A Commanding Name
Sunday, December 18, 2022 | Matthew 1:18-25
Names in the Bible always have deeper meaning beyond the words. What does it mean when someone has two names?
This is the first year that the Washington, D.C. NFL team has been called the Commanders. For 87 years, they were the Redskins, a name that was found to be disparaging to Native Americans. Then, for two years, they were simply “the Washington Football Team.”
“Washington’s leaders,” according to ESPN, had stressed “that the franchise would like to incorporate the military because of its connection to the nation’s capital. Commander is a term used most often in the military as a naval officer rank, but it also can be used as a generic term.”
According to team president Jason Wright, “It’s something … that embodies the values of service and leadership that characterizes” the D.C. region.
Service and leadership are good qualities, for sure. But not everyone loves the new name. Teams need a good nickname, but what can you call the Commanders? The “Commies”? Don’t think so. And Commanders doesn’t really connect to the Washington region, aside from the military personnel in the area.
A similar problem popped up in Cleveland when years of controversy led to the abandonment of the name “Indians” for the pro baseball team. As of opening day this year, the Cleveland Indians were the Cleveland Guardians. According to WKYC Studios, the name comes from a set of statues called the Guardians of Traffic, near the ballpark.
Once again, not everyone is thrilled. “Garbage name for a garbage team,” said one Twitter user. “Clevelanders will spend their baseball lifetime explaining it,” said another person on Facebook. “No one who isn’t from Cleveland will have a clue.”
Clearly, the best team names have clear and strong connections to their regions. For example, the Washington Nationals are in the nation’s capital, the Pittsburgh Steelers reflect the city’s steel mill tradition, and the Orlando Magic is a nod to Disney World. No one has to explain these names. The connections are clear and strong.
Of course, problems arise when a team makes a move. The New Orleans Jazz was an NBA team with a clear and strong regional connection. Who doesn’t know and appreciate New Orleans jazz music? When they moved to Utah and remained the Jazz, the name stopped making sense.
To be effective, a name needs to be commanding.
In the first chapter of the gospel of Matthew, the birth of Jesus is foretold. The story begins in controversy, with Mary, the mother of Jesus, found to be pregnant. This creates an issue for Joseph, to whom she is pledged to be married. Not wanting to humiliate her publicly, he decides to divorce her quietly.
But then an angel of the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and says, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (v. 20). Joseph realizes that Mary has not been unfaithful to him, but that her pregnancy is an act of God.
Then the angel says, “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21). This is the first commanding name given to this child: Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua, which means the LORD saves.
Matthew tells us that all of this takes place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet Isaiah: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” — which means “God with us” (v. 23, quoting Isaiah 7:14). This is the second commanding name given to the child: Immanuel means God with us.
When Joseph wakes up, he does what the angel of the Lord has commanded him. He takes Mary home as his wife, and when she gives birth to a son, he gives him the name Jesus.
Jesus, meaning the LORD saves.
Immanuel, meaning God with us.
Both are clear, strong, commanding names.
We know how important it is for professional sports teams to have names that send a clear message. But what about biblical names? Professor of religious studies Russell Fuller says that the names of individuals in the Bible are always full of meaning, expressing “their personality and status or nature.” In the Bible, a name is always more than just a word.
We see this most clearly when a person’s name is changed in recognition of a change in their nature, personality, or status. For example, Jacob’s name is changed to Israel after his successful wrestling match with a divine being. Abram’s name is changed to Abraham after the creation of the covenant with God. Saul becomes Paul after he becomes a follower of Christ. The names of newborn children, says Fuller, are “carefully chosen to reflect the circumstances of their birth as well as to indicate something of their personality or status.”
The name Moses means “to draw out,” reflecting Moses’ rescue as an infant from the waters of the Nile.
The name Miriam means “drop of the sea, bitter, or beloved.” It later evolved into the name Mary.
The name Elijah means “the LORD is God.”
The name Jesus means “the LORD saves.”
And the name Immanuel means “God with us.”
In the Bible, a name is always more than just a word. It expresses personality, status and nature. So, what does it mean to say that the Son of God is both Jesus and Immanuel? Both names embody who Jesus is: Savior and God-with-us. Both invite us to respond — not just with the cheers of a sports fan, but with deep faith and commitment.
Jesus, the first name, means “the LORD saves,” and that Jesus will save his people from their sins (v. 21). Jesus has been sent to earth to be the One to save us from all the sins and shortcomings that fracture our relationships with God and the people around us. We make such a mess of our lives, as individuals and as communities, that we need a Savior to rescue us. Jesus does this by offering us forgiveness for our past failings, and guidance for the path that lies ahead. We might sing about his saving work at Christmas, using the words of the carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”:
O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray; Cast out our sin and enter in; be born in us today.
Cast out our sin — that’s the work of Jesus, the Savior. The letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus came to “remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” on the cross (Hebrews 9:26). Jesus casts out our sins, once and for all, in an act that never needs to be repeated. He lays down his life for us in an act of loving sacrifice, one that brings us forgiveness and new life.
We need Jesus to save us. He does for us what we can never do for ourselves, no matter how hard we try. Each of us is like an addict who discovers that recovery requires turning to a higher power — a power greater than ourselves. When we put our faith in Jesus the Savior, we find that forgiveness and change are possible.
Immanuel, the second name, communicates that God is with us (v. 23). Turning to a higher power also helps us discover that we are not alone. With Immanuel in our lives, we are never alone. Using the words of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” again:
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell; O come to us; abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.
Jesus came to abide with us, to live with us, to stay with us forever. That’s the work of Immanuel, God with us.
We need this now, more than ever. Loneliness is a problem this time of year, which is why many churches are offering “Services of the Longest Night” on December 21. This is the day of the winter solstice, when the sun sets at its earliest point all year, creating the longest of nights. Christians who gather for Longest Night services focus their prayers on dark times — the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, living with cancer, or adjusting to a separation or divorce.
Churches have discovered that the Christmas season is not a bright and happy time for every member of the congregation, and such services give people opportunities to acknowledge their pain and pray for healing and help. Since the days become longer and longer after the winter solstice, there is reason to believe that light can return and darkness can be overcome. People also find hope in the support of the community, and the chance to draw closer to the One who is our Lord Immanuel, God with us.
As we move toward Christmas, let’s keep the commanding names of Jesus and Immanuel in front of us. They tell us that Jesus is our Savior, coming to save us from sin and deliver us to new and abundant life. He is also Immanuel, God with us, the surest sign that our Lord is with us in every time and place and situation. With Jesus, we are never trapped in our sins and shortcomings. With Immanuel, we are never completely alone.
There is nothing controversial about these names. Instead, they are perfect descriptions of the One who commands our faith, our trust and our deepest commitment.
Benediction: Place your trust in God, for God is with you. Listen carefully for God’s loving whisper in this time--the words will give you healing and hope. Go in peace and may God’s peace always be with you. AMEN.