What’s in a Name?

Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church
December 24, 2018
Christmas Eve

Isaiah 9: 2-7 (CEB)
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned. 3You have made the nation great; you have increased its joy. They rejoiced before you as with joy at the harvest, as those who divide plunder rejoice. 4As on the day of Midian, you’ve shattered the yoke that burdened them, the staff on their shoulders, and the rod of their oppressor. 5Because every boot of the thundering warriors, and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned, fuel for the fire. 6A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and authority will be on his shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. 7There will be vast authority and endless peace for David’s throne and for his kingdom,
establishing and sustaining it with justice and righteousness now and forever.

The zeal of the Lord of heavenly forces will do this.

Names are an interesting phenomenon. We have last names, and first names, and many of us even have middle names. Often our last names are somehow tied to and reveal something about our heritage. We know that an O’Sullivan 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 would point to an ancestry of, well…shoemaking. 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 and fitting name it is. Our names really do 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 the story of speaking with a Nigerian woman after one of his lectures. The woman was a physician at a teaching hospital here in the U.S., and when she introduced herself, she gave an American name. Curious, MacDonald asked what her African name was. The woman said her name; MacDonald reflected that it was several syllables long with a beautiful musical sound to it. When Pastor MacDonald asked what it meant, she answered, “It means ‘Child who takes the anger away.’” She went on, “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.”

During the season of Advent, we have spent time digging into the Old Testament to look at the prophecies that foretold the Messiah’s coming. Now, on Christmas Eve, we come to perhaps the most complete and detailed prophecy of the promised Messiah. After telling us that a child will be born to us, Isaiah goes on to give all these names by which the Christ will be called. 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 born to the people, who will be to them: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal 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.

When Isaiah delivered this prophecy to the Israelite people, they were under attack by the Assyrians. By the time Jesus was born, that attack was long 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 oppressive Assyrian rule, into the darkness of Roman occupation, into whatever darkness we may face. 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, color by color: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal 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 through the Messiah!

So Jesus Christ comes. And he is Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. But why did Isaiah choose these particular descriptors? 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 way, 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 own wisdom. And it’s not just that his is a ruling counsel. He is our counselor as well. The world is often an overwhelming place, and Jesus the Counselor directs us through the fog; 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! He is Lord of creation, and Lord of the earth, and Lord even of you and me. 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; to draw our strength from his might.

Will we listen to the voice of guidance from the Eternal Father? Certainly, it is true that Jesus is the Son of God, but it is no less true that he is our Eternal 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. Our Lord does this because he cares for us. God in Christ Jesus cares enough about us to get involved in leading our lives. And these things will be true forever, unconditionally, because his love will never end. He will be called Eternal 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 Yemen. There is war in Syria. There is war in Israel and Palestine. 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. 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. Light has dawned. And as we recall on this Christmas Eve, that light came with the birth of a baby named Jesus. A Messiah whose name means so much: wonder, comfort, greatness, guidance, wholeness, Lord, Savior. And all of that in a man whose birth we celebrate this night. So come out of the darkness. Come to the light of God this Christmas, believe more than ever. And as we celebrate Christ today, let us go out into the world this Christmas and everyday declaring his great names: Jesus Christ, Son of God, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace, Emmanuel, God with us!

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