When it was time for Elizabeth’s baby to be born, she gave birth to a son. And when her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had been very merciful to her, everyone rejoiced with her.
When the baby was eight days old, they all came for the circumcision ceremony. They wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth said, “No! His name is John!”
“What?” they exclaimed. “There is no one in all your family by that name.” So they used gestures to ask the baby’s father what he wanted to name him. He motioned for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s surprise he wrote, “His name is John.” Instantly Zechariah could speak again, and he began praising God.
Names are a big deal in Middle Eastern culture, and keeping a family name is a big part of it. When our first daughter was born, all the Arab aunts, uncles, and cousins on my dad’s side had suggestions. More importantly, in their Middle Eastern tribal culture, every child gets the father’s first name as a middle name, even the girls. When we named her Sadie Renée (and Sadie is a Hebrew name) there was a collective, “Huh? What does that even mean?”
In today’s story, all the aunts, uncles, and cousins would have been gathered for the circumcision ceremony. This was a big deal because it meant Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son was entering the covenant. Of course, the miracle baby boy would have his father’s name: Zech Jr. But God had a different name in mind, and when Elizabeth said, “No! His name is John!” (v. 60), their response was typical My Big Fat Middle Eastern Family: “What? . . . There is no one in all your family by that name” (v. 61). They didn’t believe her until Zechariah scribbled it down because, remember, he couldn’t talk. As we saw previously, the angel Gabriel gave him nine months of silent nights during the pregnancy because he wasn’t ready to receive what he had been praying for.
But then he writes down the literal name to what God is doing—John—and suddenly he can speak again! And this time a very different voice comes out. Something happened in those nine silent months that moved Zechariah from crying a sigh of doubt to singing a hymn of faith:
“Praise the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has visited and redeemed his people.
He has sent us a mighty Savior
from the royal line of his servant David,
just as he promised
through his holy prophets long ago.
Now we will be saved from our enemies
and from all who hate us.
He has been merciful to our ancestors
by remembering his sacred covenant—
the covenant he swore with an oath
to our ancestor Abraham.
We have been rescued from our enemies
so we can serve God without fear,
in holiness and righteousness
for as long as we live.
“And you, my little son,
will be called the prophet of the Most High,
because you will prepare the way for the Lord.
You will tell his people how to find salvation
through forgiveness of their sins.
Because of God’s tender mercy,
the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide us to the path of peace.” (Luke 1:68–79)
He may not keep the family name, but John will stay in the family business: preparing the way for the presence of the Lord.
Zechariah wasn’t ready for what he had been praying for, but God gave him the grace of silence to prepare. Then, at the right time, Zechariah wrote John’s name and not getting his daddy’s name spoke something new into the world.
The people were looking for a messiah but, like Zechariah, they weren’t ready for the answer to their prayers either. John’s birth is a small answer to one prayer that will grow into a big answer to many prayers.
That’s why Advent is a season to prepare for Christ’s return and for his first arrival. Sometimes we need to be still and silent for a season so we can see where God is answering our prayers in unexpected ways, and then name them, so our lives can be an answer to many other prayers.
Christ was born. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again!
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