In literature, and this is especially true in the Scriptures, what comes at the beginning of a passage or a story and at the end often hold the greatest significance. The stuff in between might illuminate and fill out the meaning of the passage, but like bread on a sandwich, the words and images on the two ends hold the events and details together and give them shape and purpose.
Throughout December, we have been hearing from the first chapter of Luke’s gospel, as those passages lead up to the birth of Jesus.
We might wonder why Luke takes so much time laying out the details he reports in the first chapter of his gospel account. After all, we are eager to hear about the reason for the season, right? The birth of Jesus. And yet, Luke found it important to report on the events leading up to the birth, even in some detail the accounts of the people surrounding Jesus.
On the first week of this journey through Advent, therefore, we heard the story of how it came to be that John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, the one who prepares the way for our Lord, was born to a religiously righteous couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Remember how, when the angel Gabriel, sent by God, announced the gracious good news that Elizabeth was to conceive a child, Zechariah was struck dumb because he could not quite believe, or “know this to be true.” He desired proof - some sign that God could or would do this wondrous thing. After all, both Elizabeth and Zechariah are old, and throughout their lives have proven to be barren.
Finally, the baby foretold by Gabriel is born to Elizabeth, and it is time to name the baby. This typically happens for Jewish boys when they are eight days old.
Naming babies holds different kinds of significance depending on your culture. When my husband and I were expecting our children, we carefully weighed the names we would give them, tossing out many possibilities that one or the other of us just found unacceptable. The names needed to have the right “sound” and they couldn’t be associated with a person with an unfortunate past, reputation, or personality. In the end, each of our children ended up having names that we liked, and as part of their name, a connection to one of our ancestors.
In the culture of the Israelites, the name of a child was very significant, and also connected them with an ancestor. Family connection had become the most important factor in naming a child during the time of the Second Temple, when Zechariah was alive. Those gathered that day to conduct and witness the naming of the child fully expected him to be named after his father, Zechariah.
In both the old Testament and the New, we know that God sometimes changed the name of a person, such as changing the name of Abram to Abraham, of Sarai to Sarah, and of Jacob to Israel. Jesus changed the name of Simon to Peter and Saul to Paul.
At other times, God gave the name of the child before birth. Such is the case with both John and Jesus. When Gabriel informed Zechariah that he and his wife would have a child in their old age, the first thing he did was to instruct this priest that the baby boy’s name was to be John, which, derived from the Hebrew “Yohanan” means, “Yahweh is gracious”.
As the group are in the process of naming the child, Zechariah is still unable to speak, so they begin to name him “Zechariah.” After all this name appears more than thirty times in the Bible and is often given to those related to the priestly Levite tribe, like this child’s father. And, of course, it is the child’s father’s name! But Elizabeth, in faithfulness and trust in the Lord, interrupts them and tells them no, this child will be called “John.”
Confusion and grumbling ensue since no one knows anyone in the family named “John”. Why would Elizabeth choose such a name? So, they turn to the one whose decision is final in such instances, the child’s father – and Zechariah carefully writes out his name for them – “John.”
The people are shocked and amazed. Instantly, Zechariah’s speech is restored. God removes the impediment, rewarding Zechariah for maintaining his faithfulness once more.
Zechariah’s response comes in his song, extolling God’s mercy. The true gift is not the birth itself, but the sign this birth represents of the mercy of God that comes through the events taking place and those that are to come. God’s mercy is the generous sandwich filling that gives shape to all the events that have taken place in this first chapter of the Gospel of Luke.
God’s mercy delivers a baby to an aged couple. God’s mercy fills Mary with child. In mercy, God gives the births of John and Jesus as miraculous gifts of love to a struggling, hurting, and lost world.
Each person’s response to God’s grace in Luke’s gospel praises God for the Messiah’s coming in the light of their own circumstances, hopes, and aspirations. While the ministry of Jesus is many-faceted, like the many facets of a precious diamond, each psalm of praise tends to focus on one facet, and all of them together point out the manifold blessings of God manifested through His Son.
Elizabeth sings out her joy and wonder at the mercy and blessing of God among us. Mary sings of the mercy of God that raises up the lowly and gives them good things.
The old priest sees the fulfillment of what God’s word to him, and God’s mercy and deliverance from our enemies and all those who hate us. The words of Zechariah are called the Benedictus and to this day are sung at matins, or the morning prayer of the church. It concludes with the words, “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."
Neither Mary nor Zechariah could ever have known exactly how God would work through these babies, but they believed God’s mercy and love is steadfast and unending. Zechariah trusted that God is working through the births of these children.
The light that comes into the world, sent by God in God’s great mercy, is the dawn that will overcome the darkness and shadow of death. The light is a guide. It will guide us into the way of all peace.
The awesome, hard-to-fathom, unprecedented promise of God’s mercy is that it is a gift. Unexpected, unusual, seemingly impossible by human estimations, yet through these Scriptures, and through the songs of response by Elizabeth, Mary, and the newly eloquent Zechariah, we receive the grace of God not because of anything we have done but because of what God does for us.
There is plenty of doubt to go around. The story of Christmas, from the annunciations of the conceptions to the events surrounding the births of John and Jesus, seems too fantastical, and too good to be true. We, too, wonder how God can make an old barren woman and a young peasant virgin become pregnant and bear baby boys whose lives will change the world.
While Elizabeth, Mary, and Zechariah sang out with joy and praise, the mercy of God addressing the afflictions of the world, we look around and see a world where the poor are still oppressed, where even in the “advanced civilizations” of the modern world people with black and brown skin are hated and are systematically made victims of injustice and persecution, where Jews continue to be murdered for being Jewish, where followers of Christ are distrusted and God’s Holy Word desecrated.
This month we celebrate with great joy the births of two baby boys under the strangest of circumstances even while we absorb the news that: yet another child has died in detention and millions around the world and in our country have been traumatized and many scarred for life by their experiences of war, poverty, famine, violence, family separation, physical and sexual abuse and exploitation, and homelessness.
The same God who sent his Son into the world to relieve the pain and injustices of the world, to overcome the darkness in our lives, and to free us from sin continues to come among us making a difference in our lives and in our world. God comes into the world in unexpected ways and daily grants mercy to those who believe in him.
Through the words of Zechariah, we come to recognize that God’s unending mercy still abides in the world, and that God uses unassuming and flawed people to show God’s love, compassion, and care.
God’s mercy overcomes the obstacles in our lives, especially the barriers we ourselves erect, and God delivers on God’s promise of unending mercy and love. This week was a crazy busy one for me as I know it was for you, yet I saw God at work last Sunday when several of you gave up hours of your lives to sing Christmas carols and your beautiful, smiling faces to our home-
bound and to the places where you live. I saw the faces of aged, confined people come to life when perfect strangers surrounded them with love and song.
I experienced the love of God through a colleague who spoke a few words of reassurance to me, during a hard week.
I felt God working through the members of the renewal team as we met on Monday and planned a month of activities here at Zion.
There are so many ways to see and know God’s mercy and love, God’s faithfulness and abundance, God’s grace and peace.
As you enter the final days of preparation for Christmas, I pray that you too can join in the words of praise Zechariah sings, as the light of Christ scatters the darkness and grants you hope and grace forever. Amen.