“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
A minister named James Steen tells the story of how he and his wife were explaining to their 3-year-old son how much Jesus loved him. Steen asked his son if he knew where Jesus lived, assuming he might say, "In my heart," or "In heaven." The little boy thought about it and said, "He lives in the basement." Like many families that was where they stored their nativity scene when not on display at Christmastime.
In the sermons of Advent and Christmas we have taken up the theme of Christmas decorating—that is, the Christmas furnishings of our minds and hearts. “You are to name him Jesus,” said the angel to Joseph. The name “Jesus” needs to occupy a central place among these our heart’s Christmas furnishings.
As central as this name would become in their lives, try to imagine, for a moment, Joseph and Mary before they were ever thinking of the name Jesus. They were two God fearing Jewish citizens looking forward to a life together as husband and wife; wedding plans and preparations for a home were underway. Many of us know that family excitement in making wedding plans; maybe you are in the middle of such planning—or hoping for a special Christmas gift that will set such planning in motion. This is Mary and Joseph’s life—wedding bells are soon to chime. They may have talked of children and even children’s names—but the name “Jesus” is not among them—at least not yet.
Let us take a moment to hear from Mary and her reflections on that first Christmas. (First Christmas video: Mary)
“I knew he would change everything,” reflected Mary. Indeed, Jesus is history’s hinge, says our Christian faith. Think of the names of people and countries and powers and places that are on the front pages of our news media. The names of presidents and prime ministers and dictators and celebrities and sports heroes; country names like Russia, The United States, Iraq, Iran, Syria
China; powers of military, lawmaking, office holders, directors, financial institutions—are these the things that make for history? What would first-century Palestine media talk about? Names like Rome and Caesar and Herod and Rome’s military Legions and High Priests and Jerusalem and temple police—are these the things that made for history? In a backwater town called Nazareth a greater history is unfolding, says the scripture, God’s history, the unfolding plan of his to redeem and set right, his purposes moving on course to that final day of completion. According to Matthew’s birth narrative the focus of this real history is the naming of a child—you are to name him Jesus.
1. You are to name him Jesus. Matthew chapter 1 has a great focus on names. We get a whole family tree’s worth in the first half of the chapter but finally we narrow down the whole chapter to one very specific name almost as a way to say that all of history has been leading up to this one point when someone would finally come with a name above all names, a name that will never be forgotten, a name that will spell Life itself.
Matthew is tracing Jesus’s ancestry to King David—he is “the son of David.” In the lineage each person is said to be “the father of” the next one in the line until we get to Joseph who is called “the husband of Mary.” The angel is very specific about this lineage. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus.” In Joseph’s act of taking Mary as his wife and them naming the son of Mary he is adopting him as his own thus Jesus is legally a son of David.
Why so much fuss about David? David was Israel’s great king of whom God said he was “a man after his own heart.” (1 Samuel 13:14) David had been Israel’s greatest king, despite his undeniable feet of clay. David had valiantly tried to redress the injustices that pock-marked the nation. He was a champion for human rights of the poor and defenceless. David was a harbinger, a precursor of the day when the just judge of the earth would no longer be defied and a topsy-turvy world would finally be righted. God has promised David that one of his sons would sit on his throne forever and rule the world setting all things right.
When Jesus is called “son of David” all the messianic promises of scripture were loaded into that phrase. The Apostle Paul says very little of the birth of Jesus but in the opening of his letter to the Roman church he writes of Jesus—“who was descended from David according to the flesh.” The longing of Israel that was loaded into the phrase “son of David” gave rise to a hope that filled the heart to bursting. AS Mary said in our video, “My heart was so full I couldn’t find words big enough to express it.”
Make no mistake. The world is topsy-turvy. On November 12th six countries criticized as being among the world’s worst human rights abusers were elected to the UN Human Rights Council. “This is a black day for human rights,” said Hillel Neuer, executive director of UN Watch, … The UN General Assembly elected egregious human rights abusers China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Cuba, and Vietnam to the UN Human Rights Council”. Human Rights Watch noted that five of the new council members — China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam and Algeria — have refused to let UN investigators visit to check alleged abuses.
The whole world cries out for the son of David, however inarticulately or unknowingly, just because the world cannot correct itself. Anyone who struggles, like King David of old, to redress the injustices of the world learns quickly how frustrating, absurd and heartbreaking the struggle can be. Then is hopelessness the only sensible attitude to have? Not for a minute. The manger-gift is the son of David, the Messiah promised of old, the royal ruler who will right the capsized world on that Day when he fashions a world in which righteousness dwells.
