What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

Grace United Methodist Church

Christmas Eve 2009

Isaiah 9: 2-7

2The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. 3You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. 4For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. 5For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. 6For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Names are an interesting phenomenon. We have last names, and first names, and many of us even have middle names. In some places in the world, people are properly addressed by their first names and then their last names, while in other parts of the world you begin an address with a person’s last name and then their first name. Often our last names are somehow tied to and reveal something about our heritage. We know that a McConnell probably has some Irish in his background, while an Inouye is Japanese. Smith reveals to us that somewhere in that individual’s genealogy was a person who worked with leather or silver or some other ware; while Shoemaker (obviously) would point to someone who makes shoes. And then we have our first names. Some of us, like myself, carry family names; others the name of a friend, or perhaps a hero, or even a Biblical figure. And still others bear a name that was simply liked and agreed upon by the parents. People will hold newborn babies, inquire about the name, and remark about what a good name it is, or how fitting it is. Indeed, our names say a lot about us, and as we grow our names in a great way become a part of our identity.

Gordon MacDonald, a pastor and author, tells this story: “After giving a lecture one day, a Nigerian woman who is a physician at a great teaching hospital in the United States came out of the crowd to say something kind about the lecture I had just given. She introduced herself using an American name.

‘What’s your African name?’ I asked.

She immediately gave it to me, several syllables long with a musical sound to it.

‘What does the name mean?’ I wondered.

She answered, ‘It means “Child who takes the anger away.”’ When I inquired as to why she would have been given this name, she said, ‘My parents had been forbidden by their parents to marry. But they loved each other so much that they defied the family opinions and married anyway. For several years they were ostracized from both their families. Then my mother became pregnant with me. And when the grandparents held me in their arms for the first time, the walls of hostility came down. I became the one who swept the anger away. And that’s the name my mother and father gave me.’”

So very often, when we call out names, we are saying something about the person being identified. This is precisely what Isaiah is doing in the Scripture reading we heard moments ago. He is identifying a great King who is to come, but he doesn’t stop at King or Lord, he lists many names: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. But for the meaning and importance of these names to be truly understood, Isaiah has to give us a little background; he has to remind his readers of the situation in which they find themselves.

Life is not easy; it often seems that we face difficulties at every turn. We do now, and the Israelites did many generations ago. When Isaiah delivered this prophecy to the Israelite people, they were exiled in Babylon. And even in those days years later, just before Jesus came, the exile was over, but the Jewish people found themselves under an oppressive Roman rule. As Isaiah says in the opening passage, it was a time of darkness. But in the best of ways, Israel held onto hope; a hope that their God would act on their behalf, that a Savior from the line of David would come and free them and rule over them in peace and justice. And this is exactly the prophecy that Isaiah is making; a light will come into darkness, a new King will take the throne.

So into that darkness, Isaiah speaks; into the darkness of exile in Babylon, into the darkness of Roman occupation, into the darkness of our modern turmoil. Isaiah points to a shining ray of light. But it’s not just that Isaiah speaks of the light to come, it’s almost as if he holds a prism in the path of that light and tells us exactly what that light is: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. These names mean everything, they are carefully chosen to tell us exactly how the darkness will be dispersed, to show us the shape of God’s new future, to reveal to us that the best of times are on their way, and to impress upon us the wonderful things that God is doing and will continue to do among God’s people! You see, God’s good news is always greater than the world’s bad news.

So Jesus Christ comes. And he is Wonderful Counselor, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. But why did Isaiah use these names to describe the coming Messiah? What do these names mean? There is wonder in his name, our Lord is wonderful. His birth was wonderful. It began with a young and humble servant named Mary who willingly submitted herself to God’s will, and though she was a virgin, she conceived and gave birth. Then at his birth, a multitude of heavenly hosts sang songs of praise and directed the shepherds to the manger where they would find the baby; a baby whose birthplace was marked by a star seen in distant lands and followed by the Magi. And as this baby became a man, his life was wonderful; his teaching, his healing, his miracles, were all wonderful. Wonderful because he made the blind to see, the lame to walk. Wonderful because he ate with the outcasts. Wonderful because he forgave the sins of the broken. And then when he was crucified, his sacrifice was wonderful, and his resurrection even moreso; because in that death and resurrection a path was made for us, our sins were forgiven and we were offered a life eternal with God. His name is Wonderful.

