Naming a baby is a task fraught with difficulties. Obviously you want to find a name that you like – but have you thought about what happens when you shorten it? Christopher becomes Chris, which is ok, but I know some parents who don’t like their James being called Jimmie. Does it work with the surname? It’s always worth doing an internet search to make sure you’re not about to lumber your offspring with the same name as an American psychopath.
And then, does the name have a meaning? Henry for instance means Home Ruler, which makes a kind of sense. But what does William, composed of the words Will and Helm (or helmet) mean? Willpower perhaps?
In Biblical times children were often named after their father, as we hear in verse 59 of today’s reading. But Elizabeth, the little boy’s mother, wants to name him John. This is a shortened form of Johanan, which means God is gracious.
No doubt that’s what Elizabeth was feeling. As the earlier part of Luke Chapter 1 tells us, Zechariah the priest was well advanced in years, as was his wife Elizabeth. They were faithful people, serving God, but sadly had no children.
One day Zechariah was chosen by lot to enter the sanctuary and offer incense. Apparently by this time in Israel’s history there were so many priests that entering the sanctuary was statistically a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We can imagine that this might have been a real spiritual event for Zechariah – made all the more so when he sees an angel!
The angel has a message, in v.11 ‘Do not be afraid Zechariah, your prayers have been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son and you will name him John – he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.’ We of course know him as John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Christ.
So this may be why he is known as John. God is gracious. God has graciously answered Elizabeth and Zechariah’s prayer at the point when it seemed too late. God has graciously reached out to his people in the midst of their oppression, promising release.
But Zechariah asks: ‘How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.’ Perhaps an understandable reaction – people of that age do not have children. Yet Zechariah was a priest, well versed in the Old Testament. He knew the stories of Abraham and how Sarah bore him a son in his old age. He knew how God gave Rachel and Hannah the gift of children. Did he perhaps think that miracles were for the past and not his own time?
You might think that perhaps seeing an angel would be evidence enough. Maybe years of disappointment have made him bitter or even cynical. When you have lived long and seen the world, that can happen. If we have had dreams that have never come to pass, it can be hard to be open to future possibility. Allowing yourself to hope can feel like making yourself very vulnerable – will you suffer the hurt and disappointment again? It takes real strength to step out of the protective shell and allow ourselves to be open to God and his plan for us.
But we do need to be able to do that. For God does have a plan. No-one is on the shelf as far as God is concerned. No-one is useless. No-one is too old or too young to play a role in his Kingdom. In fact, for Zechariah and Elizabeth the most important thing they did was near the end of their lives. Just imagine – the previous 80 years have been a prelude for what God is asking you to do now!
I wonder what God might be asking us to do? What opportunities he may have in store for you and for me? Let us ask him to show us. We can do a great deal where we are. The people we meet – how can we show Christ’s love to them? How can our words build people up and encourage? Even someone who scarcely goes out can pray.
Elizabeth and Zechariah were called to be parents to John the Baptist. His miraculous birth would be a kind of parallel, a foreshadowing of the even more amazing birth of Jesus, our Saviour. But because Zechariah did not at first believe, he was struck dumb until the angel’s word was fulfilled.
Not saying a word for the best part of a year. Zechariah would have had to complete his time of temple service in silence, make his way back home, explain things as best he could to his wife. Eventually the baby was born, and 8 days after his birth it was time to name him. As Zechariah writes on the tablet ‘his name is John’, he shows that he has believed the angelic message and is living in obedience to it.
Immediately Zechariah can speak again. He praises God, using the words of the Benedictus which have become a much-loved part of our liturgy. If you grew up with Mattins you will have sung this many times, and there are glorious settings of this canticle. Many are beautiful, some are ethereal – do they run the risk of giving the impression of an other-worldly spirituality? I wonder how many of them really bring out the triumph and revolution of Zechariah’s song?
Now at last, after so many years, God is doing what he has promised. Now, the Old Testament prophecies will be fulfilled. Here, today, God is saving his people. We are being rescued from our enemies and delivered from those who hate us. There will be justice and freedom. It is strong stuff. (Like the Magnificat – the words of which resemble a first-century Billy Bragg rather more than Cathedral Evensong.)
Everyone was amazed by these events, the word travelled all around the hill country of Judea. The passage ends by telling us that ‘the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.’ We do not know how long Elizabeth and Zechariah lived, how much of a role they were able to play in their son’s upbringing.
But we do know that they passed on the angel’s message – he will be a Nazirite, dedicated to God. We do know that John followed their strong faith. We do know that God kept his promise and John was the greatest of all the prophets.
This is a wonderful story of a God who is able to transform disappointments; of a God who keeps his promises to his people over many centuries until when things seem darkest relief comes. It is a story of a wonderful God whose plan for us is able to surprise and inspire, even to the very end of our lives; a story of a God who can use our faithfulness – and even our half-believing prayers – at any point. It is a call to follow God now, be open to his will, and never to allow ourselves to believe that our time is past.