You are to name him Jesus. In this act of Joseph’s the world’s rightful ruler is announced. Naming him Jesus wasn’t just for Joseph; every believer since then who has named Jesus as their own has claims him as Lord—my Sovereign, my King. Let me ask who do you want ruling your life? Would you trust any of these leaders on the UN Human Rights council? Do you trust yourself to democratically elected leaders to make appropriate laws to govern our likes? How about to yourself—is “to thine own self be true” a sure foundation for setting things right? I have found that the Psalmist is correct; with the Lord as my Shepherd—he leads me in right paths for his name sake.
When Joseph names Jesus—taking his as his own—he has no idea what God will do through this act of obedience to take him as his son. He simply obeys and lives his life in accord with it; he commits to Mary as his wife and raises Jesus teaching him the carpenter’s trade. So too our lives as we commit to walk in company with Jesus, what God will enable through our obedience is not yet seen. We faithfully, patiently, do whatever we can in anticipation of that Day when justice is done. The relief of the suffering of another, for example, is action that anticipates that Day; conducting business with financial integrity anticipates that Day; sharing your faith with another about Jesus anticipates that Day. Living with Jesus as our sovereign here and now is part of what is means for his kingdom to come and it is done in the everyday conduct of life.
2. You are to name him Jesus. The name “Jesus” is the Greek rendering of the Hebrew name “Joshua;” the etymology of the name comes from the two Hebrew words “God saves.” In the name Jesus is the idea of salvation, or at the angel noted, “for he will save his people from their sins.” For Joseph the naming of this child wasn’t merely to figure out what to write on the registration card for a birth certificate. The name Jesus was linked to who he is—the Saviour. For Joseph to name him Jesus, was to name him as the One who would save Joseph. When the believer takes the name Jesus and names him as their own he is both Lord and Saviour.
We find in life that often the thing that brings great joy is also the thing that creates much pain. Take love as an example. The joys of deep and abiding friendship and intimacy experienced in love for a spouse is the source of searing pain at the time of parting in death. But should we not take the risk of love because of the potential pains? Christmas can be one of these things for us. The song, first recorded by Andy Williams, It’s the most wonderful time of the year is playing everywhere. What makes Christmas the most wonderful time of the year is also what makes it the most brutal time of the year.
The image we have is that Christmas is for happy people. You know, those with idyllic family situations enjoyed around a stocking-strewn hearth. They are beaming after watching a Christmas classic curled up on the couch together in front of their large flat-screen. But this is backwards. Christmas—the great story of the birth of the Saviour—is for everyone, especially those who have a keen sense they need saving. It is for those who know the unhappiness that accompanies the common and not-so-common pains and disappointments of life. Christmas is for those who look in a mirror and see ugliness. Christmas is for those whose lives have been devastated by cancer and the thought of another Christmas seems impossible. Christmas is for those who would be nothing but lonely if not for social media. Christmas is for those who traffic in failed dreams. Christmas is for those who have squandered their life’s strength in destructive pursuits. Christmas is the gospel of grace for sinners.
Looking around, some of us see a world and humanity soaked in equal measures of beauty and brokenness, hope and disappointment, glory and shame. This is a world, we confess, that cannot save itself, a world that needs a saviour. Faced with cancer, or hunger, or loneliness, or disappointment, or depression, or any of the host of other things that on any given day threaten to overwhelm us, some have perceived, or at least dared to hope, that there is a reality beyond this one, that there is a God who created, cares for, and promises to redeem us and the whole creation. While some look upon this kind of desperate faith as part wishful thinking and part emotional crutch, others perceive, with the poet W. H. Auden, that “nothing can save us that is possible” and so look with longing and hope to what Karl Barth once named “the impossible possibility.” He will save his people from their sins.
You are to name him Jesus. So much is said in his name; as Mary in our video put it—my heart was so full I couldn’t find the words big enough to express it. Be sure to take a moment to underline the “you” in this phrase from the angel. You are to name him Jesus. The word of the angel isn’t just for Joseph—the call is to every one of us. You name him Jesus for your life; you confess him as your Sovereign and Saviour.
May the peace of his saving presence fill you to overflowing—this Christmas and always. Amen.