Names are funny things. One of the largest industries in today’s world is the whole baby-naming market. We can hire consultants for just names and some communities try as hard as they can to make unique names or unique variations of names (Shaniqua or Cheerokee). We may have lost our minds when it comes to the whole name thing. We publish lists on the most popular baby names and we read books on the meanings of names.
We had fun naming our kids. My wife and I know that we wanted our kids names to mean something, so that when our kids asked, “what does my name mean?” we could answer with something better than “because we liked it.” (When we found out we were having a boy, I tried to convince Marilee that we needed to name him ‘Luke’ so I could say, “Luke, I am your father!”). We agonized over names and we tried to be political, so as to not have one side of the family represented too much.
Today’s readings are all about names…well, one name in particular….ok...two names in particular.
Our gospel reading is the familiar story of Jesus’ birth, told in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 1:18-25). Matthew sets up the story for us perfectly by saying, “When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found to be with child…(Matthew 1:18). So we have here a young couple (no matter how old Joseph is, he is still fairly young) and they are engaged to be married. What a wonderful time of life! Happiness and joy abound and there is to be a celebration soon!
Except Mary is pregnant.
Now many of us know we live in a time when this would not be a particular problem. In fact, in our day and age, this seems to be a normal transpiring of events: Boy meets girl, boy and girl have sex, boy and girl exchange names, boy and girl move into together, boy and girl have child and then eventually maybe boy and girl get married. This is not the time nor the place to discuss the merits or demerits of such a situation, just be it to say that this caused a problem for Joseph.
Ancient Jewish purity laws called for a woman to be a virgin when she was married. The punishment in more of the rural areas like Nazareth, the punishment for not being a virgin was either divorce (which involved disgrace and abandonment) or death.
But, why? Why is this such an important deal? Was it just that they were uneducated hicks…you know the sort that watch Duck Dynasty and drink beer out of a can? Or was it just that they were prudes and wanted to stop everybody from having a good time? Or were they just not enlightened like we are (I mean you can see how well our current sexual ethics are working out for us!) So what was it?
Well, mainly it was about a name. In a time before DNA and genetic testing, family lines were extremely important to people. This was a society were everything, from the throne to property lines depended on your family heritage. As we have moved further and further away from hereditary rights, bloodlines have become less important (as well as our sexual purity). Joseph couldn’t legitimately give his blessing to a child that wasn’t his and he would mess up all the genealogical charts for generations to come.
So Joseph, a righteous man, now has choice to make…how to get ‘rid’ of Mary. Perhaps if he lived in Jersey or worked with the Sopranos, there would be a different option, but Joseph decides to divorce her secretly.
And most of us would probably agree with this decision…I mean, after all, what else could he do? He couldn’t marry her and care for her child, could he? He couldn’t really kill her, right? So a quiet divorce sounds like the best option. Things are desperate for the young carpenter and his fiancée. And Joseph probably felt that God had abandoned him, that God was distant from him and that there was no help coming from God in this situation.
That is, until, God pipes in.
The Angel appears and first tells Joseph “do not fear” (v. 20). Interesting choice of words…it is not that he should not fear because of the angel, but that he shouldn’t be afraid to marry Mary and to raise her Son. The reason for this is because “that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit…”(Mathew 1:21). This is all done in fulfillment of Isaiah 7, which culminates with the baby’s name, “Immanuel”.
What a name!
But what’s in a name anyway?
To understand this prophesy, we need to go back to Isaiah 7. As we return to this text, we have almost forget everything we know about it. We have imported the Christmas story so much to it, that we go back to see what was happening.
It was a desperate time for the nation of Israel. The country was at war and was about to be destroyed. King Ahaz was frightened the king of Assyria would overwhelm him and his people would be enslaved, killed, or deported. He is looking at the end of his reign, the end of his kingdom and the end of the world, as far as he knows!
