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What’s In a Name?

December 12, 2016

“‘ . . . you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).” Matthew 1: 21-23

Our kids love to hear the stories about how each of them was named. When I was pregnant with our fourth child, a son, Bob and I discussed what to name him. I was partial to the name Peter, but he liked another name. We still had not reached a decision a few weeks before he was born. During a telephone conversation with my twin brother David (whose middle name is Alan), I started thinking about middle names. It occurred to me that if the new baby’s middle name is Alan, then his initials would be PAR, a golf term. I suggested the name Peter Alan Reagan to Bob, a scratch golfer, and he immediately changed his vote to Peter! After Peter was born, Lawrence Tribe, a constitutional lawyer on the other side of a case with Bob, sent us a telegram congratulating us on the birth of PAR 4.

We all have stories about family names. But the story that Mary told Jesus and his friends years later about how he was named takes the cake. The God of the universe took it upon himself to name her baby, and he sent angels to both her and to Joseph to deliver the message!  Mary must have recounted the amazing story many times. She told the young men that she was just a young teenager when she “was engaged to be married to Joseph. Before they came to the marriage bed, Joseph discovered she was pregnant. (It was by the Holy Spirit, but he didn’t know that.) Joseph, chagrined but noble, determined to take care of things quietly so Mary would not be disgraced. While he was trying to figure a way out, he had a dream. God’s angel spoke in the dream” . . . and told him that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. He also learned in the dream that they were to . . . “name him Jesus—‘God saves’—because he will save his people from their sins.” The purpose was to bring about Isaiah’s prophecy: “Watch for this—a virgin will get pregnant and bear a son; They will name him Immanuel (Hebrew for “God is with us”).” [Quotes from Eugene Peterson, The Message, NavPress (2003); Matthew 1:18-23; Isaiah 7:14].

This week’s Scripture texts[1] explain not only how Jesus was named, but what he would be. Scholars tell us that in Hebrew to be called and to be often mean the same thing. This explains the seeming contradiction in the gospel lesson when Joseph was told to name the baby Jesus, but his name will be called Immanuel.

Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name, Joshua, which means “the Lord saves.” Jesus means savior. When Isaiah wrote “they shall call his name Immanuel” he meant that he will be God with us. In much the same way, two chapters later Isaiah wrote: “His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” (Isaiah 9:6) All of these names describe the nature of Jesus, in much the same way that Immanuel does. Matthew clearly understood this, and referenced the Isaiah verse for that reason.

The long awaited Messiah was sent to be the Savior of all people. He was sent to be God with us. God in us. Before Christ was born, he lived in Mary. Before you were born God lived in you. He had a plan for you. He still lives in you.  And he still has a plan for your life. There are many people around you who are not fortunate enough to have your abilities or strength of spirit to succeed. There are many people around you who take two steps forward and three backward. You many be one of those people, or you may have a friend or relative who is having a very tough time pulling himself or herself out of rut. When you refrain from sharp, unkind retorts and gossip, when you show kindness, compassion, and mercy to others, when you offer a helping hand to lift a person from despair, His light shines through you, and we see Him in you too. We see Immanuel, God with us.  May the Christ light shine through you on those in the greatest need during this season of giving. May the Christ light in you be a guiding light to help a lost person find his or her way back home. You can give no greater gift.

Diane Cieslikowski Reagan



[1] The Scriptures for the Fourth Week in Advent are Psalm 24, Isaiah 7: 10-17; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25.

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