Sunday, December 18, 2016

What's in a Name?

I saw a post on Facebook that showed some Russians in royal regalia. It was captioned, “Watching Dancing with the Tsars. Peter and Catherine were great but Ivan was terrible.” Some people get nicknames, including important people. We call various kings and queens and even popes “the Great.” Some of these nicknames have to do with looks, some with achievements, some with temperment. So we have Demetrius the Invincible of Bactria, Eric the Kindhearted of Denmark, and Vlad the Impaler of Wallachia, better known as Dracula. Two Austrian dukes were called Leopold the Able. William 1 was called William the Conqueror. He was also called William the Bastard by critics. Because sometimes the nickname that sticks is less than complimentary. Thus France has a king called Charles the Bald. There is a John the Careless of Aragon, an Alfonso the Fat of Portugal, a Wilfred the Hairy of Urgel, a Henry the Impotent of Castile, Ludwig the Mad of Bavaria. One of my favorites was Eric the Memorable of Denmark. Memorable for what, though? His looks? His manners? His statesmenship? Turns out it was his harshness. Why is he given such an ambiguous moniker when Eric the Harsh is arguably more memorable?

A lot of people think Jesus' last name was Christ. But people didn't have last names as such in those days. People knew him as Jesus of Nazareth, the town he grew up in. Christ is his title. It is the Greek translation of Messiah, which in turn means the Anointed. That's why sometimes in scripture he is called Christ Jesus. It is like calling him King Jesus. He is the anointed prophet, priest and king, promised by God.

Jesus has acquired a lot of titles over the years, mostly from scripture. “Emmanuel” is one mentioned in both our Old Testament (Isaiah 7:10-16) and Gospel (Matthew 1:18-25) today. It means “God with us.” In the original prophesy it was probably a reference to Isaiah's yet unborn son and a sign God was sending King Ahaz of Judah not to enter into an unwise alliance. The king needn't act because the two kings who troubled him would not last long enough for Isaiah's son to get to the age where he could tell right from wrong. So in this context, the name means “God is on our side and will protect us.” But as with many prophesies, there is a second meaning and a second fulfillment to come. In Jesus' case it has come to mean “God is literally with us” as in “one of us.”

In the book The World's Religions author Huston Smith characterizes each religion with a phrase. Christianity is called “the religion of love.” That is our defining characteristic. God is love, as it says in 1 John 4:8. The two great commandments are to love God and to love each other. But what is really unique is that at the heart of Christianity is that God loves us so much that he becomes one of us to rescue us from ourselves, even at the expense of his life. In most religions God is totally separate from his creatures and he would never deign to come down to our level. But in Jesus God comes to live and die as one of us and he does it to destroy the separation that exists between him and his creatures. He does it so we can be like him. As C.S. Lewis said, “The Son of God became a man to enable men to become sons of God.” Again Lewis points out that we are creations of God, as a toy soldier is the creation of a man. What God is doing is akin to making that toy become a real person, like him. We are being transformed from mere creatures of God to children of God. And to do that God became one of us.

Some people might like a God removed from humanity, an objective judge. But in Jesus we have a God who knows what our lives are actually like and that makes a big difference. I had many excellent nurses while in the nursing home but my favorite was Emily. I think I have mentioned her before. She was not only sweet and conscientious but she had, like me, been in a head-on accident. She also was almost killed and had to be worked on before going to the hospital. She also woke up in an ICU, hooked up to lots of machines. She also had to learn to walk all over again. She was 16 at the time. So she knew what I was going through in a way that even my doctors did not know. That gave me someone I could confide in and take advice from.

And Jesus, by virtue of living as a poor working man, knows what our lives are like. He asks no more of us than he asked of himself. Like Emily did for me, he can show us empathy and give us encouragement. He knows what we are and what we can be.

There are other titles Jesus is given throughout the Bible. He called himself the Good Shepherd. He cares for us, guides us, gives us sustenance and protects us. He is not just doing a job like other shepherds would. He is willing to give his life to save his sheep.

He is called the Prince of Peace. Peace, shalom in Hebrew, means not the mere absence of conflict but total well-being. Jesus brings us the peace which passes all understanding by healing us and restoring us to what God intended us to be.

He is called Lord. In Jesus' day the word could simply be a respectful title, like master or rabbi. But Jews also used it in lieu of saying God's name. And very early in the church it began to mean Jesus is God. He is Lord of all creation. Again C.S. Lewis in his statement of the trilemma pointed out that anyone who said what Jesus did could not simply be called a great moral teacher. He claimed divinity. Either that was true or false. If it was false and he knew it, he was a conman and deceiver. And an unsuccessful one since it got him crucified. If it was false and he didn't know it was, he was delusional, like many of the mentally ill people I worked with as a psych nurse or visited in jail as a chaplain. But if it was true, he is indeed God. Those are the only choices open to us: either Jesus was a liar, a lunatic or the Lord. And those who knew him and lived with him for 3 years, watching him heal others, who saw him die and then touched the risen Jesus, declared him to be, in the words of Thomas, “my Lord and my God.”

