Sermon preached by the Rev. Benjamin Shambaugh
St. Luke’s, Portland
“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.” This completion of the story of the shepherds going to the manger is never read except on this, the 8th day of Christmas, a day which rarely falls on a Sunday – but which is always the first day of a new year. The question of circumcision, that rite by which male children were bonded to the covenant of Abraham, would become a big deal for the early church and its struggle over inclusion. Eventually a decision was made that circumcision wasn’t necessary, that non-Jewish people were welcome and that new life in Christ – “circumcision of the heart” — was the important thing. For Jesus’ identity, however, the connection with Abraham and the covenant of Abraham was important. And, as in the case of Abraham, so was his name. As you may remember, Abraham’s original name was Abram. It was changed to Abraham after his covenant with God. It is only after his taking on of the covenant that the baby in the manger received his name, the name of Yeshua – Jesus, which means “he who saves.” This is intriguing because – at least in the gospel of Matthew – Jesus had already been given another name, the name foretold by Isaiah, ”Emmanuel” which means “God-with-us.” In his life, Jesus would receive many names – “The Prince of Peace,” “The Messiah,” “the Son of Man” and “The son of God” to mention a few. (“Christ” by the way is a noun, not a name. The Greek word for Messiah, “Christ,” is a job title, with Jesus Christ more accurately translated as “Jesus the Christ” – kind of like “Bob the plumber” or “Ben the priest”) In American culture, we have lost the meaning of names. I enjoy meeting immigrants and hearing the meaning imbued every time someone says their name. It reminds me how much the names Emmanuel and Jesus say about Jesus and what the name Christian says about us on this New Year’s Day.
New Year’s Day is a funny thing. Like the god Janus, our culture would have us looking backwards and forwards. For Christians,the challenge is to be where we are on, right in the middle of the Christmas season. More than “8 maids a milking,” this day is continuation of the celebration of the birth of Jesus. Even though Christmas trees forlornly mix with snow at the curb, this cathedral’s decorations are still up. Though the world thinks that Christmas is over, we know that Christmas has just begun… and we have only just begun to understand what Christmas means.
How, for example, would we feel about this new year if we truly believed that because of Christmas God was with us? How would we feel about this new year if we truly believed that Jesus was the one who saves and that no matter how bad things get, God’s victory, the victory of light over darkness and life over death is assured? If we believed these things, would we have the courage to follow the example of the three kings and open our hearts and share the blessings we have received? If we believed these things, would we have the courage to follow the example of the three kings and honor diversity – even and especially with other children of Abraham from the Arab world – and condemn hate crimes like the smashing of windows at the Middle Eastern grocery store on Forest Avenue? If it wasn’t the Feast of the Holy Name, this sermon would have been about the Holy Innocents and the Flight into Egypt, the other part of the rest of the story that people rarely hear. Remembering that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were refugees, would we have the courage to welcome refugees ourselves?
Jesus’ names – Emmanuel and Yeshua – tell us who he is. They also tell us who we are and that our times call for New Year’s resolutions far more challenging than going to the gym or loosing a few extra pounds. We, after all, are called Christians. Can we make a New Year’s resolution to live up to his name and our own? If we can do that, then Christmas will continue, and more than just 12 days, the season and spirit of Christmas will be with us all year long