Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21
On this cold January morning, let me take you to a balmy night in spring in the Italian city of Verona, where in the orchard of their garden, Juliet, the daughter of the house, muses with the boy she’s just met at a family party. The boy is of course called Romeo, son of the Montagues and consequently a sworn enemy her family, the Capulets. Definitely not someone she should fall in love with.
But too late, she already has! So with that special flexible logic that only the young can manage, Juliet reflects on the difference between the boy she loves and the name which she’s been brought up to hate:
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy; –“Romeo and Juliet” William Shakespeare
Thou art thyself, O, be some other name!
What’s in a name! that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d.
Retain that dear perfection which he owes, without that title.
Sweet Romeo is of course the boy who will, continuing the rose metaphor, colour and perfume the rest of her tragically short life.
Our names are a gift from our parents, but far more than an identity label, they’re a public statement with a message. Do you ever wonder why your parents chose your name or how long they spent thinking about it?
For Mary and Joseph, there wasn’t a choice, no reflection; it was to be Jesus, the angel Gabriel said so when he appeared to Joseph and told him his fiancée, Mary, was pregnant with God’s Son and they should call him Jesus. Jesus is a Greek form of a Hebrew name, Joshua, meaning ‘God saves’. The perfect name for the boy born in a manger, who would die on the cross and who rise again for us on the third day. Jesus is our Saviour.
In his birth narrative, Luke draws us into a story of unique characters. Some aren’t named, but each represents a real life and circumstances, real sorrows and hopes – Mary, Joseph, Herod, the wise men, and of course the shepherds. Like most of us affected by the decisions of politicians, the shepherds are the ordinary folk, incidental to Caesar’s decision-making, but playing a key role in the story. A story about the one who’ll be called Son of God. They’re the ones who hurry to Bethlehem to see if what the angels sang about was true.
A name was believed to represent the true essence of someone’s character. Jesus is of the house of David; He’s Saviour; He’s Messiah; and He’s Lord. The angel names Jesus as the one who brings to earth the full glory of God. Mary accepts this name and description for her son who’ll reveal the reality of the reign of God in our world, and God’s salvation, then available to us all.
On the eighth day after his birth, Jesus, like all Jewish boys, was circumcised as an outward sign of an inner reality: that he’s a child of the covenant sworn between God and Abraham:
“Every male among you shall be circumcised, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. … Every male among you shall be circumcised when he is eight days old”.Genesis 17:10-12
So Jesus a good Jewish boy, of good Jewish parents, was circumcised. On this the first of January, the eighth day of Christmas, we remember that circumcision and the formal naming of the child that goes with it, Jesus “the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb”. This Jesus is the one whom God highly exalts and to whom God gives:
“the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend… and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”.Philippians 2:10-11
In doing so, God gives Jesus his own name – ‘Lord’.
In our passage today from Philippians, Paul incorporates an early Christian hymn. In this hymn we hear thatJesus being “in the form of God”, did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped or exploited, as something to be held onto at all costs and used to his own advantage. Rather, he willingly:
“emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point to death – even death on a cross”Philippians 2:7-8
If anyone has ever been tempted to be self-sufficient, it was Jesus. If anyone has ever been tempted to be proud, it was Jesus. If anyone has ever been tempted to use their powers for self-interest, it was Jesus. How did he guard against temptations like these when the devil came to Him in the wilderness? He poured himself out. He emptied himself. Even though he could have held on to his high position of equality with God, which meant superiority over the rest of humankind, he didn’t do it. Instead he gave it all up. He could have ruled over all, but instead became a servant of all.
Paul introduces this ‘hymn to Christ’ by saying, “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus”. The phrase ‘in you’ is plural and perhaps better translated ‘amongst you’. Paul sees the life of the community at Philippi being ‘formed by the mind of Christ’; that is by a spirit of humility and loving service, rather than competitive striving for power and control. Or put another way, by spiritual values rather than physical means.
So what does it mean for us to bear Christ’s name. Do our lives together as congregations and as part of the wider Christian community in our area reflect “the same mind that was in Christ Jesus”; looking to the interests of others rather than our own, humility and servant-hood being our main characteristics?
Having the mind of Christ ought to shape not only the life of a congregation, but also its relationship with its community and the wider world. By following Jesus in identifying with the lowly and giving ourselves tohumble service in a suffering world, we honour “the name that is above every name”. It’s always good to see the spirit of cooperation emerging amongst the different Churches and denominations recently, but these are just the beginning of a rebirth “Christ born in us today” and every day.
Today as we mark the naming and circumcision of Jesus, let’s remember the significance of our individual names and what they mean to us, our friends and families and all those with whom we come into contact. Do they say ‘God Saves’ to those who know or meet us?
A child has been born, in the very place to which the shepherds were sent by the angels. Gabriel’s promises are unfolding as announced. This child will be Ancient Israel’s awaited Messiah, born as promised, he’s the one. The shepherds may have gone home but there’s more to come in the ministry of the one whose name we celebrate today and in our own lives and work.
Such was the miracle of Christmas. Familiar anticipation paralleled with signs of doubt, fear, and wonder. The agent of God is born in Bethlehem, the House of David, the Shepherd-King. As the hymn “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed” says:
“His name shall stand forever. That name to us is love.”“Hail to the Lord’s Anointed” James Montgomery
Much as Romeo’s name was to Juliet and hers to him.