Luke 1: 57 – 66 The birth of John the Baptist
When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, ‘No! He is to be called John.’
They said to her, ‘There is no one among your relatives who has that name.’
Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, ‘His name is John.’ Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. All the neighbours were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, ‘What then is this child going to be?’ For the Lord’s hand was with him.
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Why did it matter that the child was named John?
He nearly wasn’t. Boys were given their name when they were circumcised on the eighth day after they were born. The relatives of Zechariah and Elizabeth had all come to John’s circumcision to share Elizabeth’s joy at the birth of her child. They all expected that the child would be called Zechariah after his father.
And this would have been customary. A boy would often be named after his father, especially if he was expected to follow in his father’s footsteps. In Zechariah’s case they were significant footsteps, because he was a priest from a long line of priests. Elizabeth, too, was a descendant of Aaron, and therefore of a priestly family. Of course the boy was going to follow his father into the priesthood; why else would God have done a miracle so that Elizabeth would conceive?
Except that this was not God’s plan for him. God had a different and better plan for John’s life.
Perhaps Zechariah had written down the boy’s name for her at some stage of her pregnancy. Or perhaps she spoke prophetically. At all events, Elizabeth knew that she had to stop the boy being given the wrong name. She spoke up and said, ‘No! He is to be called John.’
That must have caused consternation among the guests! ‘There is no one among your relatives who has that name,’ they expostulated. And while they were trying to convince Elizabeth that she was wrong, Zechariah took a writing tablet and wrote on it, ‘His name is John.’
Family and friends might still have argued, but as soon as Zechariah had written the words ‘his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God.’ Confronted with that sign, the friends and family capitulated and the boy was named John.
No longer was he bound to follow his father into the priesthood; he could follow his own, unique vocation.
In fact, the name John means ‘God is gracious’. John the Baptist lived to point the way to Jesus, the source of grace. As a symbol of this, John was called away from temple worship to a ministry out in the world, and in this he was a forerunner of Jesus. John’s ministry was not in the temple but in the wilderness, where he baptised many as a token of forgiveness for their sins. The centre of gravity of a godly life was shifting away from the temple and out into the world, to become focussed on Jesus.
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There are several lessons in this for me, living my life two thousand years later.
The first is Elizabeth’s intervention. She was a woman, and would not have been expected to have spoken up on such an important matter as the child’s name. Yet she did, and her intervention was central to John receiving the right name. If God tells us to say something, we must be bold and say it.
The second is that we must practise listening to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. It’s not easy. Zechariah had an angel appear to him, and even then he didn’t believe what he was told about Elizabeth having a child. It took his own personal miracle to convince him. It should be easier for us, because as Christians we have God’s Holy Spirit living in us, but I find I have to tell myself over and over again to listen to him.
The third lesson is that God has a purpose for each one of us. Our choices actually matter, they really do. This life has been given to us on trust; it’s up to us to be good servants, worthy of that trust.
Thank you for this life that I hold in trust from you. It’s a wonderful life, full of joy. Please help me to be a faithful servant.
In Jesus name, Amen.