December 6, 2015 Luke 1: 57-80
Rev. Catherine Purves
It truly is a coincidence that on the very week that our second granddaughter was born, our Advent Scripture text is about a birth. It is also a complete coincidence that, there was some drama over the naming of our new granddaughter, just as there was for John the Baptist and his parents. For months we have been asking regularly about what the baby’s name would be, but each inquiry was met by the same response: “We haven’t decided yet.” It’s hard to talk about and pray for someone who doesn’t have a name. ‘Baby’ only goes so far.
When Brendan and Emily were expecting the last time, they kept us up to date on the baby’s growth in utero by comparing her to various vegetables. I remember when Isla was the size of an acorn squash, a large eggplant, and so on. It just doesn’t feel right to refer to an unborn child as Acorn or Eggie, especially if you are trying to pray for her and her safe arrival in the world.
As they were getting ready to go to the hospital on Wednesday night, I asked one more time about the baby’s name, and I was told that they had narrowed it down to a short list of possibilities. Our daughter Laura, eager to name her soon-to-be niece, has been referring to her as Baby ‘P’. She did this for so long, that she and her new husband, Barnaby, were sincerely hoping that a ‘P’ name, like Penelope, would eventually be chosen, but Penelope Purves is a pretty awful name. It’s certainly true that names are tricky. Whatever name you get as an infant, you’re stuck with it. And it can say a lot about you, about your family, and it can even shape how others see you and how you feel about yourself.
We saw in our reading from Luke, that this is not a new problem for parents and their children. Way back in biblical days names were considered highly important, and, I guess, they were no easier to choose then than they are now. It was traditional to name a firstborn son after his father or grandfather. Family names were often recycled as they still are today. Our new granddaughter had a middle name long before she had a first name, because her parents wanted to name her after her Aunt Annie.
In our Scripture reading, when Elizabeth gave birth at a surprisingly old age there was much excitement and all of their friends and neighbors were speculating about what the baby’s name would be. They thought he should be called Zechariah after his father. I guess giving indecisive parents a little help with name selection is nothing new either. The result in this biblical context was no different from that in our family. Elizabeth would not listen to their well-intentioned and even logical suggestion. “He is to be called John,” she firmly announced. Predictably, the neighbors then turned to the baby’s father. Surely, old Zechariah would want his only son to be named after him. But again they were surprised when Zechariah asked for a tablet on which to write, because he had lost his ability to speak, and he wrote quite plainly and emphatically “His name is John.”
John was a name that came out of nowhere. There were no Johns in either Elizabeth’s or Zechariah’s families. The neighbors’ excitement over this surprising birth turned to awe and amazement. Something strange was going on. The name John is a shortened form of the name Jehohanan, which means ‘God’s gracious gift’. The neighbors rightly surmised that God was involved in both the birth and the naming of this child. He would be ‘God’s gracious gift’ not only to his aging parents, but to all the people. And so they rightly began to ask one another, “What then will this child become?” In other words, “What will God do through this child?” In what way will he be ‘God’s gracious gift’?
You may think that those neighbors were getting a little carried away at this point. Is this not a bit much to read into a simple name? But we do know that throughout Scripture names were terribly important. The name of God had particular power and was not even spoken. The name Adam means man or humanity. The first task that Adam was given in the Garden of Eden was to name all of the animals. A name change was also highly significant. So, when God made a covenant with Abram, his name was changed to Abraham, which means ancestor of a multitude. Moses received his name from Pharaoh’s daughter because, she said, “I drew him out of the water.” Names had power to define a person, to shape a person’s character, and even to confirm his or her destiny. And according to the Gospel of Luke, John, was not named by his parents. The choice of his name was made by God. John would be ‘God’s gracious gift’, just as Jesus would live into the meaning of his name, ‘God saves’.
Returning to our story, we see that those neighbors were then treated to another surprise, because Zechariah, who had been mute since he learned from an angel that Elizabeth was going to have a child, suddenly regained his speech. And he began to praise God. Then, Luke tells us, he was filled with the Holy Spirit and started to prophesy. A common circumcision ceremony just became even stranger.
This prophecy came in two parts. Zechariah began by praising God for what he was about to do which would be in fulfillment of all of his promises dating back to the time of their ancestor, Abraham. “He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David,” Zechariah proclaimed. Well, he hadn’t done yet, but Mary was pregnant and would soon deliver her baby who would be named Jesus, ‘God saves’.
Then Zechariah turned to his own child, John. “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.” This is how John would be ‘God’s gracious gift’. He would prepare the people to receive the even greater gift of Jesus who would be their salvation. John would call them to repentance and then Jesus would announce God’s forgiveness. Zechariah could see a new age dawning with the birth of his son, John. God was going to act in mighty ways, and the lives of those two babies, forever intertwined as prophet and savior, would be part of God’s coming in power to save his people.
Now, we all have names, and our names say something about us. We have had to live into our names. Many of us bear family names. Some of us may have changed our names to suit our perceived personalities. For example, I started as Catherine, became Cathy, returned to Catherine, and now I am Cathy again. I’m not sure what that says about me. At the same time, I know that I was named for an aunt who died shortly before I was born, so my name ties me to the past. All of our names are like that. They are part of our past, present, and future. And in some sense, they define us.
We all of us share one name in common. We are all called Christian. We have been named after our Savior, Jesus Christ. This is a formative name, a foundational name. Everything else about you is built upon this name. It tells you, and it tells the world, who and what you are, just as John’s name did, just as Jesus’ name did. You are Christian; that is your name. It is not just a decision you make or a name you have chosen. This is a God-given name, just as the names John and Jesus were God-given. It defines who you are, what your purpose is in the world. It connects you to a history of salvation. It imposes itself on your present. It promises you a future. Christian. That is your name.
At times in our lives, we might be tempted to try to modify that name. It is a heavy name. It comes with baggage. It makes demands on us. Christian. That is a name that says a lot. Chris is a bit less heavy-handed. Christie is rather light-hearted and unimposing. We might be tempted to opt for those names instead. That is, we might prefer a nickname that is less provocative and less restrictive. We might want to have more of a hand in the shaping of our own present and future, even if we cannot change the past.
But remember, your name, Christian, is a God-given name. It was given to you with the same intent and purpose that was behind the giving of John’s and Jesus’ names. There is a plan for your life too that is God-given. Can you imagine John the Baptist wanting to be called Johnny? Of course not! He was ‘God’s gracious gift’ to his people. Our name, Christian, makes us part of God’s gracious gift to the people who know us. We cannot mess with that name or that calling. It defines us, past, present, and future.
But I do imagine that both John and Jesus wrestled with their names throughout their lives. What did it mean to be called ‘God’s gracious gift’? What could it mean to be named ‘God saves’? So too, we are meant to wrestle with the name Christian throughout our lives. It will challenge, coerce, sustain, and surprise you for years to come. But it is your name, your God-given name. Along with Zechariah, we should praise God for that name and for the way in which God continues to reveal his purposes to his people. As amazing as it sounds, just as God used John, he is still using us, to prepare the way of the Lord. In naming you Christian, God has made you God’s gracious gift to a world that is hungry for the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Let us all try to live into our God-given name.