Naming Jesus (3): Eternal Protector
By Rev. Dr. Louise Westfall
Last Monday I got to hold a newborn baby. There is nothing else like it: the tiny fingers wrapped tightly around your thumb, the sweet little button nose, the tightly-wrapped bundle cradled in the crook of your arm and suddenly, all is right with the world. A baby, said Carl Sandberg, is God’s opinion that the world should go on.
You can dismiss it as grandma fever if you want, but I think the feelings evoked by a child are part of the reason God chose to enter our world that way. Babies disarm us, make fools of the great and powerful, and fill us with hope of a new beginning. Their innocence refreshes even the most cynical among us. But the other thing about babies is they are utterly dependent upon human care. Food and shelter, yes, and loving attention and protection. How carefully parents watch over their newborn! —lest evil or accident befall them. When I visited Owen, even the bouncy family dog was banished to another room!
During Advent we have been exploring the names proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah for the One God was sending to rule in a new order of peace and justice. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders, and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Strength of God, Eternal Protector, Champion of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace. [Isaiah 9:6,7] Today we consider how this ruler, this one born to save us, protects and cares for us the way a good parent does.
….turns out Jesus learned how from his dad. I’m talking about Joseph, surely the most underrated character in the Nativity story. But in today’s text, Joseph plays a critical role as protector and guardian. A reading from Matthew, in the first chapter at the eighteenth verse. Listen for God’s Word to the church. [Matthew 1:18-25]
No matter what you believe about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, Joseph assumes the role of Jesus’ father. Immediately preceding the text we just read is the purported genealogy of Jesus, traced through the bloodlines of….Joseph, not Mary. In this account, it’s Joseph who receives the message about who this baby will be and what he is to be named. Joseph may have been concerned about propriety (and whether people would do the math once the baby was born), but he made a conscious choice to be Jesus’ father. In that patriarchal culture, that meant he took on sole responsibility to provide home, support, and security for his new family.
Many years later—long after Joseph was buried with his ancestors—when Jesus met his death on a cross, he gave over the care of his aged mother into the hands of his closest friend. He had learned well from Joseph’s example.
Yet it also reminds us that even the best, most loving parent cannot protect her child from everything that threatens, harms, and undoes. Last week also found me planning a memorial service for a beloved daughter, wife and mother taken by a particularly cruel disease that slowly destroys the part of the brain controlling emotions, judgement, and verbal expression. From the helplessness of a newborn to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, we mortals are vulnerable. We take a lot of protective action: we wear sunscreen and buy life insurance; we choose healthy lifestyles and fasten our seatbelts. As a nation we amass an arsenal of weapons to assure our enemies of our strength, and create firewalls to secure information. We may build a wall to keep “the other” out.
But we’re still afraid. And I wonder what it means to you and me to name Jesus our “eternal protector.”
Well, for sure it’s not a rabbit’s foot to attract good luck or a talisman to keep bad things away. God’s protection doesn’t exclude us from accident, genetic predisposition, or the consequences of our own choices. I’ve prayed for my son’s safety every day from the day he got a driver’s license until. . . well, I’m still praying. But I don’t ever think he is therefore immune from potential tragedies or random misfortune. I guess that begs the question “why pray?” —and really, friends, I think I’m praying for myself, that I might get better at entrusting my son to the One who is with him always, at times and in ways I cannot be with him, just as God is with me and you and all of us always, no matter what happens. That’s very different from leaving life to chance. No, it’s leaving chance to God.
For if you think about it, the kind of protection that isolates and insulates has its own limitation. The prayer of confession referred to it as a constraining playpen. My favorite Simon and Garfunkel song nails it, and though Wil tried to get me to sing it, I’m only going to read a few of the lines: Don’t talk of love, for I’ve heard the word before. It is sleeping in my memory. I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died; If I never loved I never would have cried
I am a rock; I am an island.
I have my books And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor; Hiding in my room, safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me
I am a rock; I am an island
And a rock feels no pain.
And an island never cries.
Those who seek to preserve life this way end up strangling it to death.
God wants more for Her beloved children. . . . Created us to soar on the wings of morning, to journey to the four winds, and plumb the depths of life’s mysteries. In one beautiful image from the Bible, God is the eagle who carries her young on her wings till they can fly free. One of the youth in a confirmation class at another church heard the Biblical verse about God as a holy comforter. Her face lit up at the thought of wrapping herself in the heavy quilt crafted as a gift by her grandmother and being warmed by the very presence of God.
I don’t remember a funeral in which the 23rd Psalm was not read, and yet it acknowledges the fearsome reality of the grave. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. . . . . I will fear no evil. We might very well feel afraid, but we don’t have to fear that the powers of darkness will destroy us or our loved ones because God is more powerful and more loving. God isn’t merely watching from a distance. God is by our side, walking with us through that valley, to get to the other side.
And because God is with us, that means we don’t have to be afraid that death ends life. In life and in death we belong to God. Even someone as confident as the apostle Paul called it a mystery. In ways we cannot comprehend (and sometimes have a hard time even imagining) God raises us to life beyond our mortal life and the limitations of impermanent flesh. God protects us from meaninglessness, which means we are free to do more with this life than merely try to hang on to it for as long as we can. We can give ourselves to a purpose greater than self-interest. We can connect with others through our common vulnerability, feel empathy, and protect and care for all the children as if they were our own. We can live.
A minister colleague and friend had a son who was diagnosed with leukemia. For many months he received outstanding treatment and was surrounded by love and prayerful support of family, friends, and the whole congregation. Despite everything, the young man died. His father took a leave of absence for a month, but on the first Sunday back his sermon recalled how as a youngster, his son loved to stand on the stairs at home, and jump into his father’s arms, squealing with delight. He never tired of it. Catch me, Daddy! He’d cry. This last time, he spoke slowly, I wasn’t able to catch him. But God did. God did. And God always will. Amen.