December 18, 2022

The Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 18, 2022
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Lessons: Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25

From the Gospel according to Matthew, “…and Joseph named him Jesus.” I speak to you in the
Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Juliet and Romeo have met and fallen head over heels in love with each other. But their
romance is doomed from the start simply because their families – the Montagues and Capulets are
at war with, and absolutely despise, each other. For Romeo and Juliet, those names stand in the
way of their true happiness. That is until Act Two, Scene Two, when Juliet grasps that it’s not
one’s name that defines one’s character, but rather, how one lives. She tells Romeo she loves the
person known as Montague, not the name Montague. After all, she asks, “What’s in a name?” and
in so asking she sums up the central struggle and tragedy of Shakespeare’s classic play, “Romeo
and Juliet.”
“What is in a name?” We know that names identify us and quite often, reveal from where we
came, our ancestry and even our occupation: Saul of Tarsus, John of the Cross, Jesus of Nazareth,
Joseph the Carpenter and so on. People go to great lengths to name their child – a name that will
celebrate their birth, as well as express their hopes and dreams for their child. Names are so
important to us and so as I meditated on today’s scripture lessons, I wondered why is that? What
is in a name? And does our name really matter. Does it make any difference in our lives?
Our lessons this morning proclaim the events leading up to the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem and
place an extraordinary emphasis on names. The Prophet Isaiah proclaims the Virgin will conceive
and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel. That’s quite the name. See, in the literal
Hebrew, “Im” means “with”; “Nu” is the first-person plural and means “Us”; and “El” is the generic
word for God. So Immanuel literally means “With us God” or “God with us.”
St. Paul writing to the Church at Rome years after the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus says
that we have received Jesus’ own name: we are called “Christians” – “Christ’s ones,” and called to
live lives that witness to our faithfulness to God in all things just as God is faithful in all things. The
Psalmist speaks of the restoring and health-giving nature of God whom he calls Shepherd, Lord of
Hosts, judge, and redeemer. Each of those names has been ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth. But they
are just names. Do they make a difference?
You know, Matthew offers the most succinct story of Jesus’ birth in all the gospels. He tells us a
son was born and Joseph named him Jesus. End of story. In fact, he spends more time naming the
cast of characters in the story, than on the actual birth itself. In so doing, he suggests that Jesus’
birth was just like any other human birth; a time of labor is followed by the bringing forth of a child
and the naming of the child. Nothing peculiar there. So, let’s look deeper.
See, throughout Advent, we have been encouraged to watch for the Christ, to look for and
celebrate God’s presence around us, to quiet ourselves and listen more intently for God; and await
God’s kingdom that comes like a thief in the night. And each weekly reading has been couched in
stories about the lineage of Jesus, his relationship to David, the uniqueness of his name, his
coming as the fulfillment of God’s promises not just to Israel, but the whole world. And now on this
fourth Sunday, we get a glimpse of the importance of that which we will celebrate next weekend.
And it has everything to do with both the physical birth and the name of the child about to be born.
The child shall be called “Immanuel”, or God with us as Isaiah proclaimed. “Jesus”, as Joseph
names him is pronounced Yeshua in Hebrew and Yeshua means, “God saves”. But Yeshua is also
the name of the one who, after Moses’ death, led the sojourning people of Israel out of the
wilderness described in the Exodus into the actual Promised Land. Yeshua is Hebrew for Joshua.
So, what Matthew describes here is a subtle and yet profound theological and, therefore,
potentially life-transforming truth: Jesus comes as Immanuel – God with us; and as Yeshua – God
saves: a Yeshua - a new Joshua who leads and brings all people – Jew and Gentile, male and
female, slave and free – brings them, brings us, into the very presence of God - and that
presence, in many ways, is a new promised land.
I find all of this intriguing, and yet, the question remains “Do names really change anything?”
When someone is struggling to pay their bills, when a loved is dying, when a job is lost, what’s in a
Matthew tells us that Joseph, upon learning of Mary’s pregnancy, desired to put her away privately.
Now why all the fuss? Well, Joseph’s ancestors traced their lineage to the Royal household of King
David himself. Joseph’s great, great, grandparents had participated in the revolt led by Judas
Maccabeus in 165 BC when pagan occupiers of Jerusalem and Israel had been overthrown – an
event still celebrated today as the Feast of Hanukkah. This royal household was very concerned
about maintaining a pure blood line and carefully chose the spouses of their children. Any woman
whose purity was even thought to have been compromised was considered unfit for marriage. So
that’s why Joseph was so concerned. Having learned that Mary is pregnant, it is understandable
why Joseph, who must maintain a pure lineage and certainly, avoid any hint of scandal, decides to
put her away privately. Matthew says that as soon as he “resolved to do so, the Angel of the Lord
appeared to him.” The angel understands the importance of Joseph’s lineage and yet, nevertheless
tells him, “Do not be afraid Joseph … Mary bears a child not by man, but by the Holy Spirit and …
he will be called Jesus; Immanuel – God saves, God with us.” And here is why that name is so
important, how this particular name makes a difference in human history. . This naming is not
simply a sign, a hope for, or symbol of God’s presence. The name “Jesus” describes the person
Jesus who is God’s real presence among us. In this mysterious and miraculous birth, God does
something new and totally unexpected; God becomes flesh; God breaks into creation in order to
forge a new relationship with his people; God comes to live among us as one with us. And it is this
Incarnation – God becoming flesh and living among us - that demands we take a fresh look at our
world as we know it, experience it, and live it. It demands a fresh imagining of the mind and heart
of God. For if God is with us (Immanuel) then are the things that matter most to God present and
demonstrated in my life, in your life? Are we known by our life’s example of faithfulness to all the
things that God holds dear – mercy, justice, love, reconciliation, forgiveness - or are we simply a
name? Like Immanuel, Yeshua, or Joshua, does our name mean anything to someone else? Does
my name, your name, make a difference? How about the name “Christian” that became ours at
baptism and forever carry with us. Does it make a difference? What’s in a name?
Reflecting on what it means to carry the name of Christ so deeply that we become as Christ to
our neighbor, Howard Thurman penned the beloved poem entitled “The Work of Christmas.”
Thurman reminds those who carry Christ’s name that that name means something. So much so, it
calls us to live differently. He describes that living as the true work of Christmas and that is, “to
find the lost, to heal the broken, to feed the hungry, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among people, to make music in the heart.” 1 Christ’s name – our name – compels
us to do the hard work of reconciliation, to reach out and bring home the lonely and oppressed, to
love our neighbors as ourselves. Why? Because that is the stuff that really matters because that is
what makes a difference in this world. Because that type of action and living breathes the very
redemptive and transforming presence of that Immanuel, God with us and in us, Yeshua - Jesus
Christ: God’s real presence that still offers to transform whole communities and entire nations
As we enter this final week of Advent, I invite to join with me and ask, “What is in a name?” and
then realize that truly it is only our lives that can and must tell. Amen.

1 Howard Thurman, The Work of Christmas