Advent Series 1: What’s in a Name?

Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; a virgin shall conceive and give birth to a son, and his name will be Emmanuel. — Isaiah 7:14

By Bruce Stanley, President / CEO of Methodist Home for Children

Pastor Richard Bryant has served overseas in a variety of ways. He was with the Associated Press in Bosnia and with the United Methodist Church in Armenia, Russia, and Ireland. He also served in Togo, West Africa, in the Peace Corps. One of the stories he tells is of his arrival up-country in the village where he was stationed. His flight was delayed and his ground transport was held up because of that. The villagers had been waiting with great anticipation and had prepared a party, but it was the middle of the night by the time he arrived and they’d all gone to bed. It was so dark that the driver refused to venture into the bush on the path to the village, and he told Richard he had to walk the remaining miles.

Under the dense jungle canopy it was impossible to see. In the very center of the village was a grapefruit tree of which the village was proud. His head down, wearied from walking and completely in the dark, Richard announced his arrival by the sound of his head hitting the tree and his loud groaning as he fell backward.

The village had the custom of naming children based on events, and Richard was given the name “the boy who walked into our village at night and hit the grapefruit tree with his head.” Upon hearing that, I asked if, by any chance, they used nicknames. He sighed, and reluctantly said, “Yes, I was called ‘Grapefruit Head Boy.’ ” Since Richard has male-pattern baldness, the name could not be more apt.

For the people of Israel, names also were descriptive. They called upon God as Yahweh, Adonai, and Elohim. These names conveyed the notion that God was both immanent and eminent. Trying to capture the fullness of God, variants were also employed. For instance, El Shaddai was used when speaking of the complete sufficiency of God. My favorite name for God, for this one whose arrival we are awaiting, is Emmanu-El (God is with us.)

I need to know God is with me. I think for most of us, we live with certitude that Yahweh is the creator and was there “in the beginning.” I think most of us have not only the hope but certitude that we will be with Jesus in heaven. We don’t doubt God will be there in the end.

Where I and many others struggle is in the day-to-day, where we encounter pain, suffering, disease, frustration, failure, and heartbreak. In the midst of the darkness, we sometimes cannot see any better than a Peace Corps volunteer who missed the grapefruit tree right in front of him while walking up-country under the jungle canopy at 3 a.m. We need to know that indeed God is with us. We need to know Emmanuel is in our midst.

As the season of waiting we call Advent begins, this is the one whose appearance we look for. We pray from our places of need for the reassuring presence of God in us, around us, above us, beneath us. Come, Emmanuel. God be with us.