In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. … And God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen 1:1, 3). “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … All things were made through Him, and without Him was not any thing made that was made” (Jn 1:1, 3). Thus the Word of the Lord to begin the Book of Genesis, and to begin the Gospel according to St. John, the first and third verses of each.
One of the first and most important truths that God reveals of Himself is that He communicates, He uses language, He speaks. Dr. William Weinrich, one of our Fort Wayne seminary professors, and one of the world’s leading experts on the Gospel of John, offers this ‘alternate,’ and entirely proper, translation of the Gospel’s first two verses: “In the beginning was the Speech, and the Speech was toward God, and the Speech was God. This One [that is, the Speech] was in the beginning toward God.” The Greek word translated as ‘Word’ in most of our Bibles and as ‘Speech’ by Dr. Weinrich is Logos. Some scholars prefer to leave the word untranslated. The word Logos has a wide variety of meaning beyond Word. Logos also means Speech, Reason, Thought, Plea, Discourse, Account, Ground, Proportion, a principle of order and knowledge. In this age of information technology, it may help to explain Logos as Information. Information communicates, teaches, gives instruction and direction. The Five Books of Moses are together known as the Torah, commonly translated as ‘Law,’ but Torah better means Instruction. God communicates to us, teaches us, gives us instruction and direction.
We use language, words, speech, in order to be in communion with our Creator, because He made us in His image and likeness. Other creatures communicate through different ‘languages,’ such as the echolocation used by whales, the ‘dancing’ of bees, even volatile organic compounds, electrical signals, and complex root networks used by plants. What amazing abilities God has engineered in His various creatures! Yet with us alone has He established personal fellowship, and in the person of Jesus Christ He became one of us, one with us, Immanu-El, God with us. Christian songwriter and poet Michael Card put it this way in “The Final Word”:
When the Father’s Wisdom wanted to communicate His love,
He spoke it in one final perfect Word.
He spoke the Incarnation and then so was born the Son.
His final word was Jesus, He needed no other one.
As we use language, both spoken and written, we will sometimes express ourselves with figures of speech. So does God, and He did it first. Some figures of speech may be longer than the basic way of saying something, but they add detail, color, and liveliness to the language. When you want to say that something is all across America, you might say “it’s going on from New York to L. A.” Likewise, God’s Word speaks of the whole land of Israel sometimes as “from Dan to Beersheba,” from the northernmost city to the southernmost. At other times, we will abbreviate or shorten our communication.
We use abbreviations every day, of course. Along Interstate 35, or I-35, you see a sign that says, “S-h M-s-n P-k-y,” and you don’t wonder, “What is Sh Msn Pky?” You learned that it’s an abbreviation for Shawnee Mission Parkway. One category of abbreviations is initialisms, abbreviations formed from the first letters of a name or title, such as USA for United States of America, NFL for National Football League, LSB for Lutheran Service Book. Each letter is spoken as a syllable. A subcategory of initialisms is acronyms, initialisms that form a word or name, such as NATO for North Atlantic Treaty Organization, SCUBA for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus, FAQ for Frequently Asked Question. All acronyms are initialisms, but not all initialisms are acronyms. Acronym literally means “high name.” The use of acronyms has a long and distinguished history in the Church. Some anonymous Christians came up with two acronyms for how to pray: ACTS for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication; and pray for JOY, for Jesus, Others, and You, in that order. Sound advice, and easily remembered—as long as we follow it!
ΙΧΘΥΣ (ΙΧΘΥC), Ichthys Symbol
Іησους (Iēsous) Jesus
Χριστος (Christos) Christ
Θεου (Theou) of God
Υἱoς (Huios) Son
Σωτηρ (Sōtēr) Savior
In your bulletin, you can see another acronym of the Christian Faith, along with a symbol associated with it. The acronym is a shorthand for the confession of the Faith, the true and correct understanding of who Jesus is, while the symbol is a shorthand for the acronym. The acronym is the Greek word ΙΧΘΥΣ (ichthys), which means ‘fish,’ as in ichthyology, the study of fish. The acronym stands for the Greek words Ιησους Χριστος Θεου ϒἱος Σωτηρ (Iēsous Christos Theou Huios Sōtēr), “Jesus Christ, of God the Son, Savior.” That reminds us of Simon Peter’s confession to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:16), Thomas’ confession upon seeing the risen Jesus, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28), and what the angel said to Joseph (and repeated in tonight’s Gospel), “She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Mt 1:21). And the Apostle Paul reminds us that God alone enables us to believe and confess this holy Name: “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking in the Spirit of God ever says ‘Jesus is accursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor 12:3).
