Somebody’s Gotta Do It

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Throughout this season of Advent our focus is “The Story of Christmas in 20 Words.”  On each of the 20 weekday mornings ending on Christmas Eve, we’ll spotlight a single word from the Gospel accounts that helps us ponder more deeply the birth of Jesus.

9. Yeshua

Throughout the TV series Dirty Jobs, host Mike Rowe performed some of the strangest, messiest, and most difficult tasks in the universe of human labor.

Over the course of nine seasons, he courageously and humorously waded into the muck and mire of more than 200 wretched jobs on farms, factories, and processing plants of every kind.  As Rowe frequently quipped, “Somebody’s gotta do it.”

Fortunately, by the time he took to the airwaves, one of history’s most disagreeable jobs had already gone out of fashion. 

Mike Rowe never had to become a sin eater

During the 18th and 19th centuries, grieving families in parts of England, Scotland, and Wales, while displaying the body of their loved one in public view – usually in the parlor or sitting room – would place morsels of bread on the chest of the deceased.  They cherished the belief that the sins of this family member had gone into the bread.  Someone needed to take things from there.

Enter the local professional sin eater, who would sit alongside the body and consume the bread while the family watched.  Then he would excuse himself, quietly walking away having absorbed the departed’s lifetime of sin.   

Who in the world would do such a thing?

Only the very poor would dare to become sin eaters, weighing down their own souls with the misdeeds of countless men and women in their village.  Payment was usually a coin worth only four English pence – the current equivalent of a few American bucks.  Those who actually believed the theology of sin-soaked bread would have to be exceedingly hungry to risk their own spiritual security.  Richard Munson, who died in 1906, was the last known sin eater in the United Kingdom. 

Students of the New Testament, of course, would be quick to point out that the only person truly qualified to bear other people’s sins died on a cross 2,000 years ago. 

That’s embodied in Matthew 1:21, where an angel tells Joseph in a dream that his fiancée Mary “will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus [Yeshua in Hebrew], because he will save his people from their sins.”

In Bible times, naming rights were the absolute prerogative of a child’s father – a sign of his leadership in the family.  The angel takes that privilege away from Joseph.  Mary’s son must bear the name Yeshua.    

Ancient Hebrew names were often a shortened form of a sentence.  They frequently proclaimed something about the nature of God.  Ye-Shua means “Lord, save!” or “Lord, help!”  It was essentially the name “Joshua,” and was given to many little boys.  As historians point out, it was common for a woman in the throes of childbirth to cry out, “Lord, help!” – and thus for the father to choose that name in gratitude for a safe delivery. 

Just how common was the name Yeshua during the first century?

In 2007, filmmakers James Cameron and Simcha Jacobovici produced a Discovery Channel documentary that suggested archeologists had found the bones of Jesus and his family.  Skeletal remains had been recovered from an ancient site just south of Jerusalem in 1980.  Among the recovered ossuaries (“bone boxes”) were ones that were labeled, “Jesus, son of Joseph,” “Joseph,” and “Maria.”  Cameron, the famed creator of Avatar and Titanic, breathlessly reported that this might be the greatest historical discovery of all time.  Here at last was evidence that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead.

Well, maybe not so much.

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph were extraordinarily common names in New Testament times.  It’s estimated that 25% of all the women in Jerusalem were named Mary.  One in seven males were named Joseph, and one in eleven were named Jesus / Joshua / Yeshua.  Demographers tell us at least 1,000 men who lived in Jerusalem at this time would answer to “Jesus, son of Joseph.”  The archeologist who excavated the site admitted that the likelihood of these bones belonging to Jesus of Nazareth and his family was “close to zero.”

Cameron, for his part, pointed out that if you come upon the names John, Paul, and George, that wouldn’t raise many eyebrows.  But if you also find Ringo, then you’ve got something.  The problem, of course, is that there was no “Ringo” – a truly special historical marker – associated with this dig. 

All of this is to say that Mary and Joseph’s child was given a name that many other little boys had, too.

So what makes this Jesus special? 

Let’s go back to the words of the angel: “You are to call him Yeshua, for he will save his people from…”  And here the people of Jesus’ time would have quickly filled in the blank with something like, “the people who hate us,” or “those who hold us captive,” or “the monsters who rule this world.”

Throughout history, the people of Israel had cried out, “Lord, help!  Lord, save!”  They had yearned to be saved from the Egyptians.  And then the Babylonians.  And now it was the Romans who had overrun their land and stolen their freedom.  The Messiah would save them from such sinners. 

But the Yeshua born to Mary was coming for a different purpose: to save his people from their sins

Their worst enemy was not the Roman Empire.  It was the darkness within their own hearts. 

We may cry out to God to save us from COVID, from a Wall Street financial collapse, from totalitarian regimes overseas, and from corrupt politicians here at home.  But our worst threats are not external.  Even before his birth, Jesus’ mission has always been to save us from our very own selfishness, unforgiveness, addictions, and despair.  Somehow these sins must be taken from our souls.

Hey, somebody’s gotta do it.

Yeshua came into the world to be that Somebody. 

And that is the very heart of Christmas.