The Most Holy Name of Jesus, 1 January 2017

Numbers 6:22-27
Psalm 8
Galatians 4:4-7 or Philippians 2:5-11
Saint Luke 2:15-21

Background: The Name “Jesus”        

Not as familiar to Christians is the name “Yehoshua”, which me might recognize in its English transliteration as “Joshua”, which is the name from which the name “Jesus” is derived. This comes to us from the Greek and Latin forms of the name.  Another form of the name, “Yeshua” seems to have been used in Judea around the time of Jesus. The name seems to mean, “YHWH is salvation”, and like a great number of Hebrew names not only refers to God, but acts or attributes of God as well.

In daily life, Jesus would have normally been referred to in relationship to others or to places. Thus we hear of him as “Jesus of Nazareth” or “Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth,” or even as “the carpenter’s son”. Larger family references are known as well, such as “the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon.”

First Reading: Numbers 6:22-27

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the Israelites: You shall say to them,
The Lord bless you and keep you;
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you;
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
So they shall put my name on the Israelites, and I will bless them.

Our reading today comes in the midst of a series of chapters dealing with ritual purity, serving as instruction for the people, and especially the priests for the continuation or actually resumption of cultic life in Israel. Written by the priestly group, the earlier parts of the book serve as a continuation of the book of Leviticus, and serve to lay down for a people rediscovering the worship of YHWH the “how to” of it all. Here we are shown how to use the NAME, but not the real name, as Adonai is slipped into to preserve unpronounced the name of YHWH. 

The actual formula has some poetic aspects to it, and is powerful in its repetitive nature and in its rising drama of blessing. One commentator notes that there are increasing numbers of syllables in each of the three phrases, 12, 14, and 16. Thus the power of the blessing becomes increasingly intense as it invokes the NAME over the people.

Breaking open Numbers:
  1. What name do you give to God?
  2. How do use God’s name?
  3. What does it mean to bless?

Psalm 8 Domine, Dominus noster

     Lord our Governor, *
how exalted is your Name in all the world!
2      Out of the mouths of infants and children *
your majesty is praised above the heavens.
3      You have set up a stronghold against your adversaries, *
to quell the enemy and the avenger.
4      When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, *
the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,
5      What is man that you should be mindful of him? *
the son of man that you should seek him out?
6      You have made him but little lower than the angels; *
you adorn him with glory and honor;
7      You give him mastery over the works of your hands; *
you put all things under his feet:
8      All sheep and oxen, *
even the wild beasts of the field,
9      The birds of the air, the fish of the sea, *
and whatsoever walks in the paths of the sea.
10    Lord our Governor, *
how exalted is your Name in all the world!

The first verse clues us into why this particular psalm was chosen for this feast day, “how majestic your name in all the earth!” In the immediate verses the phrases “out of the mouths”, and “your majesty is praised”, describes both a generational and spatial view of the power and praise associated with the name of God. The verses that follow carefully outline what is associated with the name: protection, creation, and the charter given to humankind. Finally all of this is linked again to the name, and to the role that God plays in the life of Israel. In order to avoid use of the word “master”, the Book of Common Prayer translation uses the word “governor”. It’s an unfortunate choice that has associations with lessor governments in the United States. “Ruler” would supply a necessary level of majesty implied in the psalm.

Breaking open Psalm 8:
  1. How do you talk about God?
  2. How do you like to praise God?
  3. For what do you praise God?

Second Reading: Galatians 4:4-7

When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Here the reading is concerned with multiple names.  We learn something fundamental about our relationship to God in the names “Abba” and “Father”. I know that this notion of mining the word “father” for meaning is problematic in so many ways. Might it serve, however, at least as a starting point for talking about relationships and how they are meted out amongst us as human beings, and in our relationship with God as well? There are other names as well – “children”, “slave”, “child” and “heir”. Here it is not names so much as status – our place in the household, in the relationship. The underlying implication is that baptism has given us a new name (status), and that we should now live from that point of view.

Breaking open Galatians:
  1. What is your status in the world?
  2. What is your status in the Church?
  3. What is your status as God sees you?


Philippians 2:5-11

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

In the second and third chapters of Philippians, the author sets up a paradigm and then exhorts us in the following verses to live in congruence with that rule and direction. In one of the most eloquent and elegant passages in the New Testament, Paul may have quoted an early Christian hymn that describes the humiliation and exaltation of Jesus. The final verse is the reason for its use here, “and that every tone should confess.” The poem progresses through a series of debasements (in spite of an inherent status of being “in the form of God”) – emptied, born, humbled, obedient, death. Each describes not only a changing condition and status but also a progress to a point in history at which point things change – “Therefore God…” The reversal begins with the giving of a name above all others. For a people who probably don’t know what the meaning of their own name is, this might not be understood. Here, Jesus is what his name describes, “God is salvation.”

Breaking open Philippians:
  1. What does it mean that Jesus “emptied himself”?
  2. When have you been humiliated in life?
  3. How were you lifted up from it?

The Gospel: St. Luke 2:15-21

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. 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.

Again, we have to wait until the last line of the reading to understand its inclusion here. The audience for the words of salvation, however, is described immediately in the person of the shepherds who are the first to receive the news.  Or, given the hierarchical nature of things, perhaps it was the angels who heard it first. What is important here is that the shepherds have grasped the meaning of what they have heard, and understood what the next steps are – to go and to see. It is a behavior that the disciples will exhibit later in the gospels upon hearing the words of the women. They too will go and see, and they will repeat the word so that the hierarchy of hearing might continue. The reaction to the hearing is “amazement”, Luke’s code word for belief and acceptance.

There is another reaction and that is Mary’s response of contemplation. Here life following these events will be different, and perhaps Mary, as Luke structures this situation, has Mary model what every new believer must do having first heard the word. Having seen, they now need to think. Jesus life, however, will travel a conventional path, as Mary and Joseph have Jesus circumcised and named. Thus he follows all the conventions of the Law.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How are the shepherds the focus and heroes in this story?
  2. What about Mary’s behavior sets her apart?
  3. How do you contemplate about your faith?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller


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