Fourth Thursday of Advent
December 22, 2011
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 with him. (Luke 1:57-66)
Most people go by the names given to them by their parents. There might be nicknames and legal changes that come along, but names are still given. We keep those names throughout our lives and they form part of our identity as human beings. It’s hard to really be human without a name.
When Elizabeth gave birth, it was rightfully expected by everyone that her child would be named after his father. It was a common practice in that time, so the local folks looked forward to seeing a little Zechariah running around soon. But her husband had been told by God that the child would be named John, and Elizabeth stuck to her guns when people challenged her. Zechariah believed the command about the name as well, and when he announced it, he was able to speak again.
The friends and relatives saw two things take place that caused them to ask the question, “What then will this child become?” The first was the unconventional naming of the child; the second was the miracle of Zechariah receiving back his ability to speak. If this child was not to be named after his father—one who served Israel as a priest—then what would he become? His birth was accented by a miracle. Will this child be special?
Indeed he was special. He announced the coming of Jesus and called Israel to repentance. He was also imprisoned and executed by Herod, dying young and committed to his service to God. He might have lived a lot longer if he had simply been named Zechariah and then followed in his father’s footsteps.
But John lived out another path, called the name given to him by God. His life ended harshly, but it ended with John immersed in the calling that defined him. He lived true to the God who had named him.
Along with our given names, many of us go by other names that have defined our lives: Lonely, unloved, unworthy, not good enough, too far gone, and others even more demeaning. We might not like those identifiers, but whether we like them or not, they come to form who we think we are.
But, like John, God has chosen other names for us. Names like Beloved son or daughter; child of God, and friend of Jesus. These kinds of names have already been given to us and we don’t often realize it. They are our real definers.
With names like those, what then will we become?