lord will do this. (This text, incidentally, was frequently read in Jewish worship services.)
Ever since these promises were made by Isaiah (some 2,500 years ago), the Jewish world expected their Messiah (their Savior) to enter with a blaze of glory -- like a brilliant floodlight, blinding the powers of evil -- driving the demons of defeat and despair off the stage!!
They took what Isaiah called "the zeal" of the Lord to mean "the sword" of the Lord. (!) They understood the "Lord of Hosts" (the "El Shaddai, the Almighty God") to mean the commander of the armies of heaven.
The "heavenly host" (literally, the "army of angels") that the messianic Jews of Jesus’ day were anticipating was not the "choir of heavenly hosts" that is depicted on our Christmas cards and about which our choir sang this morning, but a shock-&-awe-type of invasion from heaven (fighting on the side of good, of course)! Yeshua (the long-awaited Deliverer) would be their commander-in-chief in a holy war.
The Joshua-like "Deliverer/Messiah" that Israel began looking for, during those 500 years between Isaiah’s words and the coming of Jesus, was something like a divine "Master of the Universe" coming down from the clouds (like horsemen on chariots) to wreck and to ruin the kingdoms of the earth (what Isaiah refers to in today’s text as "the boots of the tramping warriors in battle tumult, and all the garments rolled in blood").
But what we discover in the Gospel story of Jesus is a Messiah who comes in the form of an infant, not a general!
"Unto us a child is born; unto us a son is given"… If this little one, this baby Yeshua, is the promised light... what’s come into the world is no blaze of brilliance. It’s a mere pin-prick of light in the deep darkness of night.
If there is one thing we can try to do in this Advent season, may it be to correct the toxic theology that equates divinity to "power" -- whether in messianic or in military terms; whether it’s hierarchical, patriarchal, political, or economic -- the Gospel Jesus rejects it all!
If a new day is coming -- a new social order, a New Creation in the making -- it is only through the persuasion of love, not force of arms, not divine decrees, not systematic organization & regulation of society, not census-taking, nor tightened citizenship criteria -- that God makes that fresh approach, that new way in the wilderness. It is through the persuasive experience of being loved that the light finally dawns.
In our world -- a world not unlike the one to whom Isaiah first spoke: a world in deep darkness, in dis-integration, overly full of grief and loss, chaos and uncertainty… a world in dire need of salvation, of deliverance -- the Deliverer has come: Jesus. Emmanuel, God with us. If you let his way be your way of life, you’ll find in him a Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. Other people called him those names, and we can do so, too, if we hitch our wagon to his star.
Let there be Peace on earth, and let it begin here! Amen.