Monday, December 19, 2016

Sunday's Sermon – Shakespeare Was Wrong

Below is a copy of the sermon I preached on Sunday, December 18, in Cove Presbyterian Church, Weirton, West Virginia. You can find a podcast of this sermon on the Cove Podbean page. You might also want to visit the congregational website ( for more church information.

If you find this sermon meaningful, please consider supporting this ministry by sending an offering to Cove Presbyterian Church, 3404 Main Street, Weirton, West Virginia or through PayPal.

Matthew 1:18-25 

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Shakespeare Was Wrong

I've got something to read to you, and I'd like y'all to listen. And I'll try to be as dramatic as possible.

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.

[Aside] Shall I hear more, 
or shall I speak at this?

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? 
It is nor hand, nor foot, 
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part 
Belonging to a man. 
O, be some other name!
What's in a name? 
that which we call a rose 
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes 
Without that title. 
Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee 
Take all myself.

Of course this is from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet; a play that’s magnificent when done well but that seems to be about twelve hours long when not. Anyway, this play is considered a classic, right? But I’ve got to tell you, there’s a line in there that I think is absolutely wrong. In fact, it may be the biggest load of pure baloney in Elizabethan theater. “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet...” Come on, man. Now I understand why Juliet said it, but give me a break, I somehow think that if, instead of “rose” it was called “stink weed” or “pus vine” or “vomit flower”, well, if you held a putrid blossom up to your nose, knowing the name, I doubt that it was smell like a rose even if it was. Why? Because whether either Juliet or Shakespeare recognized it, names are important. Sort of like that old Johnny Cash song about a boy named Sue, names can be really important not only to the one named but a whole lot of other folks.

And I’ll tell you something, I think we got a perfect example of what I’m talking about right here in this passage we just read. Of course, this is the other Christmas story, the one that kind of gets lost in the shadow of Mary and the shepherds and the manger. I mean this is not the one that Linus recites when he’s explaining the meaning of Christmas to Charlie Brown, and it’s the second one that generally comes to mind when we think about the reason for the season.

But I believe we’d be making a big mistake if we just whiz past the appearance of the angel to Joseph, not Mary, as written by Matthew, because in these verses we have three names or titles connected to the one who’s coming that answers three pretty important Christmas-related questions, namely, who he is and why he came and what he continues to offer. And I’ll tell you, we can get answers to all three by looking at the names and titles he was given before his birth.

For example, if we want to understand who he is, you know, his identity, I think we can find a pretty good answer in the title, Christ. Now, just in case you don’t know it, this isn’t a name. I mean, people didn’t call Jesus “Mr. Christ.” Rather it’s a title, from the Greek word, χρίσμα, which means, “to pour.” And so the Christ or the χρίστος is the one on whom something is poured, in this case oil. And that’s really important because, in ancient Israel and later Judah, kings were anointed with oil; therefore, every king was call χρίστος, because a priest had poured oil on his head. And so this was a royal title. But remember, by the time we get to Joseph, there hadn’t been any real king in a long time. Now they’d had kings, but they weren’t descended from King David, and because of that, for the Jews, those guys really didn’t count. But that didn’t mean that the people weren’t still hoping. In fact, as time went on, the Jews came to believe that the ultimate king, the ultimate χρίστος was coming, and when he came, he’d straighten everything out. You know, like John the Baptist said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” This is the one, the Christ that they expected. And according to Matthew, when he wrote, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way,” that’s exactly the one who came.

And I’ll tell you why I think that’s important. No matter confident we might want to be, I think there are times when we all get discouraged. I mean, we look at what happening in our world and our country, in our community and in our congregation, my gosh, in our families and in our own lives, and it frankly brings us down, because things just don’t seem to be going the way we want them to go. For example, I heard just last week on the radio, that we may be seeing the first generation that won’t reach the economic level of their parents. Of course, maybe things will turn around, but let’s get real, regardless of who’s in charge, does anybody expect Weirton Steel to start up again, plumbing money into our pocket and graphite  into our lungs, you know, like it did in the good old days? Man, it’s easy to be discouraged. But I’ll tell you, when we are, I think it’s important to remember the one who’s birth we’re going to celebrate next Sunday is the Christ. Man, he’s the ultimate king. He’s the Lord. And even when we can’t seem to see it, we can trust that right now, he’s involved in our world and country, our community and congregation, our families and our lives. I’m telling you, like a mustard seed, the Kingdom of Heaven, the rule of God is growing. And the day will come when it’ll be on earth just like it is in heaven. And this is something that we can believe, because the one born in Bethlehem is the Christ. That’s who he is.

