Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 31 December 2023.
• First Reading: Isaiah 61: 10-11, – 62: 1-3 (You will be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will bestow)
• Epistle: Galatians 4: 4-7 (No longer a slave but God’s child)
• Gospel: Luke 2: 22-40 (Jesus presented in the temple – met by Simeon and Anna)
We all have names and they are personal to us, they tell others what we are called and when they refer to us, it is by our name.
Of course the state has less interest in names and prefers numbers: for national insurance, tax, driving licenses, passports and the rest.
But in the time of Jesus, the name was far more than a label attached to us so that others could refer to us. The name was a statement of more than who we were – they pointed to what we might become, and to what we were.
And so at the annunciation to Mary, Gabriel instructed that the baby would be called Jesus – for He would be the Son of the Highest, He would be granted the throne of His father David, He would reign forever.
This was far more than a number on a personal identity card. It was a statement of who Jesus was and what He would become.
An earlier chapter of Isaiah describes the One to come as ‘Wonderful, Councilor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.’ (9: 6). It may have been prophetic but it was also a statement, less of who this One was, than of what He would be, and this is an important difference.
And yet the name of Jesus is not just personal – it also makes Him personal to us. We may refer to His as The Lord, or Our Lord, and the disciples definitely referred to Him as ‘Lord’, yet at the climax to His ministry, the name under which He was crucified was – yes – ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ – the same name that had been given to Mary by Gabriel.
The name of Jesus draws us closer to Him and it also draws Him closer to us.
Our own hymn, ‘How sweet the Name of Jesus sounds’ describes how He is to us: (NEH 374)
‘Jesus, my Shepherd, Brother, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest and King,
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End …’
And we will have plenty of our own favourites as well.
But there is far more than a label in the Name of Jesus. This is the One through whom our prayers to God are directed.
This is the One whom we celebrate as we give thanks to God in the Eucharist. He is definitely the One through whom we pray in our intercessions in church and to whom we present our petitions when asking for the blessing or healing of another person.
Sadly, it is also His name that is most abused in society and especially in the arts and drama. Here, His name is one of abuse or frustration. We have no greater name by which we express our anger or rage – we certainly do not invoke the names the deities of other faith systems or cultures. Even in this, exercise in abuse, JESUS is special.
Think of the number of presentations of Him, on stage or screen, in which He has been used to promote personal agendas – from Jesus Christ Superstar, to the Last Temptation of Christ, and by clear implication, the Life of Brian.
But then He becomes personal. He is intimate with us, and so we call on Him by name, at the most desperate and needy points in our lives.
Part of this is that He lovingly probes the deepest parts of our lives and memories, gently revealing to us – or reminding us – of the issues that still trouble and even torment us.
As Psalm 42 says, (v7) ‘Deep calls to deep, at the noise of your waterfalls, all Your waves and billows have gone over me.’
Even when surrounded by confusion, rejection, anger, every kind of anxiety, we may still call out to Him, who also in extremis called out ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?’
All this brings us back to our own relationship with Him. To know His Name in the worship and liturgies of the church is not enough.
We also need to know Him for ourselves, and to let Him be named within us just as we also may be named within Him.
All of this is tied up in the Name of Jesus and hence in His being named by Mary and Joseph, obeying Gabriel’s instruction.
Now He is no longer a name tag attached to a wandering preacher. Now He is Lord in our lives, direct and personal to us.
Meeting us where we are in order that we also may find ourselves in Him.
Finding that there is a new agenda for our lives, and a new destiny and inheritance at the end of them.
Finding that yes, we are also drawn into a new relationship with God where He is Father to us, personal and always looking for our good, even – perhaps especially when it may not look or feel like it.
It is never about what we do for Him in our strength or order of priorities, self-selected and self-ratified.
It is always about what He has already done for us, and a purpose into which we are called, for as Peter said, ‘There is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.’ (Acts 4: 12)