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Sermon for December 31, 2017: At the name of Jesus (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

So, this is going to be one of those educational sermons. I will try to keep you awake! As many of you know (and if you don’t, Elaine will tell you!), we have a strange liturgical calendar this year. For the first time in ten years, the Fourth Sunday of Advent fell on December 24 th (commonly thought of as “Christmas Eve”). Although this meant nothing to most people, it caused a lot of bustling around for those of us who live our lives according to what Robin Williams called, the “color-coded church calendar.” According to that calendar, as I recently explained to my son’s girlfriend when she asked why we were playing “Christmas music” on December 26, that Christmas does not begin until Christmas Day. (Actually, the church allows us to cheat it back to Christmas Eve – but no sooner!). That’s why today’s 10 a.m. service will be Christmas Lessons and Carols. (When you have them before Christmas Day, they are Advent Lessons and Carols. If they’re after January 6, it’s called Epiphany Lessons and Carols). And it’s why this time last week our altar hangings and my outfit were purple and by 4 p.m. they were white.

It’s also why this morning we are celebrating both the First Sunday after Christmas, a feast day in its own right, and The Holy Name, which in the Episcopal Church is commemorated on January 1. We are getting away with this by using the “proper” liturgical settings for the First Sunday of Christmas at 10 and the prayers and lessons for Holy Name at this service. Sneaky!

These days, not many churches actually concern themselves with the Feast of the Holy Name. In the Roman Catholic Church, Holy Name was removed from the liturgical calendar as part of the Vatican II reforms, but in 2002 was restored as an “optional” day of devotion. According to the Episcopal Church, the Feast of the Holy Name is celebrated “on January 1, the eighth day after the birth of Jesus, when he was named and circumcised. He was ‘called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb’…Under the Law of Moses, all male infants were to be circumcised on the eighth day after birth… It was also customary at this time for family and friends to witness the naming of the child… The designation of the feast in honor of Jesus’ Holy Name is new to the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. It was traditionally celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision. Celebration of the Holy Name reflects the significance of the Holy Name of Jesus, and the emphasis of the Gospel of Luke on the naming of Jesus rather than his circumcision.

This is an important point, given how controversial the issue of whether or not you had to be circumcised to be Christian was for the earliest Christians. It was this dispute that Paul was addressing in today’s letter to the Galatians. By the time 1 Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum (Eds). (2000). An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church: a User-friendly reference for Episcopalians, [New York: Church Publishing], 250. of this writing, Paul had already proclaimed that “Gentiles could become heirs of God’s promises and equal members of the people of God…without observing the law.” 2 This included the law that said that all Jews must be circumcised. It may seem strange to us that there was so much concern over this question, but don’t forget that circumcision was a mark of membership among Jews – and the original Christians were made up of two groups of people: converted Jews like Paul himself, and Gentiles, most of whom previously worshipped the Roman gods. Paul’s teaching was controversial among Jewish Christians and, as time went on, some Christian groups demanded that Gentiles needed to become Jewish in order to become Christian. In the passage we heard today, Paul was reiterating his belief that redemption comes not through the law but by the Spirit of God through Jesus Christ – and that redemption is available to all people equally. According to Paul, Christians – and all of humanity – are tied together by God’s grace, represented by the name of Jesus.

The name “Jesus” is derived from two Hebrew root words. The first of these comes from the Tetragrammaton – the four letter name of God: Y H V H. Hebrew has no vowels, but in translation, these letters have been expressed as “Yahweh.” (This is where the word “Jehovah” comes from. It is a mistranslation of the Tetragrammaton). The word “Yahweh,” then, expresses the name of God (and has 2 Luis R. Rivera, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 158. generally been translated as the word “Lord” in most bibles). It also forms the first part of the compound word, “Ye-shua.” The second part of that word – “shua,” means “saves.” So, the word “Yeshua,” or, as it has been translated, “Jesus,” means “God saves.” In other words, Jesus’s name tells us exactly who he is – and what he does.

It also helps us to understand where he comes from. You may have heard some Christians suggest that “Christians (the people of ‘the new covenant’) have replaced Jews (the people of ‘the old covenant’) as the people of God.” 3 This idea is called “supersessionism” or “replacement theology.” The idea is that Jesus, as the Messiah, fulfilled the Hebrew Scriptures and that belief in him supersedes the following of Judaic law as a means to salvation. Scholars trace the root of supersessionist beliefs to the writings of Paul, who repeatedly spoke of Jesus as the fulfillment of the law and the path to salvation. Sadly, supersessionist belief has led to the persecution of Jewish people by Christians and others, leading the Episcopal Church (among other denominations) to renounce it. Thus, rather than viewing “the New Testament” as a correction for Hebrew scripture, the Episcopal Church and others that share the Revised Common Lectionary from which we get our weekly readings, focus on the relationship between them. 3 Jesper Svartvik, “Supersessionism” in Bible Odyssey, articles/supersessionism.

This is clear in the Hebrew scripture assigned by the RCL for the Feast of the Holy Name, which describes the introduction of the Aaronic or “priestly” blessing. In it, God gives permission for human beings to bless one another in his name, using this ancient Judaic blessing, known as “the raising of the hands.” If it seems familiar to you, that’s because it can be found in our own Book of Common Prayer – and we also raise our hands when we convey this blessing – making the sign of the cross.

A Hebraic interpretation of this prayer conveys the ancient Hebrews’ understanding of who their God was and what God would do for them: “YHWH will kneel before you presenting gifts and will guard you with a hedge of protection. YHWH will illuminate the wholeness of his being toward you bringing order and he will give you comfort and sustenance. YHWH will lift up his wholeness of being and look upon you and he will set in place all you need to be whole and complete.” 4 This blessing is a covenant, a promise to all God’s people, an understanding as ancient as a psalm, a message conveyed to Joseph when the son of God was still in the womb, a reminder that God’s name, in whatever language it is spoken is to be exalted. Ye-shua – Je-sus -God saves. AMEN.

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