Sermon for Sunday, January 1, 2017 || The Feast of the Holy Name || Numbers 6: 22-27; Psalm 8; Philippians 2: 5-11; Luke 2: 15-21 || The Rev. Margot D. Critchfield
Happy New Year! New Year’s is always something worth celebrating—a chance for new beginnings, fresh starts, and re-boots — all inspired by a unique kind of resolve that has a special way of infusing us each year when the calendar reads “January 1.”
And in the life of the church, on this first day of the New Year we also celebrate what’s known as the Feast of the Holy Name—commemorating the fact that 8-days after his birth, the infant embodiment of “God-with-us” was circumcised according to Jewish tradition and given the holy name of Jesus—Yeshua in Hebrew—the meaning of which is as powerful as it is concise: he saves.
And save he does! This Holy Name belongs to the One into whose life we are baptized and made new, and by whose resurrection we are set free from sin and death. This Holy Name is given by God’s own messenger, who in Luke’s gospel tells Mary she is to name her child “Jesus” and in Matthew’s gospel explains to Joseph why: “…for he will save his people from their sins.” This Holy Name is the name, we are told, “that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth…”
Now, all of that sounds very lofty and churchy and theologically dense—which indeed it is– so what I’d like to invite you to consider with me this morning is something that’s actually very pragmatic and down to earth. What I’d like us to consider together is this: Between the day we’re baptized and made new, and the day we face death in the hope of the resurrection, what bearing might the Holy Name of Jesus have on the way we actually live our lives day by day? How might it effect the way we make decisions, set goals, change behavior, nurture relationships, live in community, and make the world a better place–as bearers of his name and members of his body?
These are such fundamental questions about what it means to stake our claim as Christians, as Holy-Name-of –Jesus-followers; my prayer for us is that our answers will inform the way we choose to harness the unique sense of resolve that this New Year’s Day provides.
So: what difference might the Holy Name of Jesus make to who we are individually, and to how we are together as a community of faith? If we start by looking at this morning’s reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, we can get a pretty good idea. But let’s begin one sentence earlier than what’s appointed for this morning: “Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”
Each day of our lives, as those who are baptized into Christ and as those who will die with the assurance of new and eternal life in him, we are to look not to our own interests, but to the interests of others.
And if we’re unclear what that means, of what it would look like to let the same mind be in us that was in Jesus, we need only keep reading. Jesus, Paul tells us, emptied himself, humbled himself, and was obedient to God.
Jesus—the same Jesus who Paul tells us “was in the form of God” and who John’s gospel tells us was with God in the beginning, and was God, and without whom not one created thing came into being—this same Jesus freely chose to surrender his Godly status, power and privilege– to become one of us. To get a sense of what such a descent from the heights might feel like, C.S. Lewis once suggested that we imagine how we’d feel if we woke up one morning and discovered we’d turned into garden slugs.
Yet the bearer of the Holy Name of Jesus knowingly and willingly emptied himself, Paul tells us. He humbled himself, and was fiercely obedient to God–even to the point of death, and a humiliating one at that.
This is the One in whose name we are marked forever at our baptism. This is the One by whose name we are freed from the power of sin and death. This is the One we’ve chosen to follow and after whom we are to model our lives—the self-emptying, humble, obedient one– who looked not to his own interests but to the interests of others.
This is the Christ Jesus whose mind Paul exhorts us to have and to live by every day, whether at church, at work, at home, or at school: Self-emptying. Humble. Obedient to God.
In a culture like ours that rewards self-promotion…that lionizes the acquisition of power and money…that bestows honor and privilege on whoever goes home with the most toys or shouts “I’m king of the mountain” first, what would it look like to take seriously Paul’s charge to let the same mind be in us that was in Christ Jesus? Or, as scholar Rob Fringer asks, “What if human power is supposed to look more like Christ’s actions than those of the various world leaders in power today?” What if our fundamental call is to yield power, rather than to wield it? To be willing to give up some of our prestige and privilege, our status and security, our ease and entitlement, for the sake of looking not to our own interests but to the interests of others?
“We must resemble him in his life,” said the 17th century preacher Matthew Henry, “if we would have the benefit of his death.”
What might that look like, here on the ground, at St. Stephen’s? How might it impinge on the way we form our budget and allocate our resources, on how we articulate our vision for this church and our goals for the next five years, on how we share our space with others and make it more hospitable to visitors and newcomers, on how we build relationships within our community –and more importantly with the world outside these hallowed walls? How might it impinge on your own life, how you set priorities, how you make decisions, how you spend your time and money?
Being a follower of Jesus must make a difference in how we live every day of our lives or else we take his Holy Name in vain when we identify ourselves with it. It has to make a difference, because the way of Jesus is not the way of the world. The way of Jesus is in direct opposition to the way of the world…it’s the way of self-emptying, of humble service, of fierce obedience to God.
So on this New Year’s Day, may the God who blesses us and keeps us, who makes his face to shine upon us and is gracious to us, who lifts up his countenance upon us and gives us peace, grant us the grace and the courage to make a resolution for this new year, that the same mind will be in us that was in Christ Jesus; that we will look in all things not to our own interests, but to the interests of others; and that we will do so in obedience to the name that is above every name and before whom every knee should bend in heaven and on earth and under the earth… the name that saves…the name we commemorate today…the Holy Name of Jesus. Amen.