What’s in a name?

Luke 1:57-68, 76-80                                                                 What’s in a name?

To burn incense in the sanctuary of the temple in Jerusalem was a high honor for a priest. Some would never have that honor. They waited a lifetime and most weren’t chosen. A priest would have this distinction exactly one time, if one was fortunate enough to be selected.

This was a deeply holy moment, righteousness and seriousness were foundational. In Leviticus 10, Aaron’s sons, priests, were consumed by the fire as they lit the incense because God saw that they were unholy.

The gravity of this call was known. One did not enter into it lightly.

In his old age, Zechariah was chosen by lot to burn incense in the sanctuary of the temple in Jerusalem. He was nervous, no doubt. He knew what happened to Aaron’s sons a long time ago. Compounding his angst, an angel of the Lord, Gabriel, visited him in the temple. He and Elizabeth would have a son in their old age. Zechariah questioned Gabriel, who rendered Zechariah mute for his lack of faith.

At least he wasn’t consumed by fire.

Hear now God’s Word in Luke 1, the first half of today’s passage.

“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 Zechariah’s 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 with him.”


I had a Dr.’s appointment on Monday and to my surprise she walked into the room 8-and-a-quarter months pregnant. While I suspect she understands how these things happen, but this was unexpected. This is her fourth child, the other three are older by 8 years plus. My excellent Dr. is 40 years old and she joked that her chart in her obstetrician’s office literally notes, “elderly patient” to describe her.  Not geriatric, which is what you’d think, but elderly patient.

That’s how Elizabeth’s neighbors described her. Elderly. It’s no wonder they are filled with awe and happiness that she finally has a baby, a son. God was good to her. Finally. Just as God had been good to Sarah, and Rachel, and Hannah, all barren, all having had children by the grace of God.

All of their lives, Zechariah and Elizabeth were faithful to God. And at long last, they received what they’d always longed for.

Have you been faithful to God for so long and still you wait for what you long for? Having faith in God, and waiting and yearning look like patience and impatience, like abandonment, plodding through very long days, praying when you don’t feel like it and feeling like praying but you can’t. Some days are good, and you barely think about it.

We have all waited for something we really wanted.

By law, it was the right thing for the faith community to take the baby boy to be circumcised on his eighth day. Potluck dishes and diapers were brought, a great celebration.

When it came time to name the baby, the crowd thought they had it all wrapped up. “Well, his father’s name is Zechariah, so what other choice is there? Name him Zechariah!”

The chicken pot pie is getting cold, let’s get on with this.

“No. Not Zechariah.”

“What do you mean not Zechariah?”

“John. His name is John, according to the Lord.”

“None of your relatives has this name.”

Isn’t this the cry of the generations? You’re naming your baby what? We don’t have any relatives by that name!

Or, to translate, this is not how we do things.

So what’s in a name?

Genealogy’s in a name. A history, a specific family history. A person is identified with a clan by a name.

For instance, Elizabeth came through the lineage of Aaron, whose sons were consumed by the fire for their un-holiness. Who was Aaron?

Aaron was Moses’s brother, whom God sent with Moses to free the slaves in Egypt.

Why did God send Aaron with Moses?

Because Moses couldn’t speak well. Here, all these thousands of years later, Elizabeth speaks for Zechariah because he couldn’t speak at all. Funny how those things come around, not only in the biblical story but in our families too.

But now the neighbors turn to him, “Come on, Zechariah, tell us he has your name.”

He writes, “His name is John.”

Right there and then, God opens Zechariah’s mouth and he is able to speak again. By writing, “his name is John,” Zechariah says, “I am in  cahoots with God in this new thing!”

His first utterance is a song of praise to God’s greatness and a description of who this child will become: John the Baptist.

The neighbors were amazed. They were stunned, befuddled, amused. They perceived that something different was happening. Something new.

They were right because God was up to something. John was God’s answer to “this is not how we do things.”

So agitated and confused, the people gossiped about it, far and wide: “I wonder what this baby will be when he grows up? Obviously, God is cooking something up in him.” They were trying to sort it out.

They looked for signs like this. How God was moving, living, working among them? They didn’t gloss over the details, they didn’t ignore the details, but saw God in them.

His name is John. A prophet of God. He will go before Messiah and prepare the people for Him.

John will teach salvation through a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of their sins.

John will powerfully understand and not be tempted to think that he himself is not Messiah. He’ll say that he’s unworthy to untie Messiah’s sandal straps.

John, in all of his grown up weirdness, coming out from the wilderness, dressed in camel hair, eating locusts and honey, will be the preacher of hope.

Today marks the entryway into Advent. God’s up to something. God always is. Do you not perceive it? Do you take time to ponder where God is moving, living, and working in your life?

Will you, this season, take that time? Take it in silence. Take it in Scripture. Take it in prayer. Make your Advent discipline the Tuesday night prayer class.  (devotionals too)

Ponder these things:

What is God up to when you think God’s nowhere to be found?

What’s God up to when you are rendered mute? When you have no words? And what about that moment when the right words come?

What’s God up to when the unlikiest of things happens in your life?

What’s God up to in the good? What’s God up to in the bad?

What’s God up to in the light? And in the dark?

God is in all, and is all in all.

Today, this is what God’s up to: Finish the scripture, responsively, with me.

Then 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….

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.

Invitation to the Table

We wait with hope, hopeful expectation. We wait with yearning that God will come and decisively so. We are in need of a Savior.

We wait with hope, with hopeful anticipation, to celebrate the birth of Christ and to ask that He come again in power and in might.

We are the preparers of the Way. We don’t sit in darkness, but in light. Our feet are guided in the way of peace, and we tell of the coming of the Lord.

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