In the name of the God who creates us, redeems us, and gives us life. Amen!


          Our Advent theme this year is “Expecting a Child.” We are looking at activities around the birth of babies as ways of preparing ourselves for the celebration of the birth of Christ. First, I spoke of “Preparing.” We prepare for a child by fixing up a room, buying a car seat and crib, and preparing ourselves to be parents. We prepare for the birth of Christ by repenting of harmful ways of living, and by opening ourselves to God’s new directions and promises for us.

 Second, last week I spoke of “Gathering.” When a baby is born there are many gatherings of people to celebrate its arrival. In the birth of Christ we celebrate that God gathers us to God’s heart to impart God’s love to us.

          Today, I invite you to think with me about the process of “Naming” a child. For many expecting parents, naming their child consumes a lot of time, energy, emotion, creativity, and research on the current most popular names for babies. In a  recent report from the Social Security administration the most popular boys’ names are Aiden, Jacob, and Jackson. The most popular girls’ names are Emma, Isabella, and Emily.

          Parents often name their children after someone they hope the child will emulate, or they pick a name for its meaning, hoping their child’s personality or character will reflect that meaning.

          Let me give you some examples from our family. Some of the names of Andrea’s ancestors would cause people to think twice about a name -- like Stuvie, Flossie Gladys, Jewell Leroy, or, an impressive name of a Great Grandfather---Joshua Buchannan Campbell. I was named after my father, James Joseph who was named for the brother and father of Jesus, or my Great Grandfather. Our second daughter, (AKA “baby Jesus”, mother of Ashleigh and Skyler) was named after a popular TV character of the early 1970’s ---Jennifer Jill, the name of the daughter on “The Governor and J.J.”

          Two of my nephews have sons named “Aiden’. Our son and daughter-in-law thought about naming their son Aiden, but decided on Ashton. If you think about the possibility that my parents could have had three great grandsons named “Aiden” and two them with the last name of Welch. Names can mind boggling.

          One more example from our family. ANDREA. It is a family rumor and a source of great debate whether or not Andrea was named not for one but two disasters –one a maritime disaster in which the most number of people died in the sinking of a ship in US waters; the other a geological disaster that could radically alter the landscape of the western portion of the US. I’ll let you figure out if Andrea is a disaster or not!

          Biblical names were often chosen to describe a change in person, a prophecy of God, or an aspect of current history. Jacob, the cheat, becomes Israel, the one who has struggled with God and men and overcome his old ways. Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah.

          In Isaiah 62 (v.4) the prophet says to the people as the Exile comes to an end: “You shall no longer be named “Forsaken,” and your land shall no more be named “Desolate,” but you shall be called “My Delight is in Her,” and your land “Married.” In the New Testament we have Saul becoming Paul, and Simon becomes Peter, “the Rock.”

          The Secret Service has a long-standing practice of assigning code names to the presidents and presidential candidates they have sworn to protect. President George W. Bush was called “Tumbler.” This was the code name assigned to him when his father was president, and was reflective of young George’s behavior prior to his life-changing encounter with Christ. Ronald Reagan was called “Rawhide,” Bill Clinton was “Eagle” and Jimmy Carter was “Deacon,” acknowledging his position as a Sunday school teacher. I wonder what President-elect Donald Trump’s code name of the Secret Service will be?

          In our passage today from Isaiah there is a code name in the conversation between Ahaz, the King of Judah, and the prophet. Around 734 B.C. the Assyrian Empire was threatening Syria and Israel. These two nations turn against Judah to get her to join their coalition to fight the Assyrians.

          In this tense time, God appears to Ahaz and tells him to ask for a sign. In false modesty, Ahaz refuses saying he doesn’t want to test God. Isaiah steps into the conversation at that point and tells Ahaz that whether he likes it or not, God is going to give a sign. The sign will be a woman who is expecting will give birth and give her son a code name, “Immanuel,” which means “God is with us.”

