And when eight days had passed, before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. - Luke 2:21
The name of Jesus is not some identification tag of some person who lived long ago. It is the identification of a people, of a faith, of those bought through death and resurrection. It is a name gifted to the undeserving to offer them hope and peace in God, who lives to love and bring victory over the enemies and intruders who wish to do his people harm. It is a place of new beginnings, new life, wrought not by the wishes of those so named but by the one who can’t dare to live without his people that belong to him. All of this, past, present, and future, being promised to you, free of charge.
Based on the coverage and reactions on social media and elsewhere, 2016 was not your year. It was apparently a year of tragedy and hardship for many. Of sacrifice and death. Of sorrow and loss. It was a year in which many things did not go the way people wanted them. Loss was felt across the world. Burying those we did not want to, and losing that which we wanted to keep.
Maybe your favorite celebrity died. Maybe your candidate lost. Maybe your friend went off to war. Maybe your family lost their home, a child their job, a friend a marriage, a cousin a baby. By all accounts, 2016 was bad. That is what we are supposed to feel.
Meanwhile, it is now 2017; 2016 is supposed to be behind us. This year is supposed to be a better year. That’s the rumor. It’s supposed to be a year of less tragedy, more joy, better possibilities. A good life. That’s what I have heard. Even though – your favorite celebrity has not come back to life. Your candidate still lost the election. We still have war all over the world. There will be others who lose homes, who lose spouses, brothers, sisters, children. Regardless of the fact that at Midnight, Central Standard Time this morning, the calendar turned over and a new year began, the reality exists that anything that has happened will happen again, which is terrifying.
It is somewhat easier for us, though, to blame a year. To be angry with an inanimate object that doesn’t even have a name. Just a number. It makes mourning easier. If something is depersonalized, there is no fear of offence for anyone if you say: "2016 - you sucked." We manage it. We don’t have to call it on the phone, or go to mediation with it. It just becomes this lifeless thing that can accept our insults because it won’t respond.
Nicole Roccas, an Historian, wrote an article recently about this same topic. Equating the struggle with 2016 as a sort of misunderstanding about our rights as people. Looking at all the blame that has been placed on 2016, she writes this: “This year was not our birthright. It was not something any of us were entitled to. It was given to us by God as a blessing. Any extra time we have on Earth to learn how to be human and love our neighbor and repent is a gift.” A year as a gift. Each moment being this favorable offering from God to us as a time to bask in his glory, to revel in the opportunities we have to enjoy all we have been given, and to live out this gift-giving example as we meet our neighbors along this road of life – a blessing. Something given to us outside ourselves. But that still has no name, more on that later.
When Carry and I found out we were going to be parents for the first time. We of course were trying to do all the things everyone else was doing. We registered at the right places. We took the classes. We bought the big book of baby names. We had no idea what we wanted to call our child. When we found out we were having a girl, that narrowed it down a little. We had decided on 4 names: Analise, Taylor, Morgan and Elise. We couldn’t decide though so we put the names in a hat and picked 2 out. Then we let the family help us decide. We were given either – Taylor Elise, or Analise Morgan. You can guess which one we chose.
For Josiah it was much easier. Carry had decided on Josiah as the name of her firstborn son before we even met so I had no choice in the matter and neither did he. Both of our children were given names by us. Given a personal identification that sets them apart from others to make them unique.
A long time ago, names were even more than that. Names meant something. My name means "town of freemen," or "manly town." Yes, I am a village of freedom. That’s me. Analise is a joining of Anna and Elizabeth, but means “devoted to God.” Josiah means “Jehovah has healed.” I also looked a couple others just for kicks. Larry, or Lawrence, means (depending on the origin) “fierce.” Everyone watch out for our Larry’s. Meanwhile, Marilyn means “rebellion" or "bitter." Not as happy that one.
You do a study of Native cultures here in America and you discover that many people in the different tribes are given names specific to their own characteristics. In Jewish culture too, names were given that meant something. To better understand some parts of the scriptures you have to understand that names gave meaning to people and things. Places where God had met with people, for instance; or descriptions of God's attributes.
Names were also given to boys at their circumcision which is the story we have here. The day, 8 days after their birth, when they are marked with the sign of the covenant of God, as one having a part in the promise. Even in baptism, it used to be a tradition in various Christian denominations that the child was given a special name at baptism too. Usually one derived from a saint. It was a special marking out of the child, just as baptism is that special marking out of one as joining in the promises of God.
A New year is the beginning of a new chronological date. A way to tell time, to know when things have happened. It is also a time when others choose to make resolutions, to have a new start. But it is still just a nameless time. A bit of history that we have the privilege to travel.
However, today is January 1st, the first day of the New Year. But it is also the Feast of the Name of Jesus. There was a time in ages past in which this new year opened with the whole month of January dedicated to Christ. In our Gospel it depicts the 8 days after Christmas, hence January 1, and the naming of Christ. The giving to him the name which he will fulfill. The one so named because he will save his people from their sins.
We now can connect it to our modern New Year. The new year, each year, beginning in the name of Jesus. Beginning and dedicated to the working of God for humanity. A time we may receive from God as the new place in which we are reoriented into the life of Christ. Where we remember our baptism again. Allowing the year not to be some nameless thing that we can eventually reject, hate, insult and deride because of the tragedies of life that overwhelm us. Instead, moving away from the dwelling we make in the valleys of death that surround us, and, instead, living in the hope that God provides in the mountain of Calvary, the empty tomb, and the words of the promise.
That is our baptism - the expression of promises - giving us a new birth from above as John 3:3 tells us; burying us in Christ, putting us to death in his death, and then raising us to new life as Paul tells us in Romans 6. 1 Peter 3 says that God has promised, in baptism, to be our rescuer – not the year 2017. He has promised to baptize us with his Spirit in Mark 1. Forgiveness of all our sin, like the washing of new birth – Acts 2:38 and Titus 3. And Paul, again in Romans 8, tells us that we have been adopted as children of God through this working of the Spirit. Being brought into the family.
Yes, it is 2017. That’s it’s designation, but it is a year in which we can relish the gift God gives of daily breath. Of life together. Of remembrance of his promises. Starting out our life this year with the name of Jesus as our focus we can try and allow ourselves to not be bogged down by the bad news that will eventually transpire. Not to allow ourselves to be categorized as a certain person based on what the world says about us, but allow the working of God in us to be the description of who we are - a disciple of Christ, a child of God.
As a pastor I am so looking forward to our study of Philippians that will start on the 15th. In Philippians, one of Paul’s major themes, which we will explore more is this idea of being in Christ. Literally this being in him. Our life, our breath, our soul, our body, being in his life. Kept alive by his work. Therefore, because we are in him, we trust that resurrection, that Easter morning, is ours just as much as it was his. That the hope of life beyond the grave is captured in this promise bought by the precious death of our Lord. That when we look at one another, we don’t see differences, but we see one covered in the waters of baptism and the blood of Jesus. That even now, as we make our way towards the end of our chronological life, our new life has just begun as it is attached to that name. That is our heritage. Our world. Our 2017. Happy New Year. Amen