Into this, Isaiah comes to him and says tells Ahaz to ask for a sign…any sign! But Ahaz is so scared that he won’t ask for a sign. So Isaiah give him a sign anyway:
Behold the virgin shall conceive and give birth and bear a son, and his name shall be Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14).
There has been a lot of discussion about this sign…does it present a miraculous sign? Is the “virgin” still a virgin when she conceives, etc? I don’t necessarily don’t want to be dogmatic here, but I think we should take the following things from Isaiah. First, the ‘virgin’ isn’t really a virgin. There is nothing supernatural about the sign, as it is a reference to the time when the siege will be over. Rather, the most important thing is the name:
But what’s in a name?
Immanuel literally means “God with us!” The message that Isaiah wants to present to Ahaz is that despite the overwhelming nature of the events that are happening around you, God is with you. God is with you and will deliver you, save you from your enemies.
That’s a powerful message. Because Ahaz probably felt that God had abandoned the people of Israel. He probably felt that God was distant from him and that really there was no help coming from on high.
How many of us feel the same way? How many of us feel that God has abandoned us, that He is distant from us and that he is not coming for us. This time of year, I always think about those people who feel that God has completely ignored or abandoned.
I think of Scott, who was desperately trying to put his family back together after his wives numerous affairs and disastrous financial decisions. “I don’t know where to go from here,” he said as he sat in my study. “I don’t know who I am supposed to be and I don’t know how I’m supposed to get there. Where is God?”
I think of Alice who has been struggling with alcohol for such a long time. “All I want is one more drink and then I can stop.” Rehab never quite worked for her and she keeps losing the battle with the bottle. She has lost her job, her family and her God (she thinks).
I think of Jacob, a youth group member who is trying to find his identity. He feels an attraction towards men and feels that his family would completely reject him if they ever found out the truth about him. “I mean, God hates fags, right?”
And yet, we see the truth played out before us in this reading. Jesus, the Angel declares, is God with us.
God with us in our joy. God with us in our despair. God with us in our victory and God with us in our defeat. God with us in our struggles and God with us in our sin. God with us when we are happy and God with us when we are sad. God with us in the crowd and God with us when we are alone. God with us in all aspects of our lives.
This is the Gospel for us today, that God is with us. God was with Joseph in those dark moments of his life, to give him courage to live out God’s plan for him. God is with us in all situations of our lives.
The theologians like to use big words and the word they like to use for this is “incarnation”. That the fullness of God has come to dwell in the baby in Bethlehem. This was a miracle in the biggest sense of the word because what it says is that, “I, God of the universe, Creator of heaven and earth, the one who has the power and the ability to preserve and destroy any life I see, have come to live in your world. I want to experience all things with you. I want to experience your joys and your sorrow. I want to be with you in all things.”
One of the great promises of the Old Testament is that “I will walk among you and will be your God and you will be my people” (Lev 26:12). But there was always something that got in the way. The people sinned, God got mad and He sent the people into Exile. But When Jesus comes, he announces to the World, “I am here! I am with you! I am walking among among you! (or as John says, I will ‘dwell’ among you”
And this promise has no end. It is no surprise that Matthew ends with Jesus’ promise, “I will never leave you nor forsake you, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). Did you hear it? I am with you.
So what is in a name?
First, we have a sign that God has not abandoned or forsaken his people. God will never just cast us off to the winds. That is a collective as well as an individual promise.
Second, we have knowledge that God is going through all things with us. He is experiencing the joyous moments as well as the defeats with us.
Third, we have a promise that God will never leave us or forsake us. By coming in the person of Jesus as Immanuel, God has permanently identified with us.
So no matter what you are going through this Advent period, no matter what joys and what sorrows you have during this period in life, remember that through it all, God is with us…God is with you…after all, it’s all in his name.
 The Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 has hmlc (which means ‘young maid’ and could mean ‘virgin’) and the Greek of the LXX has paqehnoj (which means virgin). Matthew definitely has the LXX in view and it is clear that he indicates that Mary was a virgin throughout her lifr