Year C, Advent 2
My husband and I did not have any advance notice when we learned that a baby would be placed with us. We received the call the day of our son’s birth and were told we had to pick him up the next day. It was a 12 hour drive. Fortunately we had a lot to discuss in that 12 hour drive. One of the topics was what we would name him. We had not talked about names. It was just too hard to discuss tangible things like names and registries when we had no idea when we would have a child. During those 12 hours we narrowed it down to a few names. However, as soon as we saw him, we knew none of those names would work. He didn’t look like an Isaac or a Jacob. We had Joshua for 3 days before we settled on a name. By then we were already sleep deprived and completely overwhelmed with the suddenness of it all. Once we settled on the name Joshua and announced it to our family, I looked at my husband, who is also an Episcopal priest, and asked, “What’s the biblical meaning for Joshua.” He said, “God saves. It’s the anglicized version of Jesus.” I replied, “We just named our child Jesus? Because having two priests as parents isn’t bad enough, now we put the entire salvation of the world on him?” While this concerned me a little, I was too tired to come up with another name and we had already told the whole family. Jesus it was.
Naming a baby is a big deal. It always has been. Our psalm today isn’t actually from the Book of Psalms. But it is still considered in the psalm genre. It is Zechariah’s response to the birth and naming of his son. Zechariah and Elizabeth had wanted children for a very long time. However, Elizabeth was considered barren as she was past the age when woman normally had children. In today’s digital age, we have all kinds of creative birth announcements–but I challenge any of you to find a more unique birth announcement than the one Zechariah received.
He was in the temple offering incense to God. Most Jewish priests only had this opportunity once in their lifetime. It was an extraordinary honor. According to Jewish belief at the time, he was about as physically close to God as any human could be. He was there at the altar in a cloud of incense when an angel appeared to him and said, “Do not be frightened, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth shall bear a son whom you shall name John.”
Now since we are in church and this is the Bible, we don’t think too much of this kind of birth announcement. But consider it for a moment. Imagine if you experienced that today, or heard about it today. Would you believe it? Probably not, even if it was on the internet, we would assume it was some kind of hoax. Angels don’t deliver messages to regular people. Therefore, we really can’t blame Zechariah for reacting with disbelief. He asked the angel how could this be as both he and his wife were old. Well apparently this did not please the angel and Zechariah was struck mute. (My husband has a theory that striking Zechariah mute was actually an act of mercy because who knows what would have happened to him if he went and told his dear wife that she was too old to have a baby.)
Whether his muteness was a punishment or a gift, I cannot help but think about how hard that must have been….to be mute for 9 months, after such an extraordinary thing happened. He probably didn’t try to communicate the event since he didn’t believe the angel’s words initially. However once Elizabeth told him the astounding news that she was indeed pregnant…imagine how he must have felt. Did he try to write the story all down, or did he still doubt and wonder?
I like to think that he held it inside himself and turned it over in his mind and heart while he marveled as his supposedly barren wife’s belly grew. He must have communicated with her eventually as she knew that her son’s name was to be John. In our reading for today, a group of family and friends was gathered 8 days after the birth for the circumcision. This was also where they traditionally named the male child. Elizabeth shared that his name would be John, but the friends and family wanted confirmation from the father. Since he could not speak, he wrote the name out. “His name is John.” It was then and only then when Zechariah was able to speak again. You would think the first words out of his mouth would have been something like, “The craziest thing happened to me…” But no, the text tells us that the first thing he did was praise God and share the prophesy that we heard today as our psalm.
The prophesy started with praise of God and ended with words about who his son would be. “You my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, To give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.” That seems like a lot of pressure on a kid. I might have named my child after Jesus, but at least I didn’t declare him a prophet. However, then Zechariah switched gears a little. He said “In the tender compassion of our God the dawn from on high will break upon us, To shine in those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death, and guide our feet in the way of peace.”
Zechariah’s son did not end up having a very easy life. His job was to prepare people for Jesus. He did that by talking about sin and judgment, but also offering opportunity for forgiveness. In the end, he was killed because he insisted on speaking truth to people in power. He did all of that because he truly believed that Jesus was that dawn that would break through the darkness. Sometimes when we read these stories in church, we find ourselves relegating them to the past. John was the prophet who paved the way for Jesus. But then he died. Even Jesus, who died and was resurrected, seems to stay relegated to the past. We cannot leave these stories in the pages of our Bible. We still need a dawn to break upon us. While we have experienced the light of Christ, we still find ourselves dwelling in darkness and the shadow of death. We have accepted darkness and death as our cultural norm. In Advent we are reminded that while we may feel as though we are surrounded by darkness, we are merely walking in shadow. If there is shadow, then that means there has to be light somewhere. The light is always there if we look long enough and never give up hope.
The angel told Zechariah to name his son John. John means, “gift of God.” We might not all be named John, but we are all gifts of God and children of God. We are all here on this earth to remind people that Jesus isn’t dead. We are here to remind people that even the longest night will come to an end. Morning always comes. My husband and I waited for a baby for 7 years and there were times when I felt suffocated by the hopelessness of it all. Morning doesn’t always come as dramatically as a newborn, but it always comes. Sometimes it comes with rain and clouds, but behind it all, we know the sun is there.