by Rev. Doug Gray
When I was in high school, listening to another mind-numbing lecture, I looked over at the girl sitting next to me. She was writing her name over and over again. I thought that was odd—but hey, whatever it takes to stay awake you know. Then I looked closer, and noticed that she was writing her first name, and then the last name of her boyfriend. She tried all kinds of combinations first name, and a hyphenated last name with hers and her boyfriends’. I think part of it for her seemed to be daydreaming about what her future life might be like with her boyfriend. Some people like the idea of changing their names after getting married—others not so much. Marriage is a big deal in people’s lives, and that’s part of why we think about a name change around that event. The interesting thing is the same thing was true in the Bible—names matter, and if you see a name change, something big is happening.
In Genesis, when God is making promises to them, Abram goes from ‘high father’ to Abraham, ‘father of a multitude,’ and Sarai becomes Sarah, ‘princess.’ Abraham and Sarah’s grandson was named Jacob, which means ‘usurper’ or ‘one who takes over.’ After many years and many changes, God wrestles with Jacob and when Jacob says, “I won’t let go unless you bless me,” God changes Jacob’s name to Israel, which means ‘one who wrestles with God.” In the New Testament, Jesus has fun with names. He calls James and John, the “Sons of Thunder.” Don’t you wish you could meet them and find out how they got that nickname? Another disciple went from Simon, which means “sinking sand” to Peter, which means “the rock.” In our passage for today, Moses changes someone’s name—did you notice? Hoshea means “salvation,” and Moses changes Hoshea’s name to Yehoshua, which means “God saves.” Of course, we shorten that to Joshua. I believe Hoshea gets a name change for at least three reasons
First, Joshua recognized the good before him. How many of you have ever read a book—and really liked it—and then gone to see the movie and hated it? It happens all the time for me! Part of it is probably just that what we see on the screen isn’t how we saw things in our heads when we were reading it. But what if you hadn’t read the book? Would you like the movie more because you didn’t have that set of expectations? I wonder. What I find interesting about Joshua is that he saw the negatives that the other spies did, but he also saw the good—it’s a land flowing with milk and honey.
Second, Joshua recognized that God was greater than the problems they faced. Everybody else is focused on the giants, the fortified walls of the cities, and how big the cities were—how hard this is going to be. Caleb says, “Let us go up at once and occupy it, for we are well able to overcome it,” and later Joshua adds, “If the LORD is pleased with us, he will bring us into this land and give it to us. Only, do not rebel against the LORD; and do not fear the people of the land, for they are no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the LORD is with us; do not fear them.” For Joshua, the giants and fortified cities are “no more than bread for us; their protection is removed from them, and the Lord is with us.”
Hoshea’s ability to recognize the good before him and to know that God is greater than all the problems they faced—that’s what got him a name change! He knew that the God who had sent the plagues on Egypt, protected their people from the angel of death, parted the Red Sea and met them at Mount Sinai—that same God could certainly help them cross a river, stand up to giants and help them capture fortified cities. How? God would take care of that if people would only go with God with their whole heart. Joshua means “The Lord saves!” And eventually, when Joshua was an old man, the people would leave the futility of wandering in the desert, grasp their purpose as God’s people, and enter the Promised Land, the land flowing with milk and honey.
Why are we talking about Joshua today? Because names matter. My wife and I had endless debates about what to name each of our children. “What if it’s a girl? What if it’s a boy? That name is too long! That doesn’t go with Gray!” An angel comes to Joseph in a dream: “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” An angel comes to Mary too: “you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Joseph and Mary didn’t have any debate over what to name this child! Here’s the kicker: did you know that Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name, Joshua? Like Joshua, Jesus came so that we could leave the futility of wandering in a complex and arid world, so that we could find our purpose as children of God, and enter the abundant life promised to those who live with God at the center of their lives. What would it be like to live with God at the center of our lives? Abundance for sure, but like Joshua we would be able to recognize the good around us, and know that God is greater than all the problems we face. That God saves us, walks with us, lives with us. Jesus is the Name we remember at Christmas, because the gift He gave was Himself, offered up on a cross, so we would never have to fear again. He is the Christ—the One chosen by God, the King Who invites us into the Kingdom. He is Emmanuel—God with us—and the Prince of Peace—who calms our inner storms and whose love casts out all fear. He is Joshua—God saves—and He is Jesus, before whose amazing grace all will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord, born to a modest, Jewish couple, sleeping in a feeding trough. What a wonder-filled name is Jesus.