Sermon – Christmas Eve, 12/24/2014

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyThe Name

by Rev. Joseph Connolly

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“For a child is born to us, / an heir given to us; / authority, dominion rests upon the shoulders / of this One, who is named: / Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, / Everlasting Sovereign, Source of Peace.” — Isaiah 9:6

A cold, biting wind chilled her face. But she was determined to climb the hill in front of her. And… she was angry.

She had covered quite a distance out of the town and up the hill. Her legs screamed in pain. But she was not going to stop now. She was angry.

Despite the cold wind, paradoxically, a dense fog also surrounded her. Fog at this time of year— the Spring— in this place— Bethlehem, seemed odd. [1] So despite her strong steady pace, she shivered from the damp, the cold. And… she was angry.

Near the top of the hill she suddenly burst out of the fog. A clear, dark, indigo sky was above. Stars twinkled. A crescent moon offered a limited slice of light.

She turned around and saw the fog bank in the valley below. Knowing she was still angry and knowing she needed to both rest and to let some of that anger flow out of her, she found a good sized stone on which she could sit and did so. (Slight pause.)

Her name was Mary. She had given birth only hours before this angry hike. The pain before the birth had gone on for many hours. It was not an easy birth. It left her weak. So climbing a hill was not the best thing she could have done. But she did.

She was angry and needed to get away, be alone, think. Mary sat on the rock and pondered all the things which had happened. (Slight pause.)

She could see many hills all around her, fires ablaze on most of them, fires meant to warm the boys who herded sheep. Mary presumed the shepherds who came into Bethlehem climbed down from one of these hills. She could not quite comprehend how they found their way into and through the town, then somehow located Mary and her husband and the child. But they did.

At first she thought they were drunk. What they were saying made absolutely no sense— angels and a message from God. On the other hand, she knew something about angels and a message from God, herself. So she listened.

At least an hour, maybe two after the shepherds had left she still could not sort out her reaction to what the boys said. Was that a part of her anger?

Or was it simply that she was afraid? Or did her lack of understanding have to do with hope? After all, hope never seems to make sense. Hope follows no rules. The source of hope is often unseen. Hope is not logical in any way. But this she knew: the child gave her reason to hope.

There were, of course, many reasons for hopelessness. There were many reasons to be angry with the world. And she, like many people, was angry with the world.

She was angry about the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It was forced, brought on because of a census mandated by the Romans.

The Army of Rome occupied the land of her people and ruled with an iron hand. They were not hesitant to collect taxes, to loot, to murder people at will… and at random.

She was puzzled as to why they considered, their Emperor, Augustus, a god. There was only one God. But these Romans had many gods.

And besides calling Augustus a god, the Romans called their Emperor a mighty counselor who brought peace. That puzzled her also. After all, Prophet Isaiah used these words— a counselor who brought peace— to describe the promised Messiah.

But call a Roman Emperor a counselor who brought peace? Never! Mary took a deep breath and sighed— these were titles reserved for the Messiah, the hope of her people. (Slight pause.)

There was, of course, another reason she was angry: the fight with her husband. It seemed so silly now that she was sitting on a rock gazing at the stars. Quietly looking at the sky had given her a sense calm, time she needed to reflect, time to release anger.

The fight, itself, stemmed from what she thought of now as a minor difference. She insisted the child be called Yeshua— Jesus in the Greek. The word means God saves.

Her husband suggested the name Emmanuel. The word means God is with us. And after the shepherds left, from out of nowhere, they started arguing about the name.

Finally Mary said, “Look— I need to be alone. Stay with the child. I’ll be back.” She turned, left and climbed a hill. (Slight pause.)

And now— and now— Mary found herself sitting on a rock, pondering all the things which had happened. (Slight pause.) Suddenly she felt a need to be with the child, with her husband. Which name would that child be given? It did not matter.

After all, Yeshua— God saves— Emmanuel— God is with us— were these not essentially the same? She needed to be with the child, needed to be with her husband.

She had climbed the hill in haste fueled by anger. She went down the hill even faster nourished by a sense of serenity. As Mary wove her way through the streets of the town she noticed the fog was gone and wondered how and when that had happened.

She also noticed a streak of dawn out toward the East lit her path. She turned a last corner and saw her husband standing with his back to her. The child rested on his shoulder. Its eyes were closed.

She approached and whispered, “I’m here. I’m sorry. I just needed a little time to think. You are right. Let’s call the child Emmanuel.”

“Well,” said her husband, “I’ve already been calling the baby Yeshua. In fact, while you were away every time I said Emmanuel the baby cried. Every time I said Yeshua the baby giggled. So it’s settled. Yeshua— God saves— it will be the name forevermore.”

Mary stood at her husband’s side, touched the hand of the infant and said, “Yeshua.” A tiny head turned toward her. A smile broke out.

She looked into the eyes of the child. She was overwhelmed. In those eyes she could see hope, peace, freedom, justice, joy, love. She was sure that was true with every newborn.

But in her heart she also somehow knew that the senselessness of hope was deeply imbedded in this infant. So, yes— Yeshua— God saves would be the name— a message of senseless hope.

Her wish and her dream was that this message of senseless hope was embodied and alive here, now, in her child. And perhaps… it was. Amen.

12/24/2014 ~ Christmas Eve
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York

[1] It needs to be noted at the start of the service the pastor did say many scholars think it’s likely the birth of the Messiah happened in the Spring of the year we would call 4 B.C.E.

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