Sermon: Elizabeth

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 this 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 entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was upon him.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

The time had finally arrived. Elizabeth was having a baby. Months turned to years of waiting and praying and hoping before finally an angel came to Zechariah and promised that Elizabeth would have a baby. Zechariah’s response to the angel’s news caused the angel to strike Zechariah dumb until the birth of his son. Years of waiting transforms into nine months of expectations before the day of this child’s birth finally arrives. 

It finally happens and everyone rejoices. Elizabeth has been given a son. Everyone who sees them and knows this situations proclaims that this is the mercy of God that Elizabeth now has been given a son. Relatives and neighbors gather to celebrate, as they absolutely should. 

Those relatives and neighbors would have contained those with their own children and grandchildren, people whose joy for Elizabeth brought back wonderful memories of their own times with their children, watching them grow up, with all the beauty and challenge of parenting. But those relatives and neighbors might also have contained people who had waited and prayed alongside Zechariah and Elizabeth for a baby. It might have included people who walked with them on the journey of barrenness and did not have their prayers answered as they hoped. It might have included people’s whose genuine joy for Elizabeth also scratched at the open wounds of their own unfulfilled longings, their own barrenness that never was filled. Though the Bible is filled with miracle children, it is also full of women struggling for children, it is filled with women and men, just like today, who long and pray for years and never receive the gift of a child. 

On that day long ago, as the neighbors and family rejoiced, there were likely many people there, just as in this room, who knew the joy of wombs being opened and homes filled with children, and there were likely some there, just as in this room, who knew the struggle and pain of barrenness. 

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. 

The community saw this as an act of God’s mercy to Elizabeth. She has been given a son. Eight days after he was born, Zechariah and Elizabeth took the boy to be circumcised, just as God’s law commanded. Just as in some church traditions a child is not given a name until their baptism, a Jewish son was often not officially named until their circumcision. Being only eight days after birth, this was not a long time, but when the child entered the covenant people, when he was marked with the promise and call of God, then he was given a name. 

So on that eighth day, the family is gathered to witness his entry into God’s people and the giving of this child’s name. But it turns out, they already figured they knew what his name was. On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father.

They knew this child, they knew who he belonged to. 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. He was the son of Zechariah, so he would be named after his father. 

Yet, Elizabeth stops them before they can go any farther. But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.” 

Names are significant in the Bible. Names are connected with identity and calling. 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 this season. His name means ‘the Lord’s Salvation’ and that is who he is.

John means “the LORD has been gracious” and that is certainly so for Elizabeth. God in his grace has given Elizabeth a son. 

Yet it is also significant who gives the child the name. The name is an identity and a calling, but also a claim upon that child. The community wants to name the boy, Zechariah, but the angel told them “John.” It was the name given through the angel, the name God has given the boy, that will become his name. 

So the naming of this child is no small matter. It is a claim about who he is and whose he is. 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. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.

Elizabeth and Zechariah give their son the name God had given them. In doing so, they are recognizing God’s claim upon this child. John is their son, but he does not belong to them. Elizabeth and Zechariah will raise John, but he does not ultimately belong to them, but to God. Elizabeth and Zechariah will care for John, teach and nurture him, mold and guide him, but John does not belong to them, but to God. God who gave him the name has bigger plans, a bigger calling upon John’s life than they could imagine. 

In giving him the name ‘John,’ they are giving their child back to the God who gave him to them in the first place. By acknowledging God’s right to name this child, they are acknowledging God’s claim upon their son. John’s primary identity will not be that he is the son of Zechariah, but that the hand of the Lord is upon him. 

What an incredible act of faith. This gift they had longed and hoped for, the child they had dreamed of for years is finally in their arms and in their homes, and they turn around and entrust him to God. They place John in God’s hands and recognize that God’s claim upon him. As Zechariah will prophesy:

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.”

They could not hoard John, because God had a bigger purpose for him.

When we finally get what we have hoped and longed and prayed for, whatever it is, we can be tempted to grasp it tightly. Whether it is a career or spouse or friendship or child or, in 2020, simply being able to see our loved ones again, we can be tempted to hold on tightly to what we have been given. Overwhelming joy leads us to wrap our arms close and never want to let go. 

Yet, Elizabeth has been given the gift of a son, and she places him in God’s hands. What they had longed and prayed for, Elizabeth now held in her arms. Everyone else said name him Zechariah, claim that this child is yours, after all these years. Yet after finally holding the child in their arms, they name him not after his father, but after what God has spoken through the angel. 

Having received the merciful gift of this child, Elizabeth and Zechariah know the gift does not belong to them, but to God. “No; he is to be called John.