          The name of the child is the heart of the revelation. It is a promise, a good sign, a sign of reassurance, a sign of salvation. The child’s name indicates that God will help Judah in its current conflict. Isaiah continues by saying that before the child reaches the age of making moral choices, in other words, relatively soon, both Syria and Israel will be defeated and Judah will be free of their torment. Unfortunately, Ahaz does not trust this prophecy. Instead he makes an alliance with Assyria, but this action is a disaster and his people become subjugated to Assyria as a slave state.

          Isaiah’s words were timely for Ahaz’s current fearful situation; God will deliver God’s people. However, these words have a timeless quality about them as well. Through the centuries, Isaiah’s words have also come to represent a far greater deliverance that God will be with us in Jesus to save us all.

          In our Gospel reading today, Matthew tells of Jesus’ birth. Matthew’s Old Testament source is the Greek translation called the Septuagint, in which the word “virgin” is used instead of the word for “young woman,” which is in the Hebrew translation. In telling the story of Jesus’ birth Matthew states that Mary was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit, but an angel of God told Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary for his wife.

          Joseph does so and on instruction of the angel names the child Jesus, a name which means “God saves,” or “Savior.” Matthew says all this took place to fulfill the Isaiah prophecy. 

          The difference between Isaiah’s predicted name of “God is with us” and the name Matthew’s angel suggests, “God saves,” is the difference between promise and fulfillment. When the gods of other traditions demanded human beings sacrifice themselves to the gods, the God of Isaiah and Matthew is with us for the purpose of saving humanity.

          In our Christian tradition, God sacrifices himself to give us the fullness of life. Salvation means reunion or reconciliation. God accomplishes our salvation by coming to be with us. John Wesley said on his death bed, “The best of all is God is with us.”

          God is so completely with us God enters into the full experience of human life from birth as a baby to growing into adulthood. God is so completely with us that he loves us to the point of death. We take Isaiah’s name, “God with us,” and fuse it with Matthew’s name, “God saves,” and we get the heart of Christian theology: God comes to us in Christ to save us, to be in relationship with us, to love us even to the point of death.

          There are some people who say they don’t want to hear anything about Jesus dying on the cross at Christmas time. That is understandable. It does put a damper on all our joy and excitement about the gift of new life in the birth of a cute little baby.

          However, we in the Christian faith claim a larger view of God’s actions: God came to us in the birth of Jesus. God ministered to us in the work of Jesus. After we rejected Jesus and put him to death, God came to us again in the resurrection of Jesus and prefigures our own resurrection to eternal life.

          The beauty and tenderness of Christmas is certainly in the image of a newborn baby, but it is also in the beginning of an eternal story of new life offered to us over and over and over again by the grace of God. The God who comes to us in the baby Jesus to save us, is with us extending God’s love.

          There are studies today that indicate that applicants with certain names have a better chance of getting into colleges, jobs, and careers than those with other names. Consequently, some parents are strategizing for their children’s future success by intentionally selecting those names. This may be so, but what I’m counting on is that our names don’t have to qualify us for the Kingdom of God.

          Let me point out why this is so important by looking at a few names from the most current baby names. “Elbert” is gaining in popularity and means, “light of God”. Another name on the rise is “Djalma” which means “soul.” “Gregory” means “watchman”. If getting into the Kingdom of God depends on one’s name, these names are shoe-ins!

          However it goes downhill from there. The girls names, “Mary” and “Molly,” both come from the root, “Mara,” meaning bitter,” my name “James,” is a derivative of “Jacob,” the cheat, the supplanter. I don’t stand a chance.

          All this is the reason why the celebration of Christmas is so important to all of us. None of us can crank up our goodness quotient high enough, to earn a relationship with God. It does not matter what your name is, or what it means, what matters is that in Christmas we celebrate that in Jesus God comes to us to save us, to be in relationship with us, and give us the fullness of life.

          To that we can only say, “Thanks be to God,” and “Come, Lord Jesus, Come!”