His name is Counselor. There is wisdom in his name. He shares in God’s wisdom, and thus needs no counsel from others. Like God himself, this Lord can make great decisions and then carry them out. And it’s not just that his is a ruling counselor. He is our counselor as well. The world is often an overwhelming place, and Jesus the Counselor directs us through the fog. And as we search for meaning and purpose in our lives, the great guiding Counselor points the way to the Almighty. He is always available to us, he always gives us his undivided attention; he comforts us, and guides us in the right way. And into our darkness and the darkness of the world, a light shines. His name is Wonderful Counselor.

In his name there is greatness. He is Mighty God. Jesus Christ is God himself. This King has been given all power on heaven and on earth; and no force, however great, can conquer his kingdom, the kingdom that he created! Did you know that the molecules in one drop of water, if they became grains of sand, could build a highway a half mile wide and one foot thick from New York to San Francisco?[1] From the smallest atoms to the highest mountains, great is the work of our Lord. Nothing is too hard for him. And through these works, through this might, Jesus calls us all to our God. Will we listen to the voice of the Mighty God?

Will we listen to the voice of guidance from the Everlasting Father? Certainly, it is true that Jesus is the Son of God, but it is no less true that he is our Everlasting Father, as Isaiah says. Like our earthly fathers, Jesus is the life-giver. Not only is he present with God in our creation, he is also the one who has made a way for us and who brings us into eternal life with God. As a good Father, Jesus our Savior also provides for us. Christ is not only able to meet the needs of this world; he is willing to meet them. He provides wisdom, guidance, comfort, and strength; he provides forgiveness, grace, and love. He provides what we need for eternal life. And our Lord does this because he cares for us. God in Christ Jesus cares enough about us to get involved in leading and directing our lives. And these things will be true forever, unconditionally, because his love will never end. He will be called Everlasting Father.

He will be called Prince of Peace. The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, means wholeness. In a world of brokenness, this name has great significance. The coming Messiah will restore wholeness. He will restore peace among the nations. Indeed, this is the “peace that transcends all understanding,” because the significance of this claim in and of itself is staggering. There is war in Iraq. There is war in Afghanistan. There is war in Israel and Palestine. There is war in Northern Uganda, and Darfur, Sudan. But Jesus shows us how to love our enemies, and on that day when Jesus rules this earth, peace will reign supreme. The Messiah is the one who will restore wholeness among the races and society; discrimination will be abolished. Jesus cares about justice and righteousness throughout his Kingdom and for all people. And Jesus cares about peace for us. He came that we might have rest from the burdens of our lives. He came that we, though broken vessels, might be made whole. He is the Prince of Peace.

These names say everything about who Jesus is and all that Jesus does. And so Isaiah ends this prophecy of the coming King by summing up what the names have promised; with the wisdom and power of the expected King, the new kingdom will remain unshaken, there will be no resistance which will disrupt its peace; and justice and righteousness will rule forever. The darkness will be no more. The worst of times are over, the best is coming. Light has dawned. And as we recall on this Christmas Eve, that light came with the birth of a baby named Jesus. So what’s in a name? Wonder, comfort, greatness, guidance, wholeness, Lord, Savior. And all of that in a man whose birth we celebrate tonight. So come out of the darkness. Come to the light of the manger this Christmas. Believe him more than ever, cast your troubles to him and let him take away our grief. Go to him in all your dilemmas, let him deliver us from our enemies. And when we rise from that manger let us go out into the world this Christmas and everyday declaring his great names: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace, Emmanuel, God with us! Yesterday, today, and forevermore!

[1] John Phillips, Jesus Our Lord: 24 Portraits of Christ Throughout Scripture (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2007), 38.

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