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Give Him the Name Jesus
Matthew 1:18-25
Randy L. Quinn

Last week I talked about how little attention Mary gets in the Gospels and subsequently in the church. Well, Joseph gets even less attention. He acts, and we know some of his thoughts, but he has no speaking parts. And after the birth stories in Luke and Matthew, we never see him again in any of the Gospels. In fact, he is only mentioned four other times, and always in relation to Jesus who was known as the “son of Joseph” (Lk 3:24, 30; Jn 1:45, 6:42).

Ronda and I accidentally started a collection of Nativity sets. I say accidental because we let our parents know we wanted one while we went looking. Unbeknownst to us, they made one for us, and we’ve been collecting them ever since.

What has struck me about the various sets is the background role that Joseph seems to have. He stands in the background, isolated and alone while Mary and the baby take center stage receiving the adoration of shepherds and magi.

In most Christmas presentations, Joseph is given back seat, too. In all of the Sunday School Christmas programs I've come across -- whether I saw them, wrote them, or read about them -- only one had a speaking part for Joseph. Only one.

And, I don’t know if you’ve ever tried, but when you look for a Christmas Carol or some special music that speaks about Joseph, the same thing holds true. It's a rare song that celebrates the story of Joseph.

That's why our story today is so important to me, I suppose. It's about a Dad. It's about Joseph. But as we look more closely, it becomes clear that Joseph isn’t just a foster parent to Jesus. Matthew presents him as an important role model for Christians.

I saw a short clip on television the other day that reminded me of a trip I made several years ago. We were still using a stroller to get Melissa around, so it must have been five or six years ago.

Ronda had gone to Kansas. I took Melissa with me on the plane when I left a week or so later.

It wasn't the only time we've taken a different route on our vacations. One year Ronda flew with Melissa to Kansas and then to Chicago. I drove to Chicago and met them there. Last year, Ronda drove to Kansas with Melissa and I flew out later.

On this particular trip, I think everyone I met made a comment about how hard it must be to travel alone with Melissa. (It really wasn’t then, Melissa was small enough to carry in one arm while I put the diaper bag in the stroller and walked anywhere I wanted to go.) I really didn't think much about their comments until later when I realized what was really happening.

It was because I was a Dad travelling alone. Ronda didn't get comments when she traveled alone with Melissa. But I did. People made particular notice of me with Melissa because in our culture it's rare for Dads to spend time with their children.

In fact, some researchers say most children have seen more Television before their sixth birthday than they will see of their Dad in their ENTIRE LIFETIME!

Joseph is portrayed here as a Dad. And I have a kindred spirit with him because of that fact.

When Ronda and I were married, her children were twelve and thirteen. They never called me Dad. They still don’t. And while at least one of them has told me I’ve been more like a Dad than their own father has, I’m still called “Randy.”

But I have been called Dad. We always explain to our foster children that they can call us Randy and Ronda or Mom and Dad, whichever is easier to remember. We knew we’re not their real parents, but if they want to call us Mom and Dad, it’s OK.

But I remember the first time one of them called me Daddy. I knew I had a different role in their lives when that happened. And I knew there was a bond of love between us – a bond that only made their departure more painful. But I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything.

But as we look at our text, it becomes clear that Joseph isn’t just called Dad by Jesus. He is another important role model for Christians. He hears the word of God and responds in faith.

Sometimes God speaks to us in dreams, sometimes God speaks to us by angel visitants, and sometimes God speaks through the voices of other people – including children. But God does still speak to us.

Joseph’s story seems to ask the question of what we do after God speaks.

His task, on the one hand, seems rather simple: name the child. And so he does (v 25). But there is more to naming the child than might first occur to us. In naming him Jesus, Joseph makes Jesus a “son of David”.

You see, until the advent of DNA testing, you always knew who the mother of a child was, but you could never be certain about the father. In Jewish culture, paternity was claimed when a child was named.

Joseph heard the Angel speak. He may not fully understand the implications of a child whose role will be "God with us", yet he names the baby “Jesus” just as the angel had told him to do. He isn't adopting Jesus. He isn't trying to be a Foster Parent. He is claiming paternity. He is saying he will bring the child into his home and make room in his life for this child; Joseph assumes the role of Dad to Jesus.

