At a retreat I was on during college, our first scheduled activity, as is usual for retreats, was to do a series of icebreakers to get to know one another. The first icebreaker was simple – we were to go around the circle and share with the group what our name meant. That was all the instruction we got: share your name and its story. I got to share that my first name, Melissa, is from Greek and means “honeybee.” There actually exists something called melissophobia, which isn’t fear of me (I know you were thinking it!), but fear of bees! And then my middle name, Ann, is also my mom’s middle name. And my last name then – Johnson – means, simply “son of john,” but of more interest is that when my MOM’s grandparents emigrated from Sweden, they, too, were Johnsons, but at Ellis Island, they were told that there were already so many Johnsons that they could chose to change their name. My great grandfather decided that he would rename the family “Nordstrom,” after his friend down the street who sold shoes, and so my grandfather and mother were both “Nordstrom’s”…but then she married my dad and Johnson came back into the family!
The funny thing about this exercise, if you ever try it with a group of people, is that no matter how much someone insists that their name is boring of has no real story, they soon realize that even the lack of a story is a story in and of itself. Our names have stories because we have stories.
Imagine, now, for a moment, that you are Joseph. You’re lying in bed, trying to get to sleep, but your troubled mind keeps you from dozing off. See, you’re engaged to a young woman who is going to have a baby “by the Holy Spirit,” and you’ve made the hard decision to break off the engagement, because you have to assume that she’s been unfaithful. You’re a good man, so you don’t want to shame her publicly, so you make plans to break things off peacefully and quietly. With a plan in place, your brain relaxes, and you drift off to sleep. Just as you doze off, you find yourself in the midst of a fantastic dream, and there’s an angel speaking to you face-to-face.
“Joseph!” he calls out. “Joseph, son of David – of righteous lineage – why are you so afraid? Why do you not believe Mary? Take her as your wife, because I promise that she’s telling the truth – the child she’s carrying truly is of the Holy Spirit. And Joseph? It’s a boy. And when he’s born, you should name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins – yeah, it’s a pretty huge calling, isn’t it? If all of this isn’t mind-blowing enough, go back and look at the scriptures – this child’s birth has been prophesied! “Look, the young woman shall conceive (that’s Mary) and bear a son (you’ll name him Jesus), and you will call him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us.’”
I imagine that if you were Joseph you’d wake up from this dream with a start, heart racing, sitting straight up in bed. An angel of the Lord spoke to you? And talked about Mary and the baby? And you’re supposed to name him what?
It’s interesting that the angel who visited Joseph didn’t try to convince him that Mary was carrying the savior of the world by giving a long explanation of the miracles that Jesus would do to demonstrate his power, or by detailing the events leading to Christ’s death and resurrection, or by giving a long discourse on sin and the world’s need for redemption.
I admit – I’m a theologian. If someone were to ask me about the meaning of Jesus, I’d likely want to talk about the fall and sin, and how death and brokenness are real powers in this world, but that God sent Jesus to the world – a fully divine and fully human savior – who, through his death and resurrection, could liberate the world. And I could tell them about the different theories of exactly how Jesus’ death on the cross might have brought this forgiveness about, and how God saves us not by what we do, but by our faith, and then I might talk about Luther or St. Augustine or Thomas Aquinas.
And by the time I’d finish telling this person everything that I knew and loved about Jesus…they’d probably have already walked away from me. Or at least tuned me out. Or at the very least…they’d walk away from the conversation not having really learned anything about the meaning of Jesus. They’d know what theologians had debated about Jesus, and what I had learned in seminary about Jesus, but they wouldn’t have any picture of who Jesus was…or who Jesus was TO ME.
And so I don’t think it’s an accident that the angel who visited Joseph stayed away from trying to explain everything about the nature of God and the state of the world. He instead tells the story of Jesus by using his name.
The name “Jesus” comes from the Hebrew name, “Joshua,” which means something along the lines of “Yahweh (God/the Lord) is our help,” or “Yahweh saves.” This is why the angel says “you will name him Jesus, for he will save his people.”
