Defining Jesus

Text: Matthew 1:18-25

Grace, mercy, and peace to each of you from our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

When children are born or about to be born picking out names for them is one of the most important responsibilities that parents have. You don’t want to give them some kind of name that will get them ridiculed when they go to school someday and you want it to be a name that will suit them, a name that they will like and appreciate. You might even want a name that reflects the family and values that the child has been born into. When our kids were born we had very different experiences with names. With our first we were pretty sure that if she was a girl we had her name picked out. With our second we had no idea what to call her when she was born. Girls’ names are tough, at least they have been for us. Thankfully, the nurses at West Lincoln Memorial Hospital made some suggestions and one of them stuck.

Picking a name can be a challenging thing, but it is also a privilege. I think most parents really cherish the opportunity to name their own children. If someone showed up and told us what we would name our children and gave us not options we likely would have been a little upset about that. We want to have that honor and responsibility for ourselves. And yet, that is exactly what happens in our gospel today. The angel speaks to Joseph about Mary and this child that she is carrying and he says that the child’s name will be Jesus. There seems to be no room for questions or ideas or other opinions here, this child’s name will be Jesus. The angel says the same thing to Mary when she hears this outstanding news, “You shall call His name Jesus,” end of story.

I was surprised, actually, to realize that this kind of thing happens a few times in the Scriptures where an angel proclaims to the parents of a child what their child’s name will be. For Abraham both of his children were named this way. His first son, Ishmael, whose mother was Hagar, received his name from an angel. The same thing happened when Abraham’s second son, Isaac, the son of Sarah, was born. The angel announced, “You will call his name Isaac.” Isaiah, speaking about the Messiah who would be born in our Old Testament reading today says, “You shall call his name Emmanuel.” Elizabeth and Zechariah, the parents of the John the Baptist, are told by an angel that their son’s name will be John. And even here, in the story of the birth of Jesus, angels spell it out for humans, “You shall call His name Jesus.”

So what are we to make of all of this? In particular, when it comes to the birth of Jesus and the name given to Him through the words of the angel, what does this all mean? To answer that question we have to look at what this name “Jesus” means. Thankfully, we don’t have to look very far because the angel who spoke to Joseph that day spelled it out for him and for us too: “You will call His name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.”

When I was in university I took a class at the Catholic college on campus. One of our textbooks for that class was a book called “Who is Jesus? Why is He Important?” It wasn’t a huge book (probably about 200 pages) and the author did a pretty good job answering the two questions that he posed in the title of his book, who is Jesus and why is He important? But as I thought about it this week I thought it was kind of funny that it took that author 200 pages to say what an angel says in one sentence here in the Gospel of Matthew. The angel lays it out for us right here, who is Jesus and why is He important?

Who is Jesus? Jesus is Immanuel. Way back 700 years before the angel came and said these words to Joseph, the prophet Isaiah had written, “The virgin will conceive and bear and son and they shall call His name Immanuel.” For us reading this today Matthew adds the explanation that Immanuel means “God with us.” This is who Jesus is. He is God with us. He is God with us in the manger as angels sing and shepherds gather around. He is God with us on the cross dying for the sins of the world. He is God with us who has promised to be there wherever two or three are gathered in His name. God with us who promised to be with us even to the end of the age. God with us who comes to us in bread and wine to give us His own body and blood for the forgiveness of our sins. Who is Jesus? Jesus is God, He is God with us.

That’s who Jesus is, the first question that book set out to answer, but what about why Jesus is important. The angel’s words spell this out for us. His name is Jesus and the name Jesus literally means “The Lord saves” or “God saves.” It could even be something like a prayer, “God save me!” or “Lord help me!” or something else like that. The name means that God saves and there is no other name that better suits Jesus. He is God’s salvation. The angel is clear with Joseph and with Mary that his child’s name will be Jesus, “The Lord Saves.”

The little explanation that the angel gives to Joseph about why this child will be called Jesus really says a lot. “You shall call His name Jesus because He will save his people from their sins.” First, we see from this sentence that Jesus Himself is God who has come to save. His name means “God saves,” but the angel explains that HE will save His people from their sin. It is Jesus who saves. Throughout the Scriptures saving is what God does. God saves Noah and His family from the flood. God saves His people Israel from slavery in Egypt. God saves His people. Jesus has come, the angel tells us, to save us. He is God is human flesh. He is the saving power of God who has come as a small child to save us. His name means God saves and He is that God who has come to save.

We also have clearly stated for us by the angel here what this child has come to save us from. Again, this is not open to interpretation for us. Jesus is not here as some general Saviour to save us from whatever it is that we think we need to be saved from. Jesus has come, the angel says, to save His people from their sins. Jesus has come to save us from our sins. Right from the very beginning this is purpose for which the child Jesus has come into this world. As He is conceived in His mother’s womb this purpose is already fully formed and understood. It has been God’s plan from the very beginning. Before He is born the cross is already in view for Jesus because that is where His people will be saved from sin.

It’s not sin in general that Jesus saves us from either. He comes to save His people from THEIR sins. He comes to save us from our sins. He comes to save us from ourselves. The problem from which Jesus has come to save us is our own sinful hearts and minds. We can’t interpret sin away or try to find a different reason for why Jesus was born. He was born because I am a sinner and you are a sinner. He was born to save you from your sin.

Mary and Joseph don’t argue with the angel about the name of their child or anything like that, but we can probably imagine how they might have wanted to do that. If someone told us what to call our kids we might not keep quiet like they did. In general we like to dictate the terms to other people rather than have others dictate the terms to us. We want to be in control of important things like this rather than letting someone else be in control. We want to figure these things out for ourselves. But from this text we learn that when it comes to Jesus it is not our place to make decisions or to dictate or to figure out how everything is going to work. The angel is so clear about how this child is going to be named because this child Jesus is not open for interpretation. It is not my job or your job to define who Jesus is or figure out what the birth of Jesus at Christmas time means. Jesus comes to us not as some puzzle for us to figure out or some spiritual idea for us to work into our daily lives. Jesus comes to us to be our Saviour from sin. That is who Jesus is. The angels don’t leave any room to discussion really, Jesus is His name and He is here to save us from sin.

You know the Charlie Brown Christmas special that comes on TV this time of year? Throughout that whole program Charlie Brown is trying to “figure out” what the meaning of Christmas really is. At the end there is the famous part where Linus reads the Christmas story of Jesus birth to Charlie Brown and the other kids and tells them that this is the meaning of Christmas. We sometimes have this idea that we need to figure Christmas out or figure Jesus out so that we can understand Him better or something. But as I look at a text like our Gospel reading today I’ve come to the conclusion that all we really need to do is listen. Listen to the angels. An angel spells it out for us today telling who this baby Jesus is going to be and why He is important. The angels on the first Christmas night will do the same thing, “Unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour who is Christ the Lord…”

This Christmas let’s listen to the angels, they are God’s messengers after all. Let’s listen to their words and simply hear those words and believe them. It is not up to us to decide or figure out who Jesus is, but we hear the voices of angels proclaim His birth to us and we rejoice because He is Immanuel, He is the Saviour who has come to save us. He is God with us and He saves us from our sin. We are called simply to believe in Him and receive the forgiveness He came to give us. In Jesus name, Amen.


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