A sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name, 2023. Luke 2:15-21, Philippine 2:5-11
On the eighth day, the day of circumcision, the Child was named Jesus, the name given him by the angel of the Lord before he was conceived; before he began the journey of incarnation.
The naming of any child is a solemn and joyful affair; it says something about their identity, their family, their history, and their hopes. They called the child, Jesus, because he would be our saviour.
His name means saviour, and it has been his name since before his journey into his humanity began. The eighth day marks a new beginning, after the work of creation, after the sabbath rest, the rest of time begins on the eighth day, along with all that is to follow. But he has been our saviour since before time, and will be forever.
Some years ago, someone called the church to ask what we were about, what we were like, what we believe. “But, you do believe in the salvation, right” the caller asked me. “Of course,” I replied, “and if you come to visit, we can have a much deeper conversation about what that might even mean.”
By the way, my final answer to all who call to ask about us is to come and visit; it’s the best way to find out and feel out who we are as a church community. I hope that in this new year some of you will find ways to invite those you know who are curious, seeking, cynical, or spiritual to come with you to find out how we find our way to Jesus.
But back to salvation: there are a number of theories about what salvation is and does and how it takes place. I am not the final authority on any of them, but I am persuaded by some more than by others.
I am least persuaded by the argument that innocent blood is necessary to justice. I have a feeling that that calculation is one of our own invention, rather than the work of a merciful and creative God. Take Cain, for instance. When he committed the first murder of the Bible, against his own brother, God did not avenge Abel even with the guilty man’s life. As disturbing the murder and as angry as God was, still, in banishing Cain, God set a mark of protection upon Cain, so that no one could take revenge against him. God interrupted the nascent cycle of violence; God was merciful.
What if Jesus is saving us from our tendency to shed innocent blood, or any blood; from our temptation to sacrifice others on the altar of our own sin or self-righteousness ?
That leads us to another theory of salvation, of atonement, to use another theologically loaded word. It suggests that rather than appeasing the forces that require sacrifice, that require blood for justice, Christ defeated them upon the cross, subverting them and using their own means to further the ends of God’s justice, which is mercy; by harrowing hell and hollowing it out; by rising to life again, defeating death.
But Frances Young, in Can These Dry Bones Live?, wonders, since we are still battling evil, since sin and death are still so clearly with us and among us, how we can appropriate hope, or hope enough, from a victory that is already won, when we feel ourselves too often still to be in the midst of the battle.[i]
How, in other words, is Jesus saving us now, today, from sin and from death, which we see all too clearly at work in the world about us?
But what was born for us was not a theory of salvation, but Jesus, our saviour. He was named as our saviour before his conception, before his journey into humanity, before death was even possible. It was not only that final passion of the cross that saved us; it was this, the new birth in the borrowed side-room, the covenant of God’s promise, the naming of God’s hope for God’s Son, God’s hope for humanity.
Jesus is our saviour through it all, from birth to death and beyond. From before birth, and all of the accidents and awful things that may befall; from beyond time, where the communion of saints gathers in endless and joyous praise of God who has saved them even from the grave. By crucifying sin and suffering within himself, so that we can bear our own sin and agony and know that God is with us, that God has not forsaken us.[ii] At least, that’s one theory.
There is another question, which may be a whole other sermon, and that is, what has Jesus saved us for?
Back in the day, when a saviour was announced to the people of Judea, they thought inevitably in terms of the routing of the Roman empire, the rebuilding of Jerusalem as a power to be reckoned with. And yet we have seen that this was not the kind of saviour Jesus turned out to be. If he defeated the Roman empire (and the Revelation of John said he would), then it was by laying the seeds of a new kingdom, a new way of living and believing and hoping in the world that would take some time to come to harvest, just as a child takes time to grow, to grow into their name; because the way that God loves us is not as a dictator loves his people for their usefulness, or as an authoritarian loves them for their loyalty, or a narcissist for their adulation, but God loves us as a child delights to love, indiscriminately.
Paul wrote to the Philippians, “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5), so that we, who are made in the image of God, do not exploit our privilege but empty ourselves, becoming humble, giving ourselves fully to that image of God, so that instead of the powers and the principalities, instead of empires and armies, instead of death, we should bend only to the name of Jesus, the saviour, who is our way, our truth, our life, the life of God incarnate, Jesus, our Emmanuel:
Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die,
born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.[iii]
Jesus, our Saviour, named by the angels before we were ever born.
[i] Frances Young, Can These Dry Bones Live? An Introduction to Christian Theology (Pilgrim Press, 1993), 39
[ii] Again, I am indebted to Frances Young, op cit.
[iii] Hark, the Herald Angels Sing, Charles Wesley, altered by George Whitefield