June 23-24, 2012
“Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.”
Such simple words to hear.
But the birth of this baby – the birth of any baby – was not so simple.
Elizabeth was old.
She had been barren – or at least she thought she was barren until about 9 months ago.
She and Zechariah had been faithful – righteous people – the gospel writer Luke says,
and by now they had assumed that the gift of a child was not theirs to be had.
It may have been especially difficult for Zechariah.
After all, Zechariah was a priest,
and that position in the community was handed down,
father to son, father to son, father to son…until it reached Zechariah.
And now it appeared that the tradition would come to an end.
On that day 9 months or so ago,
Zechariah entered the temple’s holy place.
It was a very special day for him,
because once – only once – in a priest’s career, would he be chosen
to enter the holy place to offer sacrifice, burn incense, and pray for the nation.
Zechariah’s name was called – chosen by lot – that day.
It was a day he had spent much of his life preparing for.
Slowly, reverently, he entered that most holy place where God dwelt,
and began the ritual on behalf of the people in the community.
He was probably chanting or singing his prayers.
We don’t know what it was exactly that Zecahariah was praying for.
He likely prayed some psalms.
Perhaps he prayed for favorable weather and a good harvest.
Perhaps he prayed for an end to the violent occupation by the Romans.
Perhaps he prayed for the orphans and the widows – and for families without children.
But then in the midst of his prayers, he looked up…
To the right of the incense altar there was a figure – it was an angel of the Lord.
I don’t know how he knew it was an angel of the Lord.
But he had the response that most people in the Bible have when they see an angel –
he was scared out of his wits!
The angel responds, “Do not be afraid for your prayer has been heard,
and your wife Elizabeth will bear a son.
You’ll name him John.”
And Zechariah, says, “Right…! How can I be sure of this? My wife and I are old!”
And the angel says, “Zechariah, Zechariah, Zechariah,
I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God not just once in a lifetime like you – but all the time!, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.
And now, since you did not believe my words, (which by the way will be fulfilled in their time,) since you say you want to be sure, I’ll give you a sign.
You will be silent, unable to speak, until the day these things take place.”
So Zechariah leaves the temple.
The crowd gathers about him asking him questions,
“So how was it? Did the sacrifice burn well? Do you think God accepted it? Did you remember to pray for rain?”
But Zechariah is unable to speak…not a single word…until today. The day we remember the birth and naming of John the Baptist.
By this time, everyone has gotten pretty well used to Zechariah’s inability to speak.
He’s gotten rather good at sign language.
Elizabeth sometimes forgets what his voice used to sound like.
So when the months have passed, and it comes time for her to deliver,
people are so happy about the prophecy of the birth coming true,
that no one seems to remember the other event that was foretold –
that Zechariah will be able to speak again too.
Elizabeth keeps insisting to everyone that they name the baby John.
But that doesn’t make sense – no one else in the family is named John.
They think that maybe she’s just taking advantage of the fact that her husband is mute.
So they call the new old father over and ask him to write down
what he thinks the baby’s name should be.
He writes, ‘His name is John.”
Immediately, Zechariah’s mouth is opened, his tongue is freed, and he begins to talk!
This is getting really scary for the people.
First this old couple has a baby.
Then they both agree to name him this strange name that no one in the family has heard of.
And now the father who has been mute for nearly a year, can suddenly speak again!
The people don’t know what to make of it,
but they start telling the story over and over again,
so it travels throughout the countryside.
Did you hear about the new baby? Zechariah and Elizabeth’s boy?
What? The old priest and his wife? They had a baby?
Yep! And guess what they named him! They named him John!
Huh? John? Where in the world did they get that?
I don’t know – but Zechariah says he got the name from an angel!
Zechariah said what? He hasn’t spoken for months!
I know! But now we can’t shut him up! He’s so happy he just keeps praising God!
The reaction of everyone who hears the story is the same…
This is not an ordinary baby.
They dare not speak the words aloud, but they’re all thinking the same thing.
What will this child become?
A child born much too late.
A child given a most unusual name.
A child born to a man who was healed miraculously when he was born.
This is not an ordinary baby. What will this child become?
And so John the Baptist’s life begins.
What will this child become?
This was asked about John..
but doesn’t every child deserves to have someone wonder about them,
‘What will this child become?’
As we celebrate the anniversary of Title IX this week,
parents of girls born in the United States today are able to ask, “What will this child become?” and look forward to the opportunities available to her.
But sadly of course, the question “What will this child become?” is not asked with optimism everywhere.
As we heard from Pr. Brian Palmer last week,
those who are born today in places like Totota, Liberia will be born in front of a slow-moving bus called poverty, disease and hunger.
“What will this child become?” is not a question their parents ask without fear and despair.
Those children who are born in places like Greece,
will wonder whether or not their children will find meaningful work.
Those children who are born in places like Syria,
will wonder whether or not their children will spend their lives listening to bombs exploding around them.
Parents of African American sons who are born in the US today,
will wonder if their boys will be stopped for the uniquely American “crime” of “driving while black.”
The tragedy of all these stories is that as I suppose we all know,
every child deserves to have “what will this child become” asked at their birth with a sense of hope and joy and optimism….because that is what God desires for every child.
The name “John” means “graced by God” – “loved by God.”
Every child bears the name John because every child is loved by God.
Luke says…Now it came time for Elizabeth to give birth and she bore a son.
Her neighbors and relatives heard and rejoiced with her.
They were going to name him Zechariah after his father.
But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.”
Today, June 24th it will come time for 490,000 women around the world to give birth and they will bear sons and daughters.
Neighbors and relatives will hear and rejoice with them.
The mothers and fathers will have many names
they will name them Manuel and Sarah and Aisha and Max.
But to all mothers and fathers, they will also bear the name John – graced by God – loved by God.
Let us pray, from our hearts, “What will become of John? What will become of these children?”