What's in a Name?
Scriptures: Isaiah 7:3-4, 10-17; Matthew 1:18-25
Today’s scripture from Isaiah needs a little background. In Isaiah’s time the kingdom of Israel had been split by a civil war. The southern half, where Isaiah lived, was called the kingdom of Judah, from which the Jews get their name. Its capital was the city of Jerusalem, and it was ruled by a king named King Ahaz. The northern part was called the kingdom of Israel. Don’t be confused. At this time the word Israel did not refer to the whole territory as it did in the time of King David. It referred only to the northern part that had split away the kingdom of Judah. The northern kingdom was called Israel, or sometimes Ephraim, and its king was named King Pekah. As you might expect, there was ongoing conflict between these two kingdoms. But in Isaiah’s time, the northern kingdom under King Pekah formed an alliance with the king of Aram (modern day Syria) to attack Judah and take over its territory. King Ahaz was terrified by this development, as were the people of Jerusalem. So Ahaz decided to make an alliance of his own with Assyria, an even bigger and more powerful nation to the east. The problem is that Assyria had its own ambitions for taking over the Middle East. Today it would be like America coming under attack from Canada and Mexico and appealing for help from China. Ahaz was reaching for a sword that was likely to cut off his own hand. And that is where Isaiah comes in.
[Read Isaiah7:3-4, 10-17]
I once heard a father tell about trying to pick a name for his daughter, a name that other children would not ridicule. I worried about that in the case of my own children. I knew they would have enough trouble with their last name. Over the years I have been called Onspot, Onstart, and Nonstop, so I wanted my children to have a first name that would not be easily ridiculed. So this father and his wife decided to name their daughter Danae. How do you make fun of a name like Danae? Well, in middle school the other kids starting calling her “Decay.” So there you are.
Isaiah, however, did not seem to worry about the names he gave his children. From chapters 7 and 8 we learn that Isaiah had two children. One was named Maher-shalal-hashbaz. Imagine having to write that in first grade. In Hebrew it translates roughly as “Run for your life.” His other child was named Shear-jashub, which means “Only a few will come back.”
Not happy names to give your children when you are under attack from powerful enemies. But then God sent Isaiah to King Ahaz with a message, telling him not to fear these two kings who were attacking him. And as proof that God would deliver the people of Judah and Jerusalem, God invited Ahaz to choose a sign. Verse 11: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God: let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven,” in other words as deep as the grave or as high as the sky. In essence Isaiah invites Ahaz to rely on God instead of his ill-conceived alliance with Assyria. But Ahaz refuses. Verse 12: “But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.’” At first this sounds rather pious, like when Jesus says to Satan, “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.” Ahaz is quoting from the same Bible verse as Jesus, but not with the same intent. Ahaz does not want a sign from God, because he wants to go ahead with his own plans for an alliance with Assyria. He does not want a sign from God; he wants to rely on his own power and cunning.
But God gives him a sign anyway. Verse 14: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” There has been some confusion about what exactly verse 14 means. The New Revised Standard Version says, “Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel,” but the old King James Version translates verse 14 this way: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” That translation is based not on the Hebrew Bible but on a Greek version of the Old Testament, which Matthew quotes in the New Testament. But the ancient Hebrew text does not call the woman a virgin; it calls her a young woman, and it says she is already pregnant. Did you notice that? The child Isaiah talks about has already been conceived, presumably by natural means, and will be born shortly. But before that child reaches the age of accountability, about 12 years old, the two kings that Ahaz fears will be defeated.
Please understand, I am not suggesting that Jesus was not born of a virgin. I have no problem with believing in the virgin birth. If God can create the world and raise people from the dead, God can produce a baby anyway God wants. In an age of test tube babies, we shouldn’t be fussing over a virgin birth.
But for Isaiah the issue is not how the child will be conceived. The issue is the name given to the child. King Ahaz is obsessed with threats to his security. He is shoring up his defenses around Jerusalem. He is arranging alliances, building coalitions to help fight off his enemies. Ahaz is doing everything he can to make himself secure, but he is still afraid. Meanwhile there is a woman in his country who is not afraid. We are not told who she is, but we know she is not afraid, because of the name she gives to her child. She does not call him Maher-shalal-hasbaz—“run for your life.” She does not call him Shear-Jashub—“only a few will return.” She names him Immanuel, which means “God is with us.”
Which brings me to the central point of this scripture passage. The issue is not whether you believe in the virgin birth; the issue is whether you believe in God. In what do you put your trust? On what do you rely to keep you safe? The police? A home security system? A pistol by your bed? What are you counting on to keep you healthy? Exercise? A low cholesterol diet? Large doses of anti-oxidants? What are you counting on to take care of you in your old age: Social security? A pension fund? Your children?
Please understand. I’m not saying that home security systems or pension funds or healthy eating is a bad thing. But let’s be honest. If we are counting on any of these things are for our ultimate security, if we are counting on our own resources, our own power, or own cleverness, our own program of exercise and healthy eating—if we are counting on those things to give us a long, happy, successful life, not to mention eternal life—then we are fooling ourselves, just like King Ahaz.
But there was a woman in Isaiah’s time who was not fooled. She knew her country faced many dangers. She knew that her own life was at best fragile. But she was not afraid, because she knew God is with us.
I have shared before the story of Kate Bowler. Kate is a professor of religion at Duke University, who at the age of 35 was diagnosed with incurable stage 4 cancer. She went through surgery and then a last ditch experimental treatment that so far has held the cancer at bay, but there is no guarantee that will last. She wrote about this experience in a book called Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I’ve Loved. In the book she talks about the many letters she received from people all over the world, some of whom felt the need to explain her suffering in terms of some larger divine purpose. Generally, those letters did not help. Here is what helped. Kate writes,
The letters that really spoke to me don’t talk about why we die, they talk about who was there.
She goes on,
[Something] happened to me, something that I felt uncomfortable telling anyone. It seemed too odd and simplistic to say what I knew to be true—that when I was sure I was going to die, I didn’t feel angry. I felt loved. … At a time when I should have felt abandoned by God, I was not reduced to ashes. I felt like I was floating, floating on the love and prayers of all those who hummed around me like worker bees, bringing notes and flowers and warm socks and quilts embroidered with words of encouragement. They came in like priests and mirrored back to me the face of Jesus (119-121).
Sometimes what matters is not why something happens but who is there with you when it does. Mary and Joseph realized that when they named their own child Jesus. They, too, lived in perilous times, wondering how they would survive. But they proclaimed their faith in the name they gave their child: Jesus, which means “the Lord saves.” They did not name him Immanuel, but he was Immanuel. Combine the hope of Immanuel in Isaiah 7 with the virgin birth in Matthew 1, and you get Jesus. Jesus is God with us, God made flesh. And when we accept that, the things that threaten us and make us afraid don’t seem so powerful or important.