Thought for the Week 6th December 2020

You Called Him What…?

(by Rev Paul Graham)

Read Luke 1:26-38

There’s a line in one of P.G. Wodehouse’s books that I really like (and have used on occasion). When discussing the name of one of the more unpleasant members of his Aunt Dahlia’s houseparty, Bertie Wooster comments to Jeeves, “There’s some raw work pulled at the font from time to time, is there not?”[1]

Names matter. Maybe less so in the last few decades, with parents calling their cherished newborns after everything from the latest chart success to a piece of fruit, but names still have significance. I remember being at school with what seemed like an unfeasibly high number of Emmas (not sure what inspired those), and there is a swathe of Kylies celebrating their 30th birthdays around now, thanks to the popularity of a certain diminutive Antipodean singer/actress. We might find out that our own names are rooted in significance, usually familial if not because of your parents liking of a certain pop group (I don’t think an ex-Beatle was the inspiration for my name).

Certainly, in biblical times names matter. Back in the sunnier climes of August, we discussed Barnabas and the significance of being known as an encourager.[2] And, each time we encounter a biblical name, we should ask ourselves, “Why?”[3] And our reading today is no different.

The angel Gabriel visits Mary with some startling news. Not only is she to have a baby that won’t be conceived with Joseph[4], but she will also face further condemnation from the local population by calling him a name that is not Joseph’s choice. Jesus[5] is the name given for this child that he will be mostly known by, but there is another name that Gabriel gives him: “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32).

We might be confused as to who this might be, as Gabriel goes on to talk about David as being Jesus’ father (the Old Testament King, not one of Mary’s old flames), so we would be forgiven for thinking that David was also known as “the Most High”. However, Gabriel later clarifies that God is “the Most High”, and that Jesus will be known as “Son of God” (Luke 1:35). “Father”, in the context that Gabriel describes David, should be seen to be shorthand for “forefather” – Matthew in many ways does a better job than Luke of explaining this by giving us the edited genealogy of Jesus at the start of his gospel (Matthew 1:1-16).

Knowing Jesus as “Son of…” is more than familial lines; we usually understand this name as the complex relationship between God the Father and God the Son as Jesus himself goes on to describe himself, most often found in John’s Gospel[6]. The Father and Son are one, Jesus says (John 10:30) which might be difficult even for those who used to watch Jeremy Kyle’s programme on ITV. But such is the mystery of the Trinity; the complex relationship between Father, Son and Spirit who engage in what is known as “the divine dance” of being both separate and the same being.

If you thought that last week’s sojourn with John was complicated, you’ll be glad to know that this is not attempting to mine the depths of Trinitarian theology (let’s face it, there are far better people out there to baffle you than me). Instead, let’s take this name of Jesus at face value.

To be known as “Son of…” anyone is either a good thing or a bad one. We are probably not that naive to know that there are insults that start with those two words[7], but there are alternatives that may be more positive. A similar sentiment is found in the phrase “a chip off the old block” and we start to see where we’re heading with this name of Jesus.

As “Son of the Most High” and “Son of God”, Jesus was to be seen as the reflection of God himself. God who is to be exalted as “Most High” is not a title to be sniffed at; in any context where hierarchy remains, being at the top of the pile means that you are given special attention. To be the son (and therefore heir) of the one in charge means that there are usually certain privileges that come with that status. And there are also certain expectations; just ask any of our present Royal Family.

How much Jesus reflects his father is an object lesson for any of us who take after our own dads (or mums, let’s not be gendered about this…) We might want to model our lives on the antithesis of our parents (and most teenagers seem to strive for this), and if our own experience of childhood was painful then the chance to start afresh may well be a necessary one. However, with God as the exemplar Father, there is no reason why Jesus would want to rebel.

Through his life (and I know we’re jumping ahead here), Jesus showed how God’s love, grace, mercy, justice and welcome could be lived out in the reality of first century Palestine, under the rule of the Romans and with the religious elite snapping at his heels. And so, should we as Christians (literally Christ-a-likes) mirror him?

But maybe, just maybe, there’s something else we should learn about the character of God through his Son. Jesus’ name means “God who saves” and that is one characteristic of God that we see time and again through the Bible. The Israelites are slaves in Egypt; who is it that saves them and sets them free? The Israelites are exiled in Babylon; who is it that brings them home? The whole world creaks under the burden of sin, shame and guilt; who is it that bears that burden?

Jesus, the Saviour of the world, reflecting the character of the one who created that same world. God always provides a way back; and in Jesus he showed how it was possible not by a show of power, or by flaunting status, but by sacrifice and humility. We’ve got some way to go…

Amen.


[1] Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit p164 – the character they are discussing glories in the archetypal Wodehousian name of Lemuel Gengulphus Trotter. Not a name to hand down through the generations, I hope…

[2] Thought for the Week, 16th August

[3] For example, Paul (Latin: Paulus) means “small” and “humble”. Though I’m unsure that being 6 feet tall qualifies me for the first part, I’m terribly proud of my humility… (for this and following meanings, visit https://www.behindthename.com/)

[4] Gabriel (Hebrew) means “Strong man of God” – literally, Gabri (strong man) -el (God)

Mary (Hebrew) is from the same derivation that gives us Maria and Miriam. Variously, means “sea of bitterness”, “rebelliousness” or “wished for a child” (as in her parents wished for a child)

Joseph (Hebrew) means “He will add” – not, however, a reflection on his arithmetic ability

[5] Greek form of the Hebrew Yeshua (Joshua), meaning “God is salvation”. Jesus’ name means what he did and continues to do…

[6] For a good example of this, read John 14:1-14

[7] I doff my metaphorical cap to the scriptwriters of the Christmas film Elf, who gave us the imaginative festive alternative “Son of a nutcracker”


(Image by Olya Adamovich from Pixabay)


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