New Year’s Day in the church calendar, formerly called the Feast of the Circumcision, is now known as the Feast of the Holy Name. For many, though, New Years’ Day traditionally is the feast of recovery from New Years’ Eve, also called the Unholy Hangover. Holy Name rests on only five words: “And he was called Jesus.” That’s not a lot to get worked up over for a sermon.
Naming is a big deal in Israel’s history. In Numbers God puts his name on the Israelites and blesses them. They are His people, even when they periodically get sent to time out. In Philippians Paul looks toward the day all heaven and earth will give Jesus the name Lord. In Luke Mary and Joseph comply with Jewish traditions, presenting Jesus at the Temple for circumcision and naming. Giving names in the Bible is important.
Names are important for us as well. Some families and cultures name a child for a family member or special person. Other names describe a quality parents hope to see in their child. My name, “Steven,” means “crown.” I think my parents thought I talked too much. For me “crown” was a verb: “Be quiet or I’m going to have to crown you,” which means my folks weren’t seeing royal qualities in me.
For centuries Israel anticipated and hoped for God to come as their King and to establish God’s rule over their enemies and all the nations. Jesus declares the Kingdom of God is here and people’s hopes and expectations soar.
Remember Jesus’ birth announcement – words like Savior, Lord and Messiah? That’s good, big news. Over in the tiny Bethlehem, though God’s emperor comes to town. Instead of a palace, God goes to pastures and fields, to the poor and lowly, outcasts – shepherds, not to royalty and agents of human power, to declare good news. What sort of Kingdom is coming in Jesus?
God names him, Jesus, a Hebrew name, which means “He saves.” But this child is not just another “Jesus” in the crowd. God’s Messiah will not turn out to be the messiah his people hope for. They expect a king from David’s royal line who’ll run Rome out of town, overturn evil, right wrongs, and protect them from hard times or sadness. But Jesus saves us God’s way, not ours, and many wanted a different kind of saving.
Jesus saves by healing and restoring people who were religiously and socially denied dignity. Jesus saves by forgiving sins – which is an important form of healing. Forgiveness is for the religious to give to those they think deserve it, meted out from the Temple, not in the words of some poor, itinerant preacher and healer. Plus, Jesus offends the spiritually important. He hangs out with the wrong people. He lifts up the lowly. Those at the top are so invested in themselves, they miss what God is doing. In God’s kingdom, exiles are brought home. Parties are thrown for prostitutes and prodigals. He saves us from living meaningless lives – from self-centered behaviors, and from ever thinking we are in control. Jesus saves us from hating others, from resorting to violence to get our way, from drawing lines to keep others out. Jesus saves us to love God and love one another. And the one thing many Christians get wrong is to think Jesus comes to save us to get us to heaven. Jesus saves this world by bringing heaven to earth – through forgiveness, love, and great parties and feasts, joy and peace.
Just because Jesus announces the kingdom’s come doesn’t automatically make us citizens of God’s reign. We have to practice and work at living in God’s reign. We have to have a passion for God’s reign, and be willing to bring our wills into God’s. In the words of today’s Collect, we ask God to plant the love of our Savior, Jesus Christ, in all hearts. What happens when we leave a plant on its own – unless it’s Creeping Charlie or some other satanic weed that grows with no help, and in spite of Weed-Be-Gone? Watching Tim Benson play the new Schantz organ won’t make us organists. Ask him – he practices – love, dedication and loads of practice. Choosing to live fully in God’s Kingdom transforms our hearts. The kingdom becomes incarnated in our lives and spreads outward into the world. We won’t automatically love our enemies, or pray for those who wish us harm. We’ll still catch ourselves at gossip, and being negative and grateful. Prayer, the sacred reading of scripture, meditation, reading theology, studying the Bible, practicing Ignatian awareness examen daily, these are some of the tools to bring us into union with God’s kingdom, a kingdom at odds with the world’s values.
A lot of people may know the Holy Name, but are yet to live the Holy Life. Life in the kingdom is both – knowing his name and living his life in ours. A student in a religious studies class once observed that it seems that a lot of people confessing Christ as Lord don’t live an alternative lifestyle. Maybe they want Jesus to save them to heaven, but don’t want to live the hard life of being redeemed here and now. God won’t step in and save the world. Instead he brings heaven to earth through the likes of us. Let’s not miss what God is doing in this world among us – it’s wonderful, mysterious, huge, magnificent and so for us, for the sake of how deeply God loves us all. Many good folks in Jesus’ day missed all this – maybe a warning. It’s a kingdom we need to take seriously.