Last night some of us celebrated…while many of us slept! But whether or not we were awake, at the stroke of midnight we entered a new year. Today is the first day of the first week in the first month of a new year. And, although last Sunday was Christmas day the church calendar tells us that today is the first Sunday in the Christmas season. And, of course, this is the first Sunday of the New Year. It’s a good day to speak of first things!
This day on the church calendar is called the Name of Jesus, which also seems right, since Jesus—or “Yeshua,” as he was called in his native language—and a given name, of course, we call a first name. We’re in the middle of the Christmas season, so today we honor the name of the one whose birth we remember at Christmas.
This is not just any child; this is one in whom God is most fully revealed. This is not just any name; this is a name that means, “God Saves.” It’s a name that points to first things, as we heard in last Sunday’s reading from John: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. First things first.
At the beginning of my own life my parents gave me a name. It was a name intended to avoid confusion with all the other Kramers in my family. If someone wanted my attention, they didn’t have to say, “Hey, firstborn- son-of-Lyle-and-Eloise-Kramer!” Instead, they could simply say, “Hey, Scott!” Easy! That’s what first names do. They identify us; they help avoid confusion; they keep it simple.
I was back in Iowa this past week visiting my dad. Next Tuesday Iowa hosts the nation’s first political caucuses of this election year. I got to see first-hand how all the candidates are bombarding the Iowa airwaves with political ads. The names of the candidates are everywhere—radio, TV, billboards, yard signs. Each of these is calling attention to something bigger than themselves—such as…ideas…a political party. The bottom line is, they’re using something bigger than themselves to call attention to themselves.
But what politicians do is not very different from what the rest of us do. All of us call attention to ourselves through the pride we have in our particular group: my team…my family…my race…my country…my religion…my language…my culture—which inevitably sets us against others by putting ourselves first. That’s what pride does, and pride, the Bible tells us, was the very first sin.
In his letter to the Philippians, Paul describes a different way. This Jesus, Paul writes, emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death. The name of Jesus, Paul writes, is exalted not because Jesus sought personal advantage but because God gave him the highest honor and glory.
We have in Jesus Christ an example of what it means to pay attention to first things. Jesus put God not merely first but only. In doing so, everything else in his life took its proper place. Here is one who understood and practiced the very first commandment: You shall have no other gods: No nation, no political party, no race, no religion—nothing that draws attention to ourselves and our own personal advantage.
One day someone asked Jesus, “Which commandment is the first of all?” 29Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one; 30you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ And then he said: The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor…as yourself.’
On this day that is all about first things, we have the example of one who calls us away from self-interest and personal advantage and pride and competition. We have the example of one who refused to call attention to himself, even though he would have been fully justified in doing so. We have the example of one whose obedience to God was so complete that he was willing to set aside even his own life.
His name is Jesus. He bids us in this New Year…to follow. AMEN