The Name Above All Names

Matthew 1:18-21

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “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. 21 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.”

Dear Friends in Christ,

The Christmas season that we continue to celebrate today can be a very confusing time, can’t it?  It can be a season full of questions like: “What am I going to get my wife this year?”  “Where are we going to put this huge tree?”  “How are we going to divvy up our time between your parents, my parents, and our own immediate family?”  Sometimes the questions can be as confusing as that box full of lights that you open when it’s time to start decorating.  Once you finally get them all untangled, then you face the rather daunting challenge of where you’re going to put them.

Well, times haven’t changed because that first Christmas was full of all kinds of confusion and questions for its key participants.  For example, when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she had been chosen by God to bring his Son, the long-awaited Messiah, into the world, her response was: “How will this be since I am a virgin?”  And when Mary finally broke the news to Joseph that she was carrying a baby that he knew was not his, he was so confused as to what to do that it took an angel of God to explain everything to him so that he could accept it and understand it.  And don’t you think the shepherds had all kinds of questions pop into their heads when the angel of the Lord disrupted their peaceful night of watching sheep with the announcement that their Savior, Christ the Lord, had been born that night?  And what about the Wise Men?  Surely they must have wondered what they would find when they followed the star and traveled that long distance from their home in the East to Jerusalem where they asked the question: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?”

So that first Christmas was full of confusion, full of questions.  But all that confusion and all those questions were answered in the special name that God gave to this special Child.  “You are to give him the name Jesus,” the angel told Joseph in our text for today, “because he will save his people from their sins.”  In my sermon a few weeks ago we focused upon the name Immanuel, which I called a name for the lonely, for it literally means “God with us.”  Today I want to spend our time taking a look at what the Bible calls the name that is above all names, the name Jesus, a name for the lost, for it literally means “God saves.”

Of the more than 700 names and titles that the Bible ascribes to the Son of God, there is no doubt that the most venerated, the most beloved, and the most used is Jesus.  I don’t know how many of you realize this or not, but the name “Jesus” was actually a common name at the time of Christ, much like the names Tom or Jason or Michael are today.  The 1st century Jewish historian Josephus, who shares many events in his writings from that era, mentions at least 20 men who bore that name, 10 of whom were contemporaries of Christ.

But even though it was a common name, that still doesn’t do away with the fact that every time somebody used it in reference to the son of Mary, the idea of salvation was being proclaimed.  Now why give Jesus a name that means “the God who saves”?  Why not give him a name that reflects eloquence for no one spoke more pearls of wisdom than Jesus?  Or why not give him a name that reflects power, for who could still the storm and banish diseases better than this powerful miracle working rabbi from Nazareth?  Or why not give him a name that suggests compassion, for every single sick or sorrowing or lonely soul that came to Jesus walked away knowing that they were loved.  Why give him a name that specifically declares him to be the God who saves?

You know the answer to that question, don’t you?  It’s because God’s great plan for you and God’s great plan for me and God’s great plan for this lost and sinful world is salvation.  That’s what he is more interested in than anything else.  And that’s why the angel says in our text for today: “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

And how exactly did Jesus do that?  In one word, he became your substitute.  I remember when I was in Confirmation class back in 1969 one day my dad, who was teaching the class, told us that if there was one word that he wanted us to remember about Jesus, it wasn’t the word “Savior;” it wasn’t the word “Messiah;” it was the word “substitute.”  I’ve never forgotten that.  In fact, I continue to teach the same thing to my Confirmation students.  Jesus came into this world to be our substitute.

I understand that in Strausburg, PA there is a cemetery which contains the grave of a Civil War soldier.  The tombstone bears the name of the young man as well as the date of his birth and death.  But it also has these three interesting words written on it: “Abraham Lincoln’s substitute.”  The engraving was the President’s idea.  He knew that every day hundreds of young men were dying in the Civil War so that he could live and enjoy the freedoms that our founding fathers intended for those who dwelt in this great land.  And by placing that saying on that tombstone, he was expressing not only his acknowledgement of that truth, but also his appreciation for it.

Well, Jesus invites you to look to him as your substitute and to receive from him the benefits and blessings that he made possible for you through his life, his death, and his resurrection.  Now of course you don’t need a substitute if you’re perfect.  In fact, you don’t need to be here today if you’re perfect.  But who among us would be so bold as to say that we are even close to perfect?

