A sermon on Matthew 1:18-25 by Rev Richard Keith on Christmas Day 2020
Every name has a meaning. My name is Richard and it’s meaning is easy to guess from the two words it is made up of: “rich” and “hard”. Richard means “strong ruler”. It’s a noble name. A name fit for a king. Fit for three kings of England.
Every name has a meaning. My son’s name Benjamin means “Son of my right hand”. My daughter’s name Hannah means “Grace”. Every name has a meaning, even yours.
Sometimes, however, the meaning of the name is just an accident. For example, the truth is that I was named after Richie Benaud, captain of the Australian cricket team in the early 1960s. It’s only a coincidence that my name matches my noble personality so exactly. But sometimes the meaning of a name is no accident. Sometimes, just sometimes, a name reveals something of a person’s true character.
In our message today we are looking at Matthew chapter 1, verses 18 to 25, and we will focus our attention on two names: Jesus and Immanuel. The first name was his real life name, the second, a name from prophecy.
However, that’s not all that this passage is about. I mean, notice, for example, how crucial Joseph is to the story. While Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus emphasises Mary’s role, Matthew’s account features Joseph. Joseph, the carpenter from Nazareth. Joseph, the righteous and kind man. Joseph, the son of David, because it was through Joseph that Mary’s son would become heir to the throne of Israel.
But notice how the passage also stresses that Joseph had no role in Jesus’ conception. Mary’s pregnancy was a complete surprise to Joseph. It was bad new, not good news. It resulted in a problem not a party. And Joseph thought seriously about calling the marriage off completely. But he was stopped from making the biggest mistake of his life by an angel. He appeared to Joseph in a dream and said,
Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to marry Mary for her child is conceived by the Holy Spirit.
Joseph was Jesus’ earthly father, but he was not his biological father. He had no agency in the child’s conception. Instead, the Holy Spirit by which all things were made effected a new creation at the beginning of Jesus’ life. The Holy Spirit who came on Jesus when he was baptized, the Holy Spirit who drove him into the wilderness to be tested, the Holy Spirit by which he brought his works of healing upon the sick, the Holy Spirit, whom the Lord Jesus gives us, first gave us Jesus.
And it was Joseph’s privilege to name Mary’s child, his eldest son. And the name was to be no accident. Neither Tom or Richard or Harry would be good enough. Instead, Joseph was given the name to give to the boy. The angel said,
You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.
Jesus is a Hebrew name which means “He saves.” The name Jesus reminds us that God saves. God saves, because he has kept his promise to save, to rescue his people. Like a child who has fallen into water above his head, like travellers whose car has broken down in the middle of the desert, we have by our own folly fallen into the grip of hostile powers that we cannot escape. Guilt. Fear. Death. Judgment. Even the holy law of God, which so brightly lights the path of godliness to do the will of our creator, is no help to us who have left the path and beaten our own way through the thistles and thorns and cannot now go back. So that the law which should most help us and guide us most loudly condemns us.
The name Jesus reminds us that the first gift of Christmas is salvation, a saviour. He saves, God saves, because Jesus saves. Jesus conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. By right of his human nature, he has the right to face those hostile forces on our behalf. And by right of his divine nature, he has the power to defeat them for us, so that they no longer control us or oppress us. On the cross Jesus embraced our guilt, our fear, our death and our judgment, and took them upon himself and died, taking them to the tomb, but rose to life without them. So that guilt is condemned. Fear is afraid. Judgment is judged. And death is put to death. And we are free. Saved.
Jesus saves us from our past for a new future. From sin for God. From death for life. From hate for love. From ourselves for our true selves. His name is Jesus because he saves.
The second name is Immanuel. A name by which Jesus was probably never called during his earthly life. But it was a name of prophecy from the book of Isaiah applied to Jesus after the first Easter.
The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
A name which means “God is with us.”
And so the presence of God in Jesus becomes part of an important theme in the book of Matthew. In the middle of the book, Jesus said,
Where two or three come together in my name there I am in their midst.
And at the end of the book, Jesus said,
Go into all the world and made disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I will be with you until the end of the age.
“I am with you”, said Jesus. And these promises are all possible because of the name Immanuel. God in Jesus is with us. Not absent, but present. Not against us, but for us. So that our creator understands us not from the outside looking in, but from the inside looking out.
If the first gift of Christmas is salvation, then the second gift is this promise of God’s presence in our troubles, despite our troubles, outlasting all our troubles. In summer or winter, in plague or plenty, in storm or sunny weather, God is with us. In all our troubles and afflictions, it is easy to believe that God is absent, that God does not care, that God does not see us, that God does not hear us. But God has given us his sign. A virgin will conceive and she will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel. God with us.
Every name has a meaning. Mine does and so does yours. Some of them, most of them, and mine among them, come by accident. But some are given on purpose to reveal a person’s true character. Consider the two names before us. Jesus and Immanuel. The name Jesus reminds us that he saves. God saves because Jesus saves. Jesus saves us not just from the consequences of our sin, but from our sin. He saves us for us. He saves us for himself. The name Immanuel reminds us that God is with us. Not absent, but present. God cares. God sees. God hears. He is not against you. He is for you. Pleased as man with man to dwell. Jesus, our Immanuel.