And second, if we want to understand why he came, we need to remember that he was also named Jesus, something the angel told Joseph to do and which he did. And like Christ, Jesus is name that has some powerful, Old Testament meaning. You see, the name “Jesus” is Greek. The Jewish pronunciation is “Joshua,” and in case you don’t know it, Joshua was the guy who followed Moses
and who led the children of Israel from the wilderness to the banks of the Jordan River and who enabled them to conquer the promised land. You see, after the exodus, for God’s chosen people, he was the one who delivered them. For them, he was their savior. And that’s exactly what this one whom Joseph named Jesus was going to do. As the angel said, “he will save his people from their sins.” And you know, that’s exactly what he did. I mean, on the cross, when he died, we died with him. And through that death the power of sin died too. And when he was raised, not only do we have reason to hope as we look into the future, but we can experience a little bit of the resurrection life right now.

And I’ll tell you why that’s important. Just like I think there are times when we all feel discouraged, I think there are also times when we become scared, and I’m talking about scared of things that we can’t control and scared of things that we certainly don’t expect and scared of things for which we can never prepare. And you know, even if somehow we live a charmed life and this kind of stuff never happens, that doesn’t mean we’re not still afraid that it could and it might. In fact, I think the unknown is always scary. And for that very reason, I believe it’s important that we remember that in spite of all those questions and doubt, all those fears and insecurities, all the potential pain and disappointments that may be right there in front of us, that in spite of all those things that make us shake in our boots, man, we have someone who will lead us through and we have someone  who will deliver us to our own promised land; man, we have a savior, and his name is just that, Joshua, Jesus. And that’s why he came.

And finally, if we want to understand what he continues to offer, we need to remember that the one who will be born is also called Emmanuel. And if we don’t know what that means, Matthew explained it for us. Remember, he wrote, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means, ‘God is with us.’” God with us. You see, that’s what the Christ came to be, and that’s what Jesus came to do. He came to bring the presence of God into our lives. You see, he really is God with us. In fact, according to his last conversation with his disciples, that’s what the risen Christ promised to be. Now this is how the Gospel of Matthew ends: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Now I think this is really cool. Jesus really is Emanuel, God with us. That’s what he was called before he was born and that’s what he promises he’ll continue to be right to the end of the age.

And just like it was with understanding that he’s the Christ and he’s Jesus, this is also important for us to remember, because I don’t know about y’all, but there are times when I feel lonely. But it’s not just in a physical sense. There are times when I feel tired of dealing with the same old stuff over and over again. And I really feel tired because sometimes it seems as though I’m carrying the load by myself. My gosh, there are days I feel just plain tired, in fact, so tired that I’m not sure I can take one more step. What about you? Do you ever feel that way? Well, I’ll tell you, if you can identify with this kind of feeling, it’s at those times that we need to remember that Jesus really is Emanuel and that God really is with us. You know, it’s like that poem Footprints, almost. Although it would be nice, I’m not sure God ever picks us up and carries us. You see, I think there are always two sets of foot prints in the sand, with God sometimes leading and sometime motivating us from behind. But sometimes just standing beside us when we’re too tired to go any farther, patiently waiting for us to continue the journey. Right now, he’s Emanuel, God is with us, and that’s exactly what he continues to offer.

Now for as great as Shakespeare was, I think he missed the mark with that comment about how the name doesn’t affect the smell. You see, personally I believe names and titles really are important. And for me, no where is that clearer than in this passage from Matthew. You see, Mary’s son will be called the Christ, the ultimate king, the one who can lift us when we’re discouraged. That’s who he is. And he will be named Jesus, Joshua, the one who will save us in spite of our fears. That why he came. And he will be for us Emmanuel, God with us, the one who brings to us the divine presence 24/7. And that’s what he continues to offer. And I’ll tell you, all this is true even though Shakespeare may have been wrong about roses.

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