He is called the Word. In Greek, logos also was a philosophical term used by both Greeks and Jews. To the Greeks it was the plan and reason behind creation; to the Jews it was the wisdom of God personified, by which God made the universe. Christians in trying to figure out how Jesus was related to God often used this term to show that Jesus is the expression of who God is. He is also the rhyme and reason of creation. God created everything with and through Christ.

We Christians make a distinction between the living Word of God, meaning Jesus, and the written Word of God, meaning the Bible. The Bible's primary value is in pointing us to Jesus and communicating to us about him. It's an important distinction to make because some Christians come close to worshiping the Bible and forgetting that we should reserve worship for Jesus, the living Word or expression of God.

Jesus liked to call himself the Son of Man. It appears 81 times in the 4 gospels. The expression could simply mean “a man” but Jesus imbues it with authority. He said the Son of Man has the power to judge men (John 5:27). The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath. (Mark 2:27-28). The Son of Man will be seen sitting on the right hand of power and coming with the clouds of heaven (Mark 14:62), which recalls the passage that probably inspired Jesus' use of the phrase. Daniel 7:13-14 says, “As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” And Jesus always uses the definite article. He is The Son of Man.

What is interesting is that he also uses this same term when talking of his sacrificial life and death. In Luke 18:31-34 it says, “Then he took the twelve aside and said to them, 'Behold, we are going to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the prophets concerning the Son of Man will be accomplished. For he will be delivered to the Gentiles and will be mocked and insulted and spit upon. They will scourge him and kill him. And the third day he will rise again.” And though Daniel gives this exalted picture of the son of man, Jesus says, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:35-45)

Jesus is called the Son of God. Now initially this may seem to simply go along with his being called the Son of David, because kings in the Middle East were often called the Son of God. The Emperor Augustus took the title Son of the Divine One. But in Jesus' case, this is not merely a royal conceit. He is called the Son of God when Gabriel tells Mary who her child is to be. At his baptism he is called “my beloved son” by the voice from heaven. In Matthew 16:15-16, when Jesus asks the disciples who they say he is, Peter says he is “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And when the earthquake takes place at the crucifixion the awed centurion says, “Surely, this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39) Jesus is literally God's only begotten, which means unique, Son. God so loved the world that he didn't delegate his mission to a mere human or even an angel. He did it himself. As Paul writes, God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself. (1 Corinthians 5:19)

Jesus is called the Lamb of God. John the Baptist uses this term in John's gospel. The reference is to the sacrificial lamb offered in the temple for sins as well as the Passover lamb, whose blood was painted on the doorposts so death would pass over God's people. This not only points to Jesus' death to save us from our sin but also points to the Eucharist where we, like the Hebrews, eat the flesh of the lamb whose blood saves us from death.

Jesus is called King of kings and Lord of lords. A lot of people don't realize that this was actually a title given to the Roman Emperor. He ruled over the kingdoms the Empire had conquered and thus was a king over other kings. This title was one of the reasons the Caesars did not like Christianity when it appeared on their radar. They saw Jesus as a rival, especially once they started to declare themselves gods. Want to know why Revelation is such a difficult book to understand? Precisely because its message was cloaked in imagery from the Old Testament prophets in order that Rome wouldn't destroy it. It was a message of comfort to persecuted Christians to hold on. Things would get bad but God and his Christ would triumph in the end. His kingdom would come to the earth, the kingdoms of this world would become the kingdom of our Lord and Jesus would be recognized as the true King of kings and Lord of lords.

Obviously I could do a sermon on each of these titles. Why trot them all out in just one? Because, like nicknames, you don't get to choose what people call you. They are hung on you by others. They reflect how others see you. And they stick. Richard Nixon will forever be remembered as Tricky Dick and Bill Clinton as Slick Willie. Washington will always be the Father of his Country. Just so, aside from Son of Man and the Good Shepherd, Jesus was given these titles, just as he was given his personal name: Yeshua, Yahweh saves.

Just as I did with Eric the Memorable, it behooves us to look closely at Jesus and understand why he was given those names. In what way is he Emmanuel, God with us? In what way is he the Prince of Peace? In what way is he the Lamb of God? And because he is not merely of historical interest to us, we need to ask ourselves, how is he the Word of God to me? How is he the Lord to me? How is he the anointed prophet, priest and king to me?

In Advent we look forward to the coming of Jesus. But just who are we expecting? How does his coming matter—to me, to my neighbor, to the world? And once we declare him our Lord and our God, what sort of action follows on our part? If we proclaim him as King, what should we, his subjects, do next? How does a citizen, nay, an ambassador of the Kingdom of God behave?   

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