Thursday, December 22, 2016

What's In A Name?

          According to “”, Sophia, Emma, and Olivia were the three most popular girl’s names given in 2016.  The most popular boy’s names were Jackson, Aiden, and Lucas.

          What’s in a name?  Do our names mean anything?  Do they in some ways define us?  Do they reveal something of our charcter?  Why did your parents name you what they named you?  Why did you give your children their names? 

          I was named after the now defunct Shea Stadium in New York City.  My dad just liked the sound of the name.  But they changed the spelling of it to “Shay” with an “a” “y” instead of an “e” “a”, so that my uncle wouldn’t call me “Shee-a”. 

          We “Americanized” the Irish name “Aisling” to “Ashlyn” when our daughter was born in 2009.  We discovered that her name means “dream” in Irish, but that’s not why we named her Ashlyn.

          A lot of people name their children after relatives or famous people.  And some people still name their children based on the meaning of the name or for some other symbolic reason. 

          Names were also very important in the Bible.  God told the prophet Isaiah to name his children for specific symbolic purposes.  One son was to be called Shear-Jashub which means “a remnant shall return”.  Another child was given the name Maher-shalal-hash-baz, meaning “spoil speeds, prey hastes”.  Can you imagine the bullying you’d get at school with a name like that?
         But the most famous of the sign children in Isaiah, is of course the son who was to be called Immanuel, meaning “God with us”.  In the original context of Isaiah’s prophesy, this was to be the name of either one of Isaiah’s sons, or possibly, one of King Ahaz’s sons.  The child was to be a sign of God’s continual presence with his people. 

Why did God’s people, Judah, and specifically, King Ahaz need to be reassured of God’s presence with them?  Because King Rezin of Syria and King Pekah of Israel were plotting an attack on Jerusalem to depose Ahaz and place another king on the throne.  We’re told in the early part of Isaiah 7 that when Ahaz and his people learned of this plot, they were “shaking as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.”  They needed to know that their God would be with them in this crisis.

The word of the Lord from Isaiah 7:10-16.  “Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, ‘Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.’  But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’  Then Isaiah said: ‘Hear then, O house of David!  Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.” 

Essentially, God’s message to Ahaz is that very soon, the land of Syria and the land of Ephraim will be deserted and they will no longer pose a threat to Ahaz and the people of Judah.  By the time the soon to be born child, Immanuel, is weaned from his mother’s breast, God’s promise will be fulfilled.  And because the child’s name is Immanuel, (“God with us”), they can be sure that their God will be with them, even as they face this crisis.

Throughout the centuries, God has always journeyed with his people.  He has never deserted them – he has never forsaken them.  When God’s people cry out to him, he hears them and he rescues them -  he saves them.  At the dawn of the first century of our era, God comes to his people again, but in the most unexpected of ways.  Matthew’s gospel tells the story like this.

“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘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.’  All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’  When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” (Matthew 1:18-25).

If the names of the children in Isaiah reveal to us the nature and purposes of God, how much more do these two names reveal?  Jesus, which is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Joshua, or God saves, reminds us of God’s continual deliverance of his people.  Joshua led God’s people into the Promised Land, but how much more does Jesus lead his people into the ultimate Promised Land – the new creation in the age to come! 

And if the child Immanuel in Isaiah’s time had pointed God’s people to his continuing presence with them, how much more is God’s presence realized as God the Son takes on human flesh and moves into the neighborhood (to quote Eugene Peterson)!  In the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God is truly with us.  

God’s modus operandi throughout time has been deliverance, salvation, and presence.  God rescues us for the sake of relationship, and he converts us for the sake of communion.  Jesus is the climax of the story of God and his people – he is God with his people!  These two names, Jesus and Immanuel reveal so much about the man from Nazareth.  And the man from Nazareth, in turn, reveals so much of the God of Israel – the God of the world. 

On Sunday, many in our world will celebrate the birth of Jesus.  We join them in this celebration.  But we also remember that his birth eventually led to his death and his death to his resurrection and exaltation.  We’re reminded of the early Christian hymn that says, “God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:9-11).
So, wherever we’re at in our journey through life – even if we’re in the midst of a crisis – we can be sure that God will deliver us and rescue us through Jesus.  And let us not forget that God’s presence isn’t just promised at the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, but also at the end.  Jesus’ final words are, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”  God remains with us.  May we remain with him. - Shay

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