Oh, there may have been a time when your parents said that about you.  When you were born, it’s quite possible they looked down at you and said those words that many a mom and dad have spoken at a time like that: “What a perfect baby!  What a perfect nose!  What perfect eyes!  What perfect toes!”  But fast forward a year or so into the future and in all likelihood they’re no longer thinking of you as perfect anymore.  For those tiny perfect feet learn to stomp in defiance.  Those cute little hands learn to yank and hit.  Those sweet little rosebud lips learn to scowl and pout and to say words like “Mine!” and “NO!”  In other words, that baby that you once so proudly proclaimed to be perfect let’s you know pretty quickly that it is anything but perfect.  The term that we use for that in theological circles is original sin, that sinful bent that we’re born with, that streak of contrariness, stubbornness, and selfishness that rears its ugly head all too often from early infancy on.  Every baby that is born is living testimony to what the Apostle Paul wrote in Rom. 3:10: “There is no one righteous, not even one.”  And then a little later in verse 23 he adds that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

With only one exception then there is no perfect baby and there is no perfect human being.  Ah, but that one exception is the star of God’s salvation story.  And that one exception is Jesus, the God who saves.  Of all the mothers who have exclaimed “What a perfect baby!” when Mary did it, she was speaking the truth.  Even those who were closest to Jesus proclaimed the same truth about him.  Peter, for example, wrote in the 2nd chapter of his 1st epistle: “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”  The writer to the Hebrews stated that in Jesus, “we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.”

And if the words of those who knew him are not enough, what about the words of Jesus himself?  In John 8:46 he offered this challenge to his enemies: “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?”  Now what if you threw out a question like that, and not to your enemies, but to your friends?  Try it sometime.  Get a group of family members or friends together and ask them, “Can any of you prove me guilty of sin?  Can any of you think of a time when I did something wrong?”  And then watch as their hands go up like spring daffodils.

But you know what?  When Jesus asked that question of his enemies, the only response he got from them was stony silence.  Imagine that.  They didn’t even like him.  They were jealous of him.  But they could not think of one time when he operated out of a spirit of selfishness or arrogance or contrariness.  Not one time.  Even when he was put on trial the night before he died, his accusers couldn’t find anything wrong with him.  So they had to cook up charges and hire false witnesses to testify against him. But even then the Bible says they couldn’t find any who could agree with one another.

So Jesus was perfect.  And it was his perfection that qualified him to be our substitute, especially our sin-bearing, sin-paying substitute.  Listen to how Hebrews 9:14 puts it: “Christ offered himself to God as a perfect sacrifice for our sins.”  There it is.  He wasn’t just the perfect baby.  He wasn’t just the perfect man who lived a perfect life.  He did all that for you and for me so that he could be our perfect sacrifice and thus pay the price for our sins that we could have never paid on our own.

So God’s plan for you, my friends – his goal, his dream for you – is salvation.  But also note that it’s his priority for you as well.  And if we don’t understand that, then we’re never going to understand God.  For as long as we feel that God’s priority should be to give me that promotion at my job or to find me a parking place or to get me a date with that girl or that guy, we’re missing out on so much.  We’re missing out on why Jesus even came into our world.  But once we understand that God’s priority is our eternal destiny, then everything that happens to us begins to make sense.

Recently I came across a great story that illustrates the priority of salvation and how God will do whatever it takes to get you home to heaven safe and sound.  It involved a female commuter who driving home one evening after work when she noticed she was getting low on gas.  So she took the next exit and began to search for a gas station.  She soon found herself in a not-so-friendly looking neighborhood.  And to make matters worse it was getting dark.  Then all of a sudden she felt that dreaded chug…chug…chug as her car ran out of gas.  As she reached in her purse for her cell phone to call for help, she could see out of her passenger side window a stranger walking rather briskly toward her.  She instinctively locked the doors.  And when the man got to her car, he began pounding on the window.  Needless to say, she was terrified.  She kept screaming as he turned around and walked away.  But then he stooped down, picked up something, and came back, only this time with a brick in his hand.  She crawled on the floorboard and cowered there as he pounded and pounded until finally the window shattered and shards of glass flew everywhere.  He then unlocked the door and yanked it open.  He reached for her and though she tried to resist he pulled her from the car and began to drag her along the pavement as she kicked and screamed.  Then a few seconds later, she heard it – the loud blast of a train horn.  And as she looked up, she saw that train plow into her car and completely demolish it.  Only then did she realize what she had not noticed before, that her car had come to rest on some railroad tracks.  And the man that she thought was coming to hurt her was really coming to save her.  And the one she feared was really her friend.

In a very similar way, my friends, all the events that God has allowed to come into your life, the good, the bad, and the ugly, have either been designed by him or used by him to save you, to get your attention, to help you realize that you are trapped in a vehicle that is sure to be destroyed as the lights of eternity come bearing down on you.  And he will do whatever it takes to get you out of that vehicle and safely home to heaven.  If it takes a night in a hospital ward or a jail sentence or a broken heart to get your attention, he’s not beyond that.  So don’t be like that woman we just heard about.  Don’t resist the efforts of the One who would rescue you.  But rather understand that your salvation is his plan for you and his priority for you.  For he is Jesus, the God who saves.

Amen.