Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus… there’s just something about that name…” That’s what the song says. Of course, that something is quite different depending upon how you say it.
It’s not an uncommon name, even today, though it is likely pronounced as Jesus (hay-SOOS) most of the time when referring to anyone other than the Jesus whose birth we celebrate with the Christmas holiday. It’s actually also the same as Joshua in Hebrew (or Yeshua).
But people don’t use the names of Joshua, Yeshua, or even Jesus (Hay-SOOS) the same ways they use the name of Jesus.
Of course we’d like to think that the name of Jesus is almost always used in telling people of God’s love made known to us in Jesus, born all those years ago in a city so full of people that he was cradled in a feeding trough rather than some kind of basinet. In churches that may be true. In some homes, that may also be true. On the streets, though, maybe not.
I was considering the name of Jesus, and how it is so often misused in the general population of this country. As I considered, of course my brain first went to the tone of voice people will often use when they speak the name of Jesus as an oath rather than in proclamation or prayer. Then I thought about the addition of the middle initial some people will add, and I wanted to know where that came from. There are actually several theories.
The second letter in the Greek spelling of Jesus’ name is an eta, which looks rather like an h.
Some people say the h stands for holy, which would make sense.
Others say it’s for Harold, because that’s almost what it sounds like people are saying in the Lord’s Prayer. (That is, when they don’t know the meaning of “hallowed,” so it kind of sounds like “Harold be thy name”…)
However, that initial is not generally used respectfully. Rather, it’s used as a vulgarity, an offense, a violation of the name of God.
The commandments many of us memorized as children include one about using the name of God. It prohibits the use of God’s name in vain, which means in an empty manner. What I memorized advised us not to curse, swear, practice superstition, lie, or deceive by God’s name, but recommended that we call upon God’s name in prayer, praise, and thanksgiving.
On the street, though, the very place I hear the name of Jesus most often is from the mouths of those who are cursing or swearing.
One of my pastoral colleagues has a practice of dealing with this among the youth in her congregation by reacting immediately every time she hears one of them say something like, “Oh, God.” She immediately stops what the group is doing, announcing that the youth has just invoked the name of God, which must mean that said youth wants to pray. That youth is then invited to pray out loud in the presence of the gathering. The practice has the dual benefit of helping all of the participants to recognize when they are using God’s name in vain, and helping them to learn how to pray publicly in a respectful manner.
Most of the time, I believe, we don’t even recognize our misuse of God’s name. “Jesus!” pops out of a person’s mouth without thought, because it’s such a common thing for people to say when something surprises them… usually in a negative manner.
We’re probably not going to be able to eradicate that practice… but I’m wondering if we can’t redirect the results, like my colleague does.
I wonder if we can respond in a more positive manner, rather than either snorting in disgust or merely turning away. I’m not suggesting we invite strangers who use Jesus’ name to curse to alter their curse into an audible prayer, but maybe we can acknowledge the presence of God in the situation, maybe by saying something like, “It could be Jesus is just as upset about what just happened as you are… maybe more so!” Or maybe something as simple as, “Yes, I, too, pray every day.”
I can imagine the response if I said something like that in response to an expletive using Jesus’ name: “Lady, I wasn’t praying!”
“No? Why not?”
The name of Jesus literally means, “The one who saves.” When Joseph and Mary gave that name to the baby Jesus at the age of eight days, I’m wondering what they were thinking. Were they picturing a commander of an army that would bring Israel back into supremacy, as the country had been at the time of David? Were they picturing a sweeping supernatural wind blowing all the enemies far from the land without any bloodshed so that Jesus could rule the land with justice and grace? Were they picturing Jesus in the temple or in the palace—or both?
We can read about some of Mary’s expectations in her words to Elizabeth, words in which Mary pictures the upending of inequities. We don’t get much from Joseph.
When Joseph and Mary get Jesus to the Temple for the first time as a baby (probably before they had to flee to Egypt), they get some unusual responses. The story follows directly what we read in Luke’s Gospel today. One reaction is by an old man, who’d received a vision that he would see the person of salvation with his own eyes before he died. When he, Simeon, saw Jesus, he knew Jesus would be the one who would save the people of the world. He also knew something more, and gave Mary a warning. “A sword will pierce your soul,” he said.
Anna, a prophetess also in the temple that day, praised God, and spoke of Jesus to all who were seeking the salvation of Israel.
But it was not just Israel who would obtain salvation in Jesus. It is not just Israel who has hope in this child born of Mary. Israel did not see a return to military supremacy in Jesus. Mary did feel a piercing of her soul. Expectations needed alteration when Jesus was executed by the Roman government at the demand of his own people in leadership.
Still, though, the name of Jesus has power—maybe not so much in the way people expect as they use it in vain, in an empty manner to curse or superstitiously try to ward off the negative—but in love.
Isaiah tells us a child has been born for us, and that this child is named “Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” But the angel told Mary to give the child the name of Jesus, the one who saves. And it is in the resurrection of that same Jesus that we do know salvation, though we may not always understand the promises or the expectations.
Today, we praise Jesus, the Christ, because in his name, all can receive salvation. Amen