Sermon for the Birth of John the Baptist 24/06/12 —Roberta Berke
“He is to be called John”[i]
It’s not easy to name a new baby. Even after parents do decide on a name, some people always object to their choice. “None of your relatives has that name.”[ii] “You should name him after his father.” We can recognise the family scene in today’s gospel. “John” was not the name people expected the child to be given. Right from this opening story, Luke’s gospel is full of surprising events that are not what humans expect. Yet these same unexpected events serve God’s greater purpose of salvation.
The name “John” means “God’s gracious gift”. This was the name that the archangel Gabriel gave to the child when he foretold his birth. His father, the priest Zechariah, was offering incense in the temple when Gabriel appeared in a vision. Gabriel told Zechariah that he and his wife Elizabeth were to have a son. Their child would become a prophet who would prepare the people for the coming of the Lord.[iii] Zechariah was shocked and questioned the angel: “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.”[iv] Zechariah was thinking about human limitations, and he ignored God’s possibilities. Although devout, he questioned God’s power to override His own natural laws. As a rebuke, Zechariah was struck dumb until the baby was named John. This was the name that the angel had ordered. The meaning of this name proclaimed that the child was “God’s gracious gift”.
Several other times God had given a son to devout, but childless, older couples. Abraham was a hundred years old and Sarah was ninety when God told them they were to have a son and name him Isaac. Sarah laughed at this, but God told her, “Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?”[v] Elkanah and Hannah had no children and in her distress she prayed to the LORD. Her prayers were answered by the birth of Samuel, who became a great prophet.[vi] When Luke described the surprising birth of John the Baptist, his listeners would have remembered these other miraculous births to barren old couples. And of course, Luke weaves this story of John’s miraculous birth into the story of Jesus’ miraculous birth. When Mary asks, ”How can such things be?” Gabriel replies, “with God all things are possible”[vii] Then he gives her an example of God’s limitless power: her cousin Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy.
The child John was given to Zechariah and Elizabeth, not simply as a mark of personal favour to them as individuals, but as part of God’s purpose for the whole world. John the Baptist’s unexpected birth was part of God’s plan of salvation. Zechariah acknowledged God’s wider purpose in his song of praise, the Benedictus. “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.”[viii] God was fulfilling his promises, through this child who would prepare the people for the coming of the Messiah.
In biblical times, lack of children was thought to indicate lack of God’s favour. Barren women were often treated with pity and contempt. Today, we do not see childlessness as a curse but as a medical problem. Modern medicine can overcome many fertility problems. Yet there are always some people who cannot be helped. The pain and grief of these couples is profound. Hearing these biblical stories of miraculous conceptions, we might well ask, “What about childless couples today? They’re good people. Doesn’t God care about them?” God does care about childless couples today. And God does care about each and every one of us. Yet God doesn’t always show His love in ways that we expect. We can’t always know what God’s purposes are in a particular situation.
When we read stories in the Bible that describe God’s miraculous intervention in human lives, it’s all too easy to think of God’s acts in over-simplified terms of reward and punishment. These stories can be misunderstood as saying, if you do good things, God rewards you with good things. If you do bad things, God punishes you with bad things. But this simplistic way of thinking reduces God to a celestial vending machine, that automatically dispenses blessings when we put in our little coins of good deeds. Of course, in human society, good actions often have good consequences. Bad actions frequently bring bad results. Yet God doesn’t always do what we expect. Certainly God doesn’t always do what we demand.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were good people longing for a child. But God did not give them this child simply as a reward for being good. This child was “God’s gracious gift”. So they insisted that their new son be named “John”. The meaning of this name acknowledged that this child was “God’s gracious gift”. His birth was an extraordinary act of grace by God. This child was not only a gift from God, but showed God’s grace in action. “Grace” is a word we use so casually that we forget its true meaning. “Grace” means that God gives an undeserved, an unexpected, gift. God’s grace gives gifts, not rewards. God’s grace is indeed amazing, because often God doesn’t do what we expect. With grace, God may even do the opposite of what we expect. Zechariah and Elizabeth, old and childless, certainly didn’t expect to become parents at their age. Zechariah was literally dumb-struck at the archangel’s news. No one expected that Mary, a teenage girl in an obscure village, would become the mother of the Messiah. God’s grace can reverse human expectations. God’s grace can create possibilities in impossible situations.
“My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways, says the LORD.”[ix] God’s grace works in the world to give generous gifts like the child John. God fulfils his promises in ways we don’t expect. Many times God has given us good things which we didn’t expect and didn’t deserve. We are filled with wonder at God’s boundless generosity. And we give thanks to God for all His gracious gifts. AMEN.
Copyright © 2012 by Roberta Berke. All Rights Reserved.