When a covenant child is brought forward for baptism, we are saying something similar. Though the parents will raise the child, care for the child, nurture the child, the both does and does not belong to them. When the child is marked with the promise and calling of God, not by the knife of circumcision but with the waters of baptism, we proclaim this child belongs to God. 

I have been present for the baptism of all my children and had the privilege, as a pastor, to baptize others. The only one you all have witnessed was the baptism of our youngest, Joanna. That little girl, the most precious gift imaginable, was given to us but does not belong to us. At her baptism, she was claimed by God and marked by his promise. Olga and I have been entrusted to raise her, teach her God’s ways, to pray for her and nurture her, but we cannot hoard her. She belongs to God and it is his claim and his purpose for her that we must put first. 

This is hard and yet, when I think of the LORD to whom I entrust my children, I cannot help but join with Zechariah in speaking and praising God. Just as Elizabeth could not sit idly by, but insisted her son be named John, after what God had said he should be called, Christian parents are given the incredible gifts of children only to be called to turn around and give the children back to God, to let his call and claim on their life superseded even their own. 

That does not make parenting somehow super easy. It doesn’t answer all the questions we have about how to be parents, how to be children, or what is happening when children walk away. Zechariah and Elizabeth’s story is not going to answer all those questions for us. But it does say that our children do not ultimately belong to us, but to God. It is his calling and his claim that defines John and should define our children as well. 

The gift longed and prayed for, sometimes for years, must then be given back into the hands of God. “No; he is to be called John.” 

But this is not just about children. Elizabeth is given the gift of a son and she names him John, placing him back in God’s hands. She could not hoard John, because God had a bigger purpose for him. Our life, every day, every moment, every breath is a gift from God, designed to be given back to God in gratitude. We cannot hoard it, because God has a bigger purpose for us. Life for many of us feels confined or constrained right now. We grow uncomfortable and frustrated with the way things are and uncertain about when it will change. In those moments, in this season, we can be tempted to take the gifts we have been given, our time, our voice, our love, our resources, our compassion, and hold them tight. They are mine after all, they belong to me, I can use them as I see fit. What if, instead, we saw them as gifts from God to be returned, like John was, into God’s loving hands. Where you are right now, whether wonderful or wearying, is an opportunity to put your gifts in God’s hands. Don’t hoard your life because God has a bigger purpose for it. It does not belong to you anyway. It was bought at a price by the blood of Jesus Christ. 

We have been named by Christ, called Christians, sharing his name and echoing his calling. Our names and our identities in Christ are 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. 

If you claim the name of Jesus, if you trust in Christ for your salvation, then your life, your days, no longer belong to you. They are God’s. As with Elizabeth and John, this is a reason to rejoice and praise God. Rejoice at the gift you have been given and rejoice to give your life back into the hands of God. 

Elizabeth was given a son and she gave him the name John, the one the angel had given. This speaks the reality of all Christians who have been entrusted with children – they belong to God. This also speaks to our own lives as they have been claimed by the LORD. You belong to God. But, lastly, the naming of John speaks to our life as a church. 

After years of waiting, Elizabeth and Zechariah were given the gift of a son, but were asked to give him a special name, signifying God’s claim upon the child and his purpose for him. They were entrusted with John, but ultimately John belongs to God. 

The same is true for the church. The church is Christ’s bride. It is not yours. It is not mine. No matter how long you have been a part of this congregation, the church does not belong to you. It is Christ’s. No matter if I am the pastor here for another 30 years, it will not be mine. We have only ever been entrusted with the bride of Christ. We are to nurture her and help her to grow, but ultimately she belongs to our LORD, just as John did. 

In each of these areas – children, self, church – to story of Elizabeth and Zechariah invites us into a loss that brings joy. There is loss to entrust your children, your life and future, and even the church into the hands of God. A loss of control. But it is joy because of the one into whose hands we place these incredible gifts. God’s hands are more sure and capable than our own. To know he holds us, our children, and our church in his hands is joy. 

It was finally time for Elizabeth to have a baby. The family and neighbors gathered to rejoice with the happy couple. Eight days later, they gathered again for his circumcision and naming. But then they were surprised. Instead of being named after his father or anyone in the family, the child was given a new name, one given by God. At the birth and naming of John, we see something fundamental about our life with God. We live because of the gift of God and we live as those claimed by God. Our life, our children, our church is not our own, but belongs – body and soul, in life and in death – to our faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. 

This advent season, I want to invite you into a practice of letting go. Whatever gifts you have been given in life, family, in fellowship in the church, offer them back to God. Ask him what he wants you to do with them and trust that just as he did with John, God has a far greater purpose in mind than we could imagine. 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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