What Does the Name Jesus Mean

Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on Psalm 80: 1 – 7 & Matthew 1: 18 – 25.  Focus on why the prayer of the psalmist does not come true in the way he expected.  Check out Kelly Crandell and the choir following the sermon.

The Psalmist cries out in anguish – “Oh, give ear, Shepherd of Israel, … O Lord God of hosts, (which means Lord of the armies), “How long will You be angry with Your people? O God of hosts, restore us and cause Your face to shine upon us, and we will be saved.” And after hundreds of years of waiting and hoping the answer to this cry by the psalmist is found in two brief verses in Matthew’s Gospel. “Now the birth of Jesus took place in this way” – verse 1: 18 and concludes in verse 1: 25 – (And Joseph) had no marital relations with (Mary) until she had born a son, and he named him Jesus, which means God saves.

Which begs the question: Could you start your depiction of the life of the savior in a more matter-of-fact and scandalous way. Born to a guy named Joseph who wasn’t even the baby’s father, you would miss these verses if you blinked. But true be told most people did miss the birth of Jesus. The local news team didn’t follow Mary’s pregnancy the way we cover news worthy events today. There were no camera crews or first century reporters awaiting his birth. There were no baby showers before his birth or baptism invitations after. From all we can tell from Matthew’s story, almost no one noticed this event. It was a birth just like millions of others, unremarkable in every way, except for Mary and Joseph.

For Joseph this news must have been devastating. Having to travel to Bethlehem in the final days of Mary’s pregnancy. Burden upon burden, heavy taxation, no room to stay in, how could this possible be an answer to the Psalmist’s question? This is how the Lord of the armies was going to answer His people – in this way – tiny and insignificant?

Many today can feel Joseph’s pain; these aren’t easy times for a lot of people or for the church. Resources are tight, spirits sag and no one knows this better than those who bear the responsibilities for all of the relationships that make up a church family. A feeling of hopelessness and blame has worked its way into the spiritual DNA of many churches and into our Presbytery and throughout entire denominations.

It’s hard to believe that this child is good news for the future of congregations that are in decline, or to those who hear the constant gossip and bickering about whatever issue is occupying the day. Or when our ministries end up relying on fewer and fewer people, when people don’t pledge or give of their time and talent but see fit instead to complain about those who try and make things better.

But here is the reality – to the extent that we ignore our differences and fail to engage in the hard truths of where we are today we will not know the deepest meaning of what the incarnation of Jesus means. Hope and courage begin with honesty. Thus rather than thinking everything should be a jolly good time especially at this time of year, this season really invites us to embrace the difficult truths of our lives, the acknowledge the darker, depressing side of the holiday that is for far too many their experience of this season – to see these advent weeks from the perspective of the central characters in the biblical stories that make up this season.

Beneath sweet, endearing reenactments of the tale and the joyous carols, there lies the crushing sadness of it all. The birth of Jesus lies within the shadow of the cross. From the time his birth is announced until it is accomplished it is shrouded by taxation and death and without acknowledging this reality, the hope that this event offers lacks context and meaning.

The apostle Paul got it right when he acknowledged that hope is made of suffering that calls us to endurance, that endurance builds character and that out of this hope is born. (Romans 5:4) And hope itself is made manifest in patience that waits for what we do not yet see, a patience that is accessible only through abiding faith that God will ultimately prevail. (Romans 8:25)

It’s not about waiting like those who expect and envision a gift, like a child’s wishful waiting for Santa, but a more difficult kind of waiting, a waiting with no tangible outcome accessible to us, exactly the kind of waiting that is demanded of us now. Waiting for that which we cannot yet see or even imagine.

The Psalmist expected a warrior God to return. He didn’t and hasn’t come. That God is not coming folks. To be honest we have no idea what the future holds for us. Just like Mary and Joseph could not have anticipated all that their child’s life would mean neither can we anticipate all that will happen to and for us.

But I know this if fewer and fewer of us give and participate in doing the things that need to get done in this church little things, like signing Christmas cards for lonely elderly people, or helping with the Christmas dinner, or pledging to this church, just to name but a few then it will not be God who hasn’t shown up to help us. It will be us who didn’t show up.

This isn’t to say that we are in despair, but rather that true leadership in the community of the faithful is unafraid of truth and is steadfast in trust. When we let go of our fantasies of a personal or congregational future conforming to our own desires and designs, we open a space ready to receive God’s surprise, the abundance of life that has been promised to us. All we can do is what we think best at any given moment always being mindful that if we make decisions out fear rather than faith things will not go well.

But we must also take our place with Joseph and Mary at the center of what they experienced and were promised – a brief encounter with a messenger saying – “Do not be afraid!” And then taking that weary trip to Bethlehem to comply with an onerous imperial order of census and taxation, to a place lacking adequate provisions for them, to find themselves, ourselves at a stable rather than an inn, staring into the face of a baby whose future is as tenuous and as unknown as any other child that has ever been born.

That’s what we are called to during Advent. A new life is being born, without much fanfare and certainly not with military might and strength, a new life that we will not see unless we stop wanting and waiting for the God of our imaginings to see the God who comes to us in the most vulnerable of ways, ways that depend upon us to help nurture.

Which is the whole point after all. Jesus came as one of us. Jesus was born like we are, lived as we live, loved and laughed and suffered as we do. And died as we will die. And yet on the third day, God raised him from the dead that we might no longer live in fear of death but through faith might have life and have it abundantly. Amen

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