This is an adapted version of the sermon I preached this morning, the Fourth Sunday of Advent. The gospel text was Matthew 1:18-25.
That is the entire Christmas story according to Matthew. It’s a little different than we’re used to, isn’t it? The story that we’ll hear on Tuesday night is the one Luke tells, and Luke’s story has shepherds, and angels, and a manger. Luke focuses a lot more on the birth itself, and on Mary. But Matthew tells the story very differently. Here in Matthew, the focus is more on naming Jesus, and much more on Joseph.
In Luke, an angel appears and gives Mary a job: to be the mother of God incarnate. Here, in Matthew, an angel appears and gives Joseph a job: name that child, and name him Jesus. Sounds like a much easier job, and I guess it probably was easier. Men do have it much easier when it comes to childbirth. But naming the child is nonetheless an incredibly important job. The angel doesn’t tell Joseph that the child will be called Jesus. The angel tells Joseph to name him Jesus. God is doing something miraculous, Joseph. Give that miracle a name.
I’m reminded of the second chapter of Genesis. In the story of creation recorded there, God created a human being, a man. Then God created every animal of the field and every bird of the air. And God brought them to the man, to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. From the beginning, God created something miraculous, and gave humans the job of giving that miracle a name. Naming is very important in scripture.
And it’s still important today. There’s a story behind the names my wife and I gave our children. There are stories behind many of your names. When three churches merged to form this congregation in the 1970s, I bet there’s a story behind where the name Prince of Peace came from. I bet a few of you remember.
Another time naming is very important is in the life of someone who’s transgender, someone who is raised as one gender, but realizes over time that inside that’s not who they are. Many trans people make the choice to change their name to one that more closely matches who they are. It can be a very emotional, sometimes ritualized, process, and it means so much to them when family and friends call them by their new name, and by their new pronouns, when their outside identity matches who they are inside.
Naming is important. Joseph did as the angel commanded him, and he named the child Jesus[, or as I told the kids in story time, Joshua]. That name came from a Hebrew word that means “to save,” because Jesus would save the people from their sins.
And it’s not the only name this child has. Matthew reminds us that the prophet Isaiah had given him a different name: “Emmanuel.” Emmanuel literally means, “God with us.” This child is named “God with us,” because that’s precisely he is God come to earth, the Word of God become flesh. In other places, Isaiah also gave him other names: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. And others would give him names and titles as well: the Lamb of God, the King of the Jews, the New Adam, the Lord.
And Jesus gave himself other names too, names like the Good Shepherd, the Son of God, the Son of Man, and the Light of the World.
Naming is important. Naming identifies, defines, explains. Our names tell us and others who we are. And like Adam naming the animals, like Joseph naming Jesus, God is still creating in our world, and is still calling us to do the work of naming.
Today’s Pastoral Care theme is remembering those who are suffering. One of the things we can do to help those who are suffering is to name that suffering. To say out loud what it is that we or someone else suffers with. One of the miracles that happens when we name suffering is we work at removing the stigma attached to it.
There’s a movement right now to end the stigma associated with mental illness. Mental illness need not be something to hide, to be ashamed of, to keep in the dark. But the stigma tells us it is. And the way to end the stigma is to name the disease where it is. Without shame, without judgment. I have tried to do my part by publicly naming my own illness. There used to be a stigma around cancer. You never said the word. Now people do, and cancer patients receive much more support because of it. The stigma around AIDS and HIV has also been decreased a lot. We end stigmas like that by naming them. People don’t need to suffer alone, in the shadows. We can be with them, and support them, and show them our love, and God’s love. And that’s pastoral care. Naming the suffering doesn’t create the suffering. It acknowledges it, it normalizes it, it enables people to more easily experience healing and love.
And if we can name the suffering, how much more so can we name the presence of God with those who are suffering? God is still creating miraculous things in the world, and we are called to name those miracles. God is at work in the Red Cross, and in the American Cancer Society, and in the United Way. God is at work in Slater Family Network, and PUMP, and in our schools. It’s not our job as the church to be God’s only hands in the world. But it is our job to name where God is active. To tell the community that PUMP is doing God’s work by feeding hungry people. To tell the community that teachers and staff and school board members are doing God’s work by giving our children the education they need. It’s our job to tell those who are suffering that God is with them, and to look for God there, to show them just how much God loves them.
And what if that’s how we all celebrate Christmas this year? What if, in all the homes and restaurants and wherever else we will be on Christmas this year, what if we all took a moment to look around and name where God is present. If Christmas is about Emmanuel, about God being with us, and with those around us, what if we named that? What if we told our loved ones, “I see God’s love in you, and so I am so happy to give you this present.” What if we told the one who does all the cooking, “I see God’s love in the way you care for us like this.” What if we told that family member who won’t stop talking politics, “I see God’s love in you, in the passion you have for your beliefs.” That one’s hard. But what if we tried?
God came into the world, and Joseph named him. God is still coming into the world. What if we followed Joseph’s lead, and named wherever we see it?