31 January 2011

The Naming of Jesus

Sermon for 26 December 2010

The Naming of Jesus: Luke 2: 15-21

By Sharyn Hall

Choosing a name for a child is a very important responsibility. Often parents consider many things when choosing a name for their child. The choice may be to honour a family member or a close friend, or in admiration for a famous person.

In the ancient, Biblical world, names were important for identity and meaning for the individual as a member of a community. Children were given names by their parents, which were significant to the circumstances of their birth or the destiny of the child. An example is the name, Moses, which in Hebrew means literally ‘to draw out’. This is an appropriate name for Moses, who as an infant was saved from death by being drawn out of the water for Pharaoh’s daughter. As a man, Moses became the leader of the Hebrew people and led them out of slavery in Egypt to freedom.

Sometimes the name of a person in the Bible changes because of specific circumstances. Saul became an apostle of Jesus to the Gentiles of the Roman Empire, so his name was changed to the Roman name, Paul. Jesus changed the Hebrew name of his disciple, Simon, to the Greek name, Petros, which means ‘rock’, because Jesus wanted Simon to build a foundation for his mission to the world.

In the culture of the ancient Middle East, a person’s name was essential to personhood. Your name identified you as an individual, a member of a family or a tribe, a freeman or a slave. Anonymous people in the scriptures were given names in later writings to provide an identity for them. A famous example is the three wise men or magi who appear anonymously in the gospel of Matthew. In the sixth century, a Greek version of the magi story gave them three names, Balthazar, Melchior and Gaspar, names which have remained popular identities for the magi to this day.

The naming of a child in the ancient Hebrew culture was ceremonial, particularly if the child was the first-born male child. After eight days, the child was circumcised and given his name. Then the family travelled to the temple in Jerusalem to dedicate the child to God and to give an offering of thanks for God’s blessing. The name given to Jesus was not chosen by Mary and Joseph. His name was chosen by God and told to them before the baby was born. The significance of God’s choice is evident in the name. In the gospels, he is called Jesus, but that is the Greek form of his Hebrew name. The gospels were written in Greek because it was the literary language of the time. The Hebrew name of Jesus is Joshua, more properly pronounced Yeshua, which means ‘The Lord saves’ or simply ‘Saviour’.

Similarly, the word, ‘Christ’, is a Greek translation of the Hebrew word, ‘Mashiakh’, which means ‘Anointed One’ or ‘Messiah’. As early as the first century, Jesus was called ‘Joshua Mashiakh’ or ‘Jesus Christ’, not as a title, but as his personal name. We commonly refer to Jesus as Jesus Christ. If we were to call him by his Hebrew name, it would be Joshua Mashiakh. In either language, his name means ‘Saviour, the Anointed One.’

The significance of his name was understood by his early disciples and followers. His name meant that he was anointed by God to bring salvation to the Hebrew people. His name, Joshua, was more than a reference to the ancient hero, Joshua, who led the Hebrew people into the promised land. His name meant that he would save the people again, but not with military power. This Joshua would save the people by restoring them to the covenant between God and God’s people, the covenant made with Abraham by God. Joshua Mashiakh was the anointed one sent by God to lead the people into a new salvation. This Mashiakh would lead the people into a renewed spiritual relationship with God free from oppressive religion which obscured God’s love. When God’s angels told Mary and Joseph to name the child Joshua, God had a special plan for this infant. That plan would be revealed gradually over many years.

We honour the Greek name, Jesus Christ. Perhaps we could become more familiar with his Hebrew name, Joshua Mashiakh. The meaning of his name is what we need to remember. The name chosen by God for this infant born in Bethlehem is a message of hope for God’s people. God has not abandoned humanity. Despite the hardship and sorrow of earthly life, God’s saving grace is always at hand to provide hope, courage and strength for the present and for the future.

To name a child is a great privilege and the name carries the hope and promise for what the child will bring to the world. We thank God for the infant born over two thousand years ago and for the gift of hope in every child born today, and in God’s future tomorrows. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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