He doesn’t necessarily know what that will mean, he doesn’t know where God will be leading him as a result of his response, but he claims the child as his own. He does that by simply naming the child.

In a California preschool, in one of those counter-cultural communities, a boy came a few days late for the beginning of school.

His teacher was pleased that his parents had filled out all the appropriate forms, including putting his name on a nametag around his neck. The teacher was used to unusual names like "Sea Foam," "Precious Promise," and "Peek-a-Boo," but she was startled by the name on this small boy's tag: "Fruitstand." She went with the flow, though, and throughout the day it was, "Fruitstand, would you like to color a picture?" "Fruitstand, it's time for recess."

When it was time to put the children on the buses that afternoon, she said, "Now don't you worry, Fruitstand, the bus driver will know where to drop you off because all of the parents write where their child should get off on the back of the name tags." Turning over Fruitstand's nametag, she found the word, "Anthony."1

Our text today is about names and naming as it is about Joseph. Matthew may SAY it's about the birth of Jesus (v 18), but the birth is only alluded to in the middle of the last sentence, in the last verse of our reading today.

The focus of the text seems to be when Joseph names the child.

Our text is much more about names and being named. And we shouldn’t be too surprised, given what precedes this passage.

In the first 17 verses of his Gospel, Matthew lists over forty names! (I have preached sermons based on that particular list of names, and I am convinced that Matthew has good – and important – reasons for the genealogy, but that is not the focus of this sermon.) Our text today names only Mary, Joseph – the son of David (v 20), and Jesus Christ2 (v 18) – who is also named Emmanuel (v 23).

When they hear “Jesus Christ,” people sometimes think that “Jesus” is his first name and “Christ” is his last name. But they are confused when Paul refers to "Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom 6:23, 8:39; 1 Cor 15:31; Eph 3:11; 1 Tim 1:2, 1:12; 2 Tim 1:2).

At the same time, the people who think in terms of a first name and a last name tend to read this passage and immediately assume that "Emmanuel" is his middle name.

But "Christ" is not really a name. It's a title. It's akin to the political titles we use: "Mr. Mayor." "Mr. President." "Senator Murray." Christ is a Greek word. The same word in Hebrew is Messiah. In English, the word is Anointed.

Jesus, the Anointed. Or as it's said in some translations, "Jesus, the Messiah." But even after we clarify the title "Christ", there is the question about him being called "Emmanuel".

In the entire New Testament, the name Emmanuel is never used outside of this verse. In fact, the name only appears three times in the entire Bible!3 If his name was Emmanuel, not many people seemed to know it.

Which makes me wonder if we're looking at the wrong side of his nametag. Maybe one is his name and the other is directions for the bus – or maybe directions for his life.

Jesus is his name.

Anointed One is his title.

"God with us" is his role.

Jesus Christ, Emmanuel.

“Jesus” is a name that in Aramaic sounds so much like Joshua that you cannot distinguish the names. Jesus comes like Joshua to bring fulfillment of the promises. Jesus, whose name means "the one who saves," has come to save his people. Jesus, the name above all names.

But he doesn’t choose to bring salvation, he is called to save. He is chosen by God to save. He is Anointed by God and given a title of royalty.

The salvation he brings comes by way of the role he is filling: God with us. Emmanuel. Not the God "out there," the God with us. Not the God who doesn't care, the God who is with us in all of life's circumstances.

And in coming to us, in the midst of our lives, God expresses the message of grace and love. It is referred to as "the Gospel," which means good news. The good news is that Jesus, as Emmanuel, brings salvation.

As I said, this text is about names and naming. Jesus is given a name.

But in his culture, a name is more than just a way to call someone. It's also about a person's calling. Jesus is seen by his parents as a promised Savior.

Like Joseph, we know the baby's name. Like Joseph, we know his role. Unlike Joseph, we also know the rest of the story.

We cannot claim the role Joseph claims, but we can find ways to name Jesus in our homes and in our lives. We can look for signs that God is with us. We can also respond in faith when God speaks to us, when God calls us to do things that we don’t fully understand.

God comes to us at Christmas, it's up to us to recognize, accept, and celebrate the life of Jesus, the Christ, Emmanuel.