But from what will he save them?
If you read through the gospel of Matthew, you will find that forgiveness is a major theme. The gospel of Matthew focuses on Jesus as the one sent to save us from their sins. It’s interesting to note that in this gospel, the word “to forgive” is used 47 times – more times than it’s used in any other gospel. Matthew uses the word to talk about forgiveness, letting go, and pardoning.
In the book The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal recounts his own experience as Jew in a concentration camp during the Holocaust. On one particular day in the camp, he was called away to a hospital at the request of a dying Nazi soldier. This soldier, feeling torment and remorse about the crimes in which had participated, wanted to confess to – and hopefully be forgiven by – a Jew.
This story, however, only takes up the first few pages of the book. The rest of the book contains essays written by a variety of theologians, ethicists, and philosophers, all speaking to this question of forgiveness. Some of the responses are clear-cut – yes, Wiesenthal should have forgiven the soldier or no, he shouldn’t have. Others debate the limits of forgiveness or the ethics of the soldier’s asking for absolution. And yet others debate whether one man can speak forgiveness on the behalf of many, or whether forgiving the dying soldier implicitly forgives all other soldiers. How wide can forgiveness stretch?
Joseph knows one answer to this question: Jesus, the savior, God’s help for the world, is coming to save all of his people from their sins. He is coming offering forgiveness to all. His very name assures us that God is in the business of saving.
But that’s not all that God is willing to do for the sake of his people.
The angel gives Joseph another name for Mary’s child, quoting the prophet Isaiah: “the young woman will bear a son and she will call his name Emmanuel – God with us.”
This is the other half of the story: Not only is this child going to be the one who saves his people from their sins, but he is also going to be the very presence of God, dwelling with us in human form. Our God is not one who is content to dwell on high, watching over his creation at a distance. Our God is one who desires to live among us and walk with us. Jesus’ power to save is intimately tied up with his becoming flesh and dwelling among us (as John’s gospel would say).
Have you ever seen Jesus dwelling among us?
A confirmation class spent a day working at a soup kitchen in downtown Chicago. Most of the day was spent doing prep-work in the kitchen – cutting up green peppers and unloading cases of canned vegetables and slicing bread – but the last hour of their workday was the lunch hour, when the doors to the soup kitchen were opened and homeless people came in for a hot meal in the early spring, when it was still cold and rainy outside. Before anyone ate, the whole room gathered in a circle, confirmation kids and homeless people and volunteers together, and held hands while they blessed the meal by singing the doxology. At the end of the singing, one student looked over at an older woman across the table in a worn-out stocking cap and smiled at her. The woman smiled a toothless grin back, her eyes beaming. Jesus was certainly dwelling there.
A hospital chaplain was called to the psychiatric ward at the request of a woman who said she could feel the demons closing in on her and wanted someone to pray with her. He didn’t know what to say as he prayed with her, but did his best to call upon God’s peace and strength. The woman held onto his hands long after the prayer was done, thanking him over and over again because she said she could feel the love of God in this chaplain’s prayer. Jesus was certainly dwelling there.
Leo turned 104 a few weeks ago. Every Thursday, his pastor shows up at his house, picks him up, and takes him along to visit shut-ins and to do communion visits. Leo says that there must be some purpose that God still has for him, and if he can help others feel that God has a purpose for them too, then maybe they’ll feel the same joy and hope that he does. “It’s the least I can do,” he says. Jesus is certainly dwelling here.
And Jesus, this Immanuel, this God-with-us, is present here in our midst today. He is present in our prayers and in our songs, and he is present in the reading of scripture, and he is present in the meal we are about to share. The ultimate meaning of Jesus, our Immanuel, comes down to the words “here is my body, given for you, and here is my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins.”
And this is the story of Jesus – the story revealed to Joseph by the angel – the story revealed through something as simple as giving Mary’s child a name. This is the story of Jesus, the God who saves, and Immanuel, the presence of God with us. This is the story of the one who came down that we might have love, who came down that we might have peace, who came down that we might have joy, and who came down that we might have life.