“What’s in a Name?” Malachi 3:1,16-18; Luke 1:57-64
— Names are important in the Hebrew world. God used names to assign his destiny to people. God remembered. God is my oath. God has been gracious. These are names that God uses to bring about our destiny – Our hope is that God loves us enough to give us a good destiny no matter how barren the current day.
What is in a name? John’s name contains history, power, personhood, dreams,
and most importantly today, hope. Elizabeth and Zachariah hoped for a child. We have
hopes too. We hope is that God will favor us and give us a peaceful and fulfilling
As we begin our advent season, this hope we have in God is lived out the story
about the birth of a boy named John. But John isn’t the only name in the story we must
consider. To understand the hope of advent there are three names to consider. Those
names are Elizabeth, Zachariah, and John. Three names to explain the hope we have
in God this advent. To understand, we need to consider not only the naming of John,
but the whole story leading up to John’s birth. As we explore this story, I believe our
hope in God will be refreshed.
First and foremost, Jesus is our hope in God. Because God sent Jesus to die for
us, we can be forgiven our bad choices. Because Jesus came to earth, God will allow
us to live with him and other believers forever. Also because of Jesus, we have hope
that we can mend all our broken relationships, beginning this very day. The fulfilment of
our hope is that Jesus will return and finish perfecting this world for us. In the years right before Jesus was born, Israel was also hoping for Jesus to come. The Israelites in
Judah waited for Jesus to come and bless them and set them free.
Elizabeth and Zachariah were also waiting for God to bless them with a child.
The whole world and Israel’s cosmic hope is played out on a family scale in the situation of Elizabeth and Zachariah. The way God came through for them increases our hope
that God will come through for us.
You and I are waiting in hope for Jesus to fix our broken lives. To affirm our hope
in God’s promise, we look to the scriptures where God has kept God’s word in the past.
We remember, and our memory builds our hope.
According to Luke’s account, the story about Jesus’s arrival on earth begins with
a priestly family. We read in Luke 1:5-7, “In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a
priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife
Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both were righteous in the sight of God,
observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless
because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.”
Zechariah and Elizabeth were born into a priestly family in the nation of Israel.
God created Israel. In the first five books of the Bible, we read the story of how God
created a people called Israel to be God’s own people. These people were going to be
the way God would save all of stubborn, sinful humanity. It is a wonderful story. I am
sure you are familiar with much of it. God called Abram and Sarai out of the nations and
set them up to be mother and father of God’s people. In Genesis 12:1-3, “The Lord had
said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the
land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make
your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and
whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”
But Abram’s people were enslaved by Egypt. Eventually, God called Moses to
lead this people out of slavery in Egypt through the red sea. God gave them a code of
conduct to live by called the Law, and created the church and put Priests descended
from Moses’s brother Aaron in charge of it. After 40 years of camping in the desert, God
instructed Joshua to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land. It is an epic saga.
When Luke begins telling his account of the story of Jesus, hundreds of years
have passed since God settled the people of Israel. Things were a bit rocky for Israel
and they had trouble following the Law and living as a blessing to the world. As a result,
God sent them into Exile in Babylon.
But God promised Israel in Leviticus 26:43-44, “For the land will be deserted by
them and will enjoy its Sabbaths while it lies desolate without them. They will pay for
their sins because they rejected my laws and abhorred my decrees. Yet in spite of this,
when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or abhor them so as to
destroy them completely, breaking my covenant with them. I am the Lord their God.”
God eventually returned Israel to the Promised Land.
But by the time Zechariah and Elizabeth were born, the Israelites had been back
in the Promised Land for hundreds of years. And things were still a bit rocky for Israel.
They were still struggling with God and the Law. To make matters worse, at that time,
the Israel was not an independent nation. Israel was ruled over by the Roman Empire.
Things were bad, but Israel had hope in a coming messiah.
We can hear Israel’s hope for a messiah in Psalm 80:17-19, “Let your hand be
upon the one at your right hand, the one whom you made strong for yourself. Then we
will never turn back from you; give us life, and we will call on your name. Restore us, O
LORD God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”
Despite their hope, as the years went on and on, I suspect many Israelites began
to doubt God’s promises.
The situation of God’s people was mirrored in many ways in the life of Zechariah
and Elizabeth. We read they were righteous in God’s sight, and yet, God had not
blessed them with a child. Elizabeth and Zechariah had grown old and they had ceased
to believe that God would favor them. What about the promises to their ancestors about
Israel multiplying into a great nation were they not to be a part of that multiplying? I
suspect they wondered why God seemed to be indifferent toward them. They were
waiting for so long, working hard to be righteous and blameless before God, wondering
when God would keep God’s promises to bless them. And are we not in a similar
situation? We live here on earth waiting for so long for Jesus to return and keep God’s
promises to bless us.
Whether we are married, have children, or not, from time to time it can feel like
the hopes and dreams that we have for our lives will not be realized. We may feel like
God has not blessed us like we expected. Even in the face of our efforts to be righteous
and blameless before God, we, like Elizabeth and Zechariah are a people under the rule
of evil empire. Our evil empire may not be Roman, but as Paul says in Ephesians 6:12,
“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the
authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil
in the heavenly realms.” We are oppressed as we wait for Jesus to return, living our
best in a world that sometimes seems barren of the blessings we long for. And in this
waiting our hope often runs thin.
But thanks be to God! God came through for Elizabeth and Zachariah with the
baby John. We read that Gabriel visited Zechariah and confirmed hope for the future.
In Luke 1:8-23 tells the story.” Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and
he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of
the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time
for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar
of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But
the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your
wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and
delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight
of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink, and he will be filled with
the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to
the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to
turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the
righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my
wife is well along in years.” The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence
of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now
you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not
believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed
so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he
had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable
to speak. When his time of service was completed, he returned home.”
God remembered Zachariah. And, that is exactly what the Hebrew name
Zachariah means. It means “God has remembered.”
We saw in the video a few minutes ago how Elizabeth might have reacted when
Zachariah returned home. Tears and Laughter. God has fulfilled God’s oath to multiply
Israel in Elizabeth’s life. And that is what the Hebrew name Elizabeth means. “God is an
oath.” Or perhaps a better definition might be “God is a promise keeper.”
God had finally favored Elizabeth and Zachariah with a child! And that is exactly
what the name John means. “God has favored.”
The names of Elizabeth, Zechariah, and John become so meaningful to us who
believe in Jesus. In those names is contained the story of God’s history and power as
well as our dreams and hope.
God came through for Elizabeth and Zachariah with John. But In this story, God
also came through for all Israel in that God favored Israel with the fulfillment of a
promise. God was sending Jesus to save humanity. And just as God promised in
Malachi, God sent John as God’s messenger to point the way. Against impossible odds,
and later than expected, God comes through. That is something worth remembering.
This advent season, we all come to God with burdens and expectations. For
some of us, our hope is thin. For some of us, hope is all we have to cling to. As we
prepare to celebrate Jesus’s arrival on Christmas, we remember that we are still waiting
for Jesus to arrive. We are hoping that we might gain relief from our troubles. We are
hoping that God will fix our broken relationships. We are hoping that God will make the
heavens and the earth perfect, and everlasting. Advent begins this year with the birth
story of John the Baptist. Three names in this story renew our hope in God. We can
expect three things God will do without question. God remembers us. God is our oath.
God has favored us. This is how Advent begins. Thanks be to God.