Sermon for the Feast of Holy Name

After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.

Luke 2.21

Grace and peace be unto you from God our Father, from Jesus Christ our Risen Lord and Reigning Savior, and from the Holy Spirit who empowers and enlivens our time together.

Happy New Year.

As we enter this new year, we do so celebrating a Christian feast of great significance – the Feast of the Most Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ. This feast on the eighth day of Christmastide (always the first day of January and thus the New Year) really marks two significant events in the life of our Lord – his naming and his circumcision.

In ancient Jewish custom, both practices – the naming and the circumcision – would have been seen as highly important events that tether the new life to a larger story – God’s story of love and salvation written in the hearts of the Jewish people. Names often remembered ancestors or great cultural heroes, while circumcision was the physical connecting point to the missio Dei – the mission of God – to draw the world into loving, covenantal relationship with the God of the universe.

Scripture says that when the angel Gabriel burst through the curtain of eternity into Mary’s room, he came with a message: that she would bear the Holy Child of God whose name would be Jesus. “He will be Great,” Gabriel said, “and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” In this exchange known as the “Annunciation,” we see the connection between the Son of God and his ancestor, King David. But there is another ancestor who name isn’t included in our English translation. In Hebrew, the name of our Lord was not Jesus but Yeshua related to Yehoshua which, when transliterated directly into English comes out to Joshua, the great commander who “fit the battle of Jericho and the walls came a’tumblin’ down.” Yehoshua, Joshua, Jesus all mean “Jehovah – God – saves” or “rescues.” This should be confused with the sanitized and aloof brand of salvation, which we are tempted to keep at an arm’s length, but a visceral, physical salvation that penetrates even the most hardened and remote corners of our souls and our common life. The kind of salvation that hymn writer was talking about when they wrote:

I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore,
very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more,
but the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry,
and from the waters lifted me, now safe am I.

In sending his Son into the world, God was initiating a high-stakes rescue mission of cosmic importance and in giving our Lord the name Yeshua, Miryam – Mary –his prophetic mother, was connecting him to the messianic hopes of his people.

The Feast of the Holy Name, then, is the Feast that begins our year with hope and joy in the reality that we are connected to this messianic hope that God has come to save us. Our new year begins with the declaration that Jesus is the one who saves, utterly, and that he carries with him the hope-against-hope of oppressed and downtrodden people everywhere.

We carry this hope with us into the world with the name of Jesus on our lips. Every time we say the name Jesus, we are really offering a prayer to God – a prayer for deliverance and rescue: salvation from sin, death, and destruction. When we utter the Most Holy Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, we are making a claim about him in our lives, that he saves. If he saves, utterly, then we are called towards greater reliance upon his grace and favor, even when it hurts, even when it dark, even if “the water may be deeper than it has ever been” we are called to hope, and to believe even against all hope, that hope floats.

Beloved in Christ, that is the significance of his Most Holy Name, but the other event with cosmic ramifications is his circumcision, his entry into the covenantal community of God, a community that was created missio Dei – the mission of God –  in mind. Circumcision is not a mark of pride or hubris, but one of humility. The circumcised are those whom God has called into a special vocation of ministry to the world. Circumcision is not the mark that signifies God’s love was only for the Jewish people. God’s love has always been limitless and boundless for all of humanity and indeed all of Creation itself. Circumcision is a sign that the vocation of the Jewish people is one of mission. It is a mark of blessing, a blessing that is meant to be shared, not hoarded. It is the very same, divine blessing which God spoke at the conclusion of Creation – fundamental goodness that infuses every atom and every fiber of every created thing. It is no accident that Luke is the only evangelist to include the story of Jesus’ circumcision. While Matthew, Mark, and John were writing to primary Jewish congregations, Luke’s audience was primarily Greek and Gentile. As such, the connection to God through the Abrahamic Covenant gave validity and meaning to their fledging movement. Luke’s “Jesus Movement” was more than rearranging the furniture in the parlor of the social club for the benefit of the “in crowd.” Luke’s “Jesus Movement” blew the doors off of the clubhouse altogether in order to invite the entire world into covenantal relationship with the God of Sarah and Avraham, Rivkah and Yitzchak, Leah, Rachel, and Yaakov, the God who sings prophetic songs of freedom in burning bushes, weaves promises into reed baskets, and destroys every power that exalts itself against God’s Shalom.

As Christian members of God’s love story, Jesus Christ is our connecting point to that mission and it did not start at the cross, but in the crib. God’s invitation to join this Holy Movement was not an afterthought of the crucifixion, but an intention at his circumcision. We were drafted, not because of Roman Legions doing their worst, but because of faithful followers of God doing their absolute best to carry on this saving message of God.

The work of Jesus began when he was young, when his young mother dared to name him after a hopeful aspiration and induct him into the vocation of making that hope a reality. Scripture says that “after the angels left,” God began his work in the infant Jesus.

The same is true for us. The work of Christmas begins when the masses of Christmas have been celebrated, when the poinsettias of Christmas have been given away, when the trees and wreaths and garland have been packed up, when we’ve eaten our last Christmas cookie and finished our last egg nog, we must begin the actual work of Christmas – work of being Christ’s hands and feet in the world to rescue and deliver the broken and downtrodden, to defend the vulnerable, to support the weak, to love the lonely, and to lift up the lowly. 21st century Christian mystic, theologian, educator, and civil rights leader Howard Thurman puts it this way:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.[1]

Beloved in Christ, you, I, we are connected to the God of who burst through the veil of time and called Abraham and his countless descendants into holy mission. We are called to continue this work of living as holy ambassadors of the eternal Reign of Heaven in the midst of a kingdom of death. Our baptism, our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, connects us to Christ’s spirit, just as his circumcision connects him in the flesh to Abraham. We are one family in God. A family of mission. A family of hope. A family of limitless and abundant blessing tasked with bearing that blessing into our broken world.

Amen.


[1] Howard Thurman. “The Work of Christmas” in The Mood of Christmas and Other Celebrations.

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