Have you ever been in some much trouble with your parents that they called you by your full name? How many of you have been in so much trouble you were accidentally called by one of your sibling’s names? What about the dog’s name? You know you’re in real trouble when the dog’s name gets thrown into the mix.
Our names carry weight. We sign our names to legal documents that make binding agreements. We’re embarrassed when we forget the name of someone we see every week. Parents and grandparents often talk to their children about living up to the family name. A name at the bottom of a letter or card or one attached to a gift can make that letter, card, or gift even more meaningful to us.
God’s name is no different. It, too, carries power. The power of a promise only God can make.
The people Isaiah prophesied to knew God’s name, but they had forgotten what it truly meant, and things were not going well. Israel had split in two. In a civil war, the Northern Kingdom aligned itself with the nation of Assyria to try and overthrow the Southern Kingdom and conquer Jerusalem which held the temple, the dwelling place of God on earth.
The Southern Kingdom was far from perfect. They ignored the oppression of those most likely to be taken advantage of: widows, orphans, and immigrants. Like the Northern Kingdom, they worshipped the idols of the surrounding nations. Ahaz, one of the kings who ruled during the time of Isaiah, “made metal images for the Baals” and even “burned his sons as an offering” to them (2 Chron. 28:2-3). He built an altar to false gods of Damascus right outside the temple of the true God and he made sacrifices and offerings at every high place he could find (vs. 4). Eventually, Ahaz “shut up the doors of the house of the Lord, and he made himself altars in every corner of Jerusalem” and high places in every city of Judah (vs. 24-25).
The people followed their king and turned away from God. They put their refuge and their hope in other gods. When enemies came, the Southern Kingdom put their hope in alliances with foreign powers and governments to rescue them and not in the God who had rescued them from slavery and Egypt, who brought them through the wilderness into the promised land. They had forgotten the weight of God’s name, and in turn, they had forgotten God’s very character and the context in which they received it.
God’s Name in Context
In Exodus 3, God appears to Moses in a physical way, in a burning bush. God tells Moses He is going to use him to set the Israelites free from slavery in Egypt. But Moses answers, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” God answers Moses “I will be with you” (Ex. 3:12).
Moses, always ready with an excuse, follows up with another question. “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God answers Moses, “ehyeh ‘asher ehyeh,” I will be who I will be” (Ex. 3:14). Although more commonly translated, “I AM who I AM,” the word ehyeh (I will be) is used in both places. First, in God’s assurance to Moses that He will be (ehyeh) with him and then again when God is telling Moses who He is, ehyeh ‘asher ehyeh—I will be who I will be.
The context in which God gives His name tells us that He has no intention of being a god who simply exists somewhere far off. He isn’t just milling about, twiddling His thumbs, waiting for us to call on Him or for things to get bad enough to intervene. He is not the God who turns away from us. He is the God who is with His people. His name is a word of promise. He will be who He will be. He is the God who will be, “ehyeh,” with us.
The Messenger and the Message
And this God who is with us is who we hear about in Isaiah 52:6-7:
“Therefore my people shall know my name; therefore in that day they shall know it is I who speak; Here am I.
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”
The feet of the messenger are beautiful because of the word they bring: a word of good news, of joy, of peace, of salvation, of God’s reign. The word used for “good news” here in Isaiah is the Hebrew equivalent of the Greek word euangelion often translated, “Gospel,” in the New Testament.
But, what makes the Gospel message so good is that it is more than just words of announcement by a nameless messenger. This messenger not only brings the word of God, this messenger is the Word of God. The Word, whom John says was with God in the beginning and by whom all things were made (John 1:1-3). The messenger is the Word who became flesh and lived among us (John 1:14). The messenger is Emmanuel, God with us (Is. 7:14).
God Himself, the Word made flesh, comes to deliver the Gospel message of comfort, peace, and salvation. Even more than that, the Word made flesh comes to do that which His words announce. In plain sight, the Son of God comes to comfort His people and redeem them. Before the eyes of all nations and before all the ends of the earth, He comes to bring us salvation.
At Christmas, we celebrate more than the historical event of Jesus’ birth. We heed the words of Isaiah 52:8-10:
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
We lift up our voices and sing for joy together as we celebrate a God who was, who is, and who will be with us.
The same God who came down into the burning bush, who promised, “I will be who I will be,” that is, “I will be with you,” and the same God who rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, came down and took on human flesh in the incarnation. He not only came to be with us, but came for us. Jesus, the enfleshed Word of God, came to redeem us from slavery to sin and bondage to death through His death and resurrection.
Forever With Us and For Us
Lutheran theologian, Johann Gerhard wrote, “We received more in Christ than we lost in Adam” (Sacred Meditations XV). What he meant was that though we had a perfect relationship with God before the fall, now, in Christ, we not only have a restored relationship with God, we have a God who is forever one of us, a God who is forever with us and a God who is forever for us.
This is the Gospel of God’s Christmas name: He comes to us not only through a one-time, historical event but He also continually comes to us with the Gospel message of peace and salvation in His Word and Sacraments. He comes through the Scriptures. He comes in the water and word of Baptism. He comes by His flesh and blood in, with, and under the bread and wine.
He is the God who draws near. So near that He is as much in us as He is next to us. This He does because He is ehyeh ‘asher ehyeh. I will be who I will be, that is I will be with you, because I am for you.