Numbers 6.22-end, Luke 2.15-21
The feast of the circumcision and naming of Christ
‘it had been just as the angel had told them.’
These words are the focus of what I want to say this morning as we celebrate that day in the church year when we remember Mary and Joseph officially naming Jesus.
It’s the time of year when we play party games and have quizzes. So this morning I have some statements about names to give you. I want you to say whether they are true or false.
Sampans is the name given to the houseboats popular for holidays in Kerala, south India
Abuja is the capital of Nigeria. True
Adele is the British female singer whose recent album ‘25’ sold most copies in 2016. True
A vomitorium is the name given in ancient Rome to a room where people could go and be sick during a banquet. False. It was the exit to a stadium, enabling crowds to leave quickly.
If we want to verify the truth of any of these statements we can go to Uncle Google. The ‘truth’ here is about factual accuracy. But that’s not the only kind of truth. If we want to know the truth about a person we would certainly need accurate facts about their age, occupation, address etc, but that wouldn’t tell us all we need to know. How would we know what kind of person they were; whether they were kind or honest, or good with children, or knew how to fix things? That’s a different sort of truth. We might talk to their friends or go to their Facebook page, but we know that even those might not be entirely truthful about them. If we talk to them ourselves, how can we know if what they say is reliable?
In the past year we have become increasingly suspicious about the reliability of what other people, especially our leaders tell us. The words ‘post truth’ are now being used to describe a way of speaking that tells us what politicians and others think we want to hear. Someone was telling me last week how when their company is negotiating a deal their MD will exaggerate its benefits to their competitor, even though he knows that their claims are unlikely to be realised. This approach is seen as commendable; he is aiming high, talking big, being ambitious. We view advertising with scepticism. I regularly pass a place where you can take out a ‘same day loan.’ Above the shop is a large poster of a happy looking chap cheerily saying ‘and you still get to keep your car.’ Someone has scribbled underneath this, ‘Yes, you’ll be living in it.’
How often can we say about something or someone, like the shepherds, ‘It’s just as we have been told’?
The truth we seek is usually about consistency, reliability and honesty. We want what’s written on the outside of the packet to be an accurate description of its contents. This has always been the case, although each era might voice the concern differently.
Listen to this; ‘Justice is driven away and right cannot come near. Truth stumbles in the public square and honesty finds no place there. Truth is lacking; anyone who stops doing evil finds himself the victim of crime’. Isaiah (59.14-15) speaking to the people of Israel in the 6th century BC.
This brings us to this special day when we remember Jesus being officially named. His name means God Saves. How many of you wrote Saviour as one of Jesus’ names? There are many other names too, of course. In the first 2 chapters of his gospel Luke is underlining in every way possible the truth of this name. He wants us to know that the events being described are clear signs of God’s activity; everything happens exactly as God’s messengers, the angels, have said; Zechariah loses his voice, Elizabeth has a son in her old age, they give him the name John even though no one in the family is called that. Mary has a baby by divine intervention, the shepherds see him in a manger just as the angels had instructed, and now the baby today is given the name Jesus. It’s all exactly as written on the packet as it were. Reliable. Consistent. Trustworthy.So, this name must be true, Luke is saying, and the rest of his gospel is a demonstration of that truth.
What do we mean when we say that Jesus is our Saviour, or Jesus saves? My brother in law inherited a dishwasher in his new kitchen. However, he frequently washes up himself, saying ‘you know where you are with washing up’. This has become something a catch phrase in his family and his son gave him an apron for Xmas with the words ‘you know where you are….’ on it! We can say this about Jesus – we know where we are with him. He is trustworthy, consistent, reliable – there is a perfect congruence between what he says, what he does and who he is. He saves us because he invites us to enter this truth about him and to allow it to sink into us so that the same becomes true of us. What we are on the outside becomes the same as what we are on the inside. People can know where they are with us, if you like.
This kind of truth is what prophets like Isaiah, Amos, Hosea etc longed to see in their people. The psalmists asked how we might find this truth and live by it. The ‘how’ was the big question. Ps 86 11 ‘Teach me your way, O Lord, that I may walk in your truth. Knit my heart to yours that I may honour your name’, is a characteristic cry of the psalmist.
I wonder if any of you had the Way or the Truth or the Life as one of Jesus’ names? We can call Jesus Saviour because of these three names – Way, Truth, Life. He is our ‘how’ so to speak. He is God’s answer to the question how?
If you really want to know the truth about someone you have to spend time with them, to watch what they do and say. If you want to become like them that is even more the case. If we call ourselves Christians we are Christ’s apprentices. We have signed up for a lifetime’s apprenticeship where we allow him to teach us, share his life with us, discipline us so that we can become what he is. We’ll be walking the same paths as him, listening for his instructions, eating with him.
That is exactly what Luke is wanting to enable us to do through reading his gospel. In his introduction he dedicates his book to a follower of Christ called Theophilus so that he has an ‘orderly account’ and can know, I quote, ‘the full truth about what you have been taught’. By putting together an orderly narrative Luke enables Theophilus and us to accompany Jesus through his birth, teaching, healing, death and resurrection. Through this journey we are ‘saved’ ie we are changed from the inside out so that we become more Christ like. People look at us and see something of Jesus there.
I’d like you to look at the name you’ve written on your piece of paper. Stick with that name rather than adding any more – your first thought is often the most telling. How far does that name connect with your own experience of Christ? Might there be ways in which you’d like it to be more true of your relationship with him? Perhaps you are still seeking Christ. If so just try sitting with the name, repeating it to yourself, and see what that’s like. If you know you are an apprentice of Christ I invite you during some silence to address Jesus in a prayer using the name you’ve written down.
During the offertory hymn the children will gather up your slips of paper and put them in front of the crib as a reminder of the many names by which the Christ child is known.
During communion I invite you to receive anointing and prayer for healing and wholeness. This is something the church has offered from the very beginning. At its best the church is a channel for Christ’s transforming love. The people doing the prayer and anointing this morning are representing all of us as those channels. At the start of this new year let’s make the most of the resources offered to us for living as Christ’s apprentices wherever we are.