Skip to content

Sermon: A Name Fit for a Savior. January 1, 2016

January 1, 2016

This sermon was delivered at Grace Lutheran Church, River Forest, IL, on the Feast of the Name of Jesus, New Year’s Day, 2016. During worship, we heard part four of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

“A Name Fit for a Savior”

Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you and peace in the name of Jesus Christ, the Name above all names. Amen.

What’s in a name? This is not a question simply for young, star-crossed lovers, nor is Juliet Capulet the only person to ever ask the question. My first experience with the power of names came when we acquired a new puppy, a little cockapoo that came into our home when I was a child. The dog was named Fluffy, which, as I grew older, I came to regard as an incredibly silly name, even if it was an accurate descriptor of her outward appearance. Years later, I asked my mom how the dog ended up with such a ridiculous name. Mom looked me in the eyes and said, “Well, Dave, you named her. You have no one to blame but yourself.” I had forgotten this entirely, blocked it out in embarrassment, but I also learned my lesson when it came time to name each of our three children. The kids were going to be stuck with these names – better get them right! And so we have Greta, which means pearl, for she is of great worth. And we have Anders, named for the apostle Andrew, strong and masculine. And then there’s Torsten, named for the strong Norwegian god of thunder – and thunder he does, as you’ve noticed if you’ve had the privilege of worshipping with him! I suppose that’s what we get for naming him after a pagan god, even if we did slip in the name of another apostle, Thomas, for his middle name. But each child is unmistakably a Greta, an Anders, a Torsten. The names have come to fit them, and it’s hard to imagine them as anyone else. What’s in a name? A great deal, it turns out.

Of course, when the eighth day came and it was time for Mary and Joseph to have their infant boy circumcised and named, they didn’t need to spend time reading baby name books or scanning lists of names on the internet. No, the name of Jesus had been given to each parent during a visit from an angelic messenger, and it’s hard to imagine Jesus with any other name. Jesus means, “He will save.” And it’s a name that fits, for as the angel said to Joseph in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will save his people from their sins. It’s what Jesus was born to do; born to live for us and, yes, to die for us so that we would no longer be subject to sin and death, no longer ensnared by the holy Law of God which was given as a gift but which, in our sinfulness, led to condemnation.

It is for this reason, to save us from sin, that this eight-day-old baby boy was born under the Law, and why he is subject to the same laws as anyone else. For this reason, Jesus is brought to be circumcised, just as every boy of the people of Israel had been since God had made the covenant with Abraham and Sarah some 1,800 years earlier. This covenantal marking was declared by God to Abraham to be a sign of the Chosen People’s faithfulness to the covenant, a faithfulness that was spotty at best in the generations that followed – and remains spotty among God’s people today. But while the people were and are imperfectly faithful, God was and is ever and always faithful, and the divine promises come now to full fruition in this child who has come to fulfill the old covenant and institute a new. Jesus, the one who saves his people from their sin, marked and circumcised as a child of Israel in order to fulfill the old covenant finally and fully on our behalf; as one born under the Law to fulfill its demands and set us free, forever.

In the new covenant, born along with Jesus in Bethlehem, it is no longer in works of the flesh or works of the Law that we place our hope. No, our hope has a name, and that name is Jesus, always and only Jesus. In today’s cantata, we heard in the bass voice a song of praise to this most holy name: My Jesus is my stronghold, my Jesus is my life. My Jesus is my delight, the one who refreshes heart and breast. My Jesus, who even in dying will be what I love the most. Bach has placed a love song to Jesus in our midst, a reminder of the joy we find when Jesus is in our hearts, where God has placed him, and on our lips, speaking this saving name in love and awe and wonder for all the world to hear. Fall down with thanks, fall down with praises before the Most High’s throne of grace, indeed!

At the end of the bass recitative, Bach unleashes some of the theological insight and proclamatory prowess that has earned him the moniker or nickname of the fifth evangelist. The bass sings out to Jesus, “Your name that is inscribed in me has driven away the fear of death.” What insight! Bach grasps so clearly here the message of the gospel, the meaning of Jesus’ name, and the entire argument in Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, a community that was wrestling with whether or not non-Jewish Christians needed to be marked with the old sign of the covenant. As Paul drives home, so Bach understands – it is not a physical inscribing or circumcision that marks us out as a child of God; it is the spiritual inscribing of the name of Jesus on our hearts that grants us adoption as a daughter or son of God, so that now we, too, might cry out “Abba! Father!” and find salvation, and with it a full share as an heir of the Kingdom of God.

Jesus, to fulfill the Law, has his body marked through circumcision. And Jesus, to fulfill the Law for us, will have his body racked and wrecked upon the cross of Calvary to fulfill God’s Law once and for all. And that is the end of works of the flesh; that is the end of the Law’s demands upon us; that is the beginning of new life, freedom to respond to God’s Law as a gift instead of a curse, freedom to serve our neighbor and praise our God in and through Jesus Christ, freedom that comes as we bring our own sons and daughters, whatever they might be named, to the waters of grace under the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, pouring out through water and Word a new birth, born anew that they and we would find joy in God’s presence, both now and forever.

Whatever name was bestowed upon you long ago, you have been named anew in Jesus Christ. You are a beloved daughter of God, a beloved son of God, and you have been inscribed with the mark of Jesus, his own cross, forever. As Jesus lived, died, and lives again for you, may you, in this New Year, live your life in praise of his Name, letting your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven. In the closing words of today’s cantata: “Jesus, direct my beginning. Jesus remain always with me. Jesus, bridle my senses. Jesus, be my sole desire. Jesus, be in my thoughts. Jesus, do not let me waver!” Jesus. Always Jesus. Amen.

And now may the peace that passes all human understanding keep your hearts and your minds in the name of Christ Jesus, today and forever. Amen.

From → Sermons

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: