Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we long to hear a word from you. Open my mouth, free my tongue, and use these humble words to speak to your people. Dig out our ears, soften our hearts, and give us the feet we need to hear your word well and respond in faith. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
This advent season, we have been following along with the stories of Mary and Elizabeth in the gospel of Luke. Zechariah and Elizabeth were longing for a child, even as they longed for God to come and set things right and save. The angel Gabriel came and said both longing would soon be fulfilled. Zechariah didn’t believe the words of the angel and was silenced until he would see that the angel’s words had come true. Later, the same angel appeared to a relative of Elizabeth, Mary, and said that the promised redemption of God would come through the child of her womb, a child born of a virgin, who would be called ‘Son of God.’ After Mary and Elizabeth rejoiced together and praised God, Mary has returned to her home and the time has come for Elizabeth’s son to be born. The time has come for this child to receive his name and take up his mantle. Listen well to this story from the book that we love:
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth and she bore a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her and they rejoiced with her.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has that name.” Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbors and all these things were talked about throughout the hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will become of this child?” For indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
Then his Father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a mighty savior for us
in the house of his servant David,
as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.
Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors
and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham
to grant us, that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day he appeared publicly to Israel.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The time has finally arrived. Elizabeth is having a baby. Decades of waiting and finally the promise of the angel that she would have a baby. Nine months of feeling this child growing in her womb as she grows with anticipation. It has finally happened. Her son is born. Everyone is excited. All her neighbors and relatives are happy for Elizabeth and Zechariah, so they join in the celebration.
On the eighth day, they come to have the child circumcised, just as God had commanded all the way back in the days of Abraham. This circumcision physically marked this child as belonging to the covenant people, but it was also traditionally when the child was given its name.
So the whole family and all their neighbors are gathered, excited, waiting to hear the name. It turns out the community had already figured out what his name should be. They had already figured out who this child was. He was Zechariah’s boy, so they would name him Zechariah. They knew his family, they knew who he belonged to, where he came from, how he was going to be raised. They thought they knew who he was and therefore who he was going to be. So they all wanted to name him Zechariah.
Names are about identity and calling. In the Bible, in particular, names take on extra significance because they connect, by God’s providence, with character and calling of those named. Abraham means ‘father of many’ and from him comes the whole people of Israel. Jacob is renamed ‘Israel,’ which means ‘he who struggles with God’ and that is both the life of Jacob and the life of the people known as Israel. Of course, the supreme example of this is Jesus himself, whose birth we will celebrate this week. His name means ‘the Lord’s Salvation’ and that is who he is.
So the naming of this child is no small matter. It is a claim about who he is and what he will be. Everyone expects his name to be Zechariah. They expect his name to be tied to where he came from, his past, his history, his family. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, as far as names go. It was the custom for a reason. It kept people rooted, it let them know who they are by who they belong to. Everyone in their small village could say, “Oh, I know you. You are Zechariah’s boy. Oh, I know your mom, so I know what kind of person you are. Oh, I know where you came from, so I can tell what you will be like when you grow up.”
But this child is given a new name. When the people recommend Zechariah, Elizabeth speaks up, “No; he is to be called John.” They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.” The community resisted. The neighbors and relatives gathered for this pivotal moment were confused. Who he is is where he comes from, but there is no ‘John’ in your family. Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. Maybe Zechariah will set Elizabeth straight. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And all of them were amazed.
John is given a new name. It was the name given to Zechariah by the angel Gabriel. It was a name and an identity given by God. It was an future and a calling given by God. The temptation of the community was to try and determine the child’s name, his future, the trajectory of his life by what they knew to be there already in his family, not by the power and call of God. He was given the name John because God had a plan for him bigger than his past, a calling for him bigger than where he came from, a future for him bigger than the community could see.
John is given a new name, a name given by the Lord. Where else do we hear of this? (Revelation 2:17) “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.” God gives us a new name. This is part of the gospel story. When we belong to Christ by faith, we are given a new name, a new identity – Christian.
Our names and our identities in Christ is not rooted in where we come from, but in the claiming and calling of God. God gave John a name. God revealed to Zechariah and Elizabeth who this child was called to be and by giving him that name, they said that his life, who he is, would be defined by God’s claim upon him. The trajectory of John’s life would be defined by God’s call, not his family history. Who John is would be determined by who God said he was, not who his father is or what his mother has done.
The same becomes true when we belong to Christ. Whether people look at you and say, “Oh, you are Fred’s kid, I know who you are” or “Oh, you are Marcus’ kid, I know who you are” – you belong to Christ. Who you are, your identity, your calling, your worth, your hope is found in Jesus Christ. If people say, “Oh, I know where you were raised” or “I remember what you used to do” or those silent looks that speak volumes – you belong to Christ. All those old names, those old callings, those old identities that people have given you or you have taken upon yourself have all been made to bend the knee to your most fundamental identity in Jesus.
Whatever people call you or whatever you call yourself, all those identities must bend the knee to your most fundamental identity – you belong to Christ. This is good news, because who you are isn’t defined by your past mistakes or your present struggles, who you are is in Christ. He has given you a new name. This is good news, because who you can be in Christ is not determined by who you used to be or even who you pretend to be now, you belong to Christ. He has given you a new name.
So they named him, “John.” People were amazed – a new name, a different name. At the moment John was given his name, things began to change for those around him. Zechariah, who had been silent for probably ten months as God had shut up his mouth and tied up his tongue, Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed and he began to speak, praising God. Amazement, Fear, Talk, Wonder. Everyone begins to ask, “What then will become of this child?” Before they thought they knew, he was Zechariah’s kid after all, but now they wonder, now he has the name that God has given him.
In his praising God, the Holy Spirit fills Zechariah and speaks a prophecy. Zechariah is caught up in the Spirit and used to speak the very words of God. What does God say through Zechariah?
God promises to redeem. Zechariah begins by saying, Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. Redeemed is the language of buying back, of restoration. It is the image of a father whose son has fallen into debt and who pays whatever the cost to free his son and bring him home. That is what God is promising when he says he will redeem us. He will pay our debt himself and bring us home. However much it costs, God loves us enough to pay it himself. It cost the blood of the Son, Jesus Christ, on the cross. That is what redemption looks like. That is what paying whatever the cost looks like. God came into the world as the man Jesus Christ, as a babe in a manger, in order to redeem.
But he also came to save. Zechariah goes on to say, He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. God promises to save. Save is the language of healing and rescue. It is the image of rescuing prisoners by breaking their bonds and leading them out to safety. God came as Jesus Christ to save. Throughout his perfect life on earth, Jesus healed the sick, caused the blind to see, and sent the demons running. He showed his power to rescue the weak, the humble, and the lost through breaking their bonds and leading them out. But Christ showed his greatest power in weakness, when going to the cross, he broke the power of death and sin and was raised to life. Jesus’ mission was not only the payment for all our sin, but the breaking of sin and death and the rescue of all who belong to him.
Zechariah prophecies of the coming of the redemption and salvation of God. The Spirit gives him a glimpse around the cosmic corner to see that God would come to deal with our sin and deal the decisive blow to death and the devil. In receiving the name John, this child is being placed into the hands of this God, is being called and sent out into the world by the God who is coming soon to redeem and save, to free and rescue his people so they might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
Your new name, your identity in Christ, comes because God kept the words he spoke through Zechariah. This identity as the redeemed of the Lord comes with a calling. John was born not only to receive the redemption and salvation of God, but to live his life pointing others to Christ.
In 1515, the German Renaissance painter, Matthias Grünewald, painted an altarpiece for the monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim. This masterpiece of renaissance art is a depiction of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Can you put it up on the screen, please? For all that we could name about this piece, there is something very wrong and, at the same time, very right about it. Standing just to the side of Jesus is John – John the Baptist, son of Zechariah and Elizabeth. Can we get the next picture up? It is a striking part of the painting because John was not there. He had already been killed a couple years earlier. Yet Grünewald puts him here at the crucifixion with his extra long finger point right at Jesus Christ on the cross. And though John’s placement in this painting is wrong chronologically, it is so right theologically.
John was called to point to Christ with every moment of his life. Zechariah says, And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. The redemption God promised, the salvation God swore to bring, the forgiveness of sins God covenanted to provide, all of it is found in Jesus Christ.
They named him John and in doing so he was given the calling to point people to the Savior. John pointed people to Jesus. John pointed people to the only place they could find redemption, forgiveness, and salvation. John lived to show others the tender mercy of God in Jesus Christ.
John is a witness to Jesus Christ and so is the church. Tied in with all the particular callings of God in each of our lives is the calling of all Christians to follow in the footsteps of John. We are not saviors, we are not redeemers, we point others to the one who is – Jesus Christ.
John was given a new name and a new calling, in everything he did, to point other people to Jesus Christ. May we who have been given new names, new identities in Jesus Christ, be empowered by the Holy Spirit to do the same.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.