St. Paul also reminds us that this name of Jesus is the Name of names, the Name above all names, the Most High Name:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though He was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Php 2:5–11)
St. Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit,” also testifies, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Peter was speaking before the Council because he and John had been arrested at the temple for “teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead” (Acts 4:2). They risked further suffering for speaking and confessing this blessed Name of Jesus. Indeed, Peter was crucified for it, and John was exiled onto an island for it. Christians still face suffering, persecution, even death for confessing the name of Jesus, for confessing ΙΧΘΥΣ (ichthys), that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and Savior. In the early church, when being arrested for being a Christian was a real possibility, the fish symbol became a way for Christians to identify each other without unbelievers, especially the authorities, to know. If you met someone you thought might be a fellow believer, you would trace an arc in the dirt with your foot. If the other person was a Christian, he would draw another arc to complete the fish. Thus they recognized one another. If not, the arc was easily brushed away.
We don’t have to do such things, though the use of the fish symbol is still a shorthand confession of faith in Jesus Christ. (I ran some large copies of the fish symbol with the ΙΧΘΥΣ inside, if you would like to take one as a reminder, perhaps make a “stained glass” type of picture with it.) The fish reminds us of the mission Jesus gave to His disciples, many of whom were fishermen, “Follow Me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mt 4:19). The fish reminds us of the Final Judgment as told in the Parable of the Drawing in of the Net (Mt 13), when the angels will separate wicked, the fish that are thrown away, from the righteous, the good fish, those who confess that Jesus alone is their Righteousness. Jesus uses the fish as “the sign of Jonah,” a sign of His resurrection from the dead, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth” (Mt 12:40). The fish reminds us of Jesus’ miraculous feedings of the multitudes, the five thousand with “five loaves and two fish” (Mt 14), and the four thousand with “seven loaves and a few small fish” (Mt 15). With our fellow believers from of old, we see in these feedings signs of the even greater feeding of the multitudes by Jesus, the Holy Supper of His body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins—first shed at His circumcision and naming. The numbers He continues to feed in this Meal are countless, yet the Holy Food remains undiminished, boundless. So the early Church saw the fish as a symbol of the body of Christ as well. After His resurrection, when the disciples go fishing all night but catch nothing, Jesus instructs them, “‘Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish,” leading John to exclaim and confess, “It is the Lord!” (Jn 21)—a further reminder that, apart from Jesus and His Holy Spirit, we can do nothing that God asks or requires of us. To confess His name, we need Jesus. To do good works in His name, we need Jesus. To speak the Gospel in His name, we need Jesus. We may think of the Law as what we do, of doing what the Lord tells us. Martin Luther had a great shorthand for the distinction between the Law and the Gospel. “The Law says, ‘You need Jesus!’ And the Gospel says, ‘Here He is!’” With Jesus, we get the Holy Spirit, as He promises, “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of Truth, who proceeds from the Father, He will bear witness about Me,” (Jn 15:26), and with Jesus we get the Father, “for the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me and have believed that I came from God” (Jn 16:27).
There have been, and still are, and always will be those who mock this Most High and Holy Name, the name of Jesus. Some have mocked the fish symbol, especially with the “Darwin walking fish” to declare “I believe in evolution.” Don’t get angry, and don’t get even; simply speak the Truth in Jesus’ name, as someone did in creating the emblem of the Truth Fish swallowing a Darwin fish. When you hear someone misuse the name of the Lord Jesus, remember two things. First, they are misusing a powerful name, the only Name of our Salvation; they don’t misuse names that are powerless and cannot help. Second, do use His holy name properly and reverently, not letting that misuser have the last word, but taking the opportunity to pray with the Psalmist,
I will give to the Lord the thanks due to His righteousness,
and I will sing praise to the name of the Lord, the Most High. …
It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
to sing praises to Your name, O Most High; …
that they may know that You alone, whose name is the Lord,
are the Most High over all the earth (Pss 7:17; 92:1; 83:18).
And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds by His Spirit in ✠ Christ Jesus. Amen.