57When the time arrived for Elizabeth to have her child she gave birth to a son.58Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy toward her, and they rejoiced with her.59 When they came on the eighth day to circumcise the child, they were going to call him Zechariah after his father,60but his mother said in reply, “No. He will be called John.”61But they answered her, “There is no one among your relatives who has this name.”62So they made signs, asking his father what he wished him to be called.63He asked for a tablet and wrote, “John is his name,” and all were amazed.64Immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he spoke blessing God.65Then fear came upon all their neighbors, and all these matters were discussed throughout the hill country of Judea.66All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, “What, then, will this child be?” For surely the hand of the Lord was with him.
80The child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.
Isaiah 49:1-6, Acts 13:22-26
The time arrives for Elizabeth to give birth to her son. He is the fruit of the promise made to her husband Zechariah while he was serving as priest in the holy place (see Luke 1:5-20). Zechariah doubted the word of God’s angel and was struck dumb as a result. He is promised that his ability to speak will return upon the birth of the child. Although both are advanced in years, both will share the joy of parenting a son who will be the one to prepare the way of the Lord. Luke describes this couple as both “righteous in the eyes of God, observing all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blamelessly” (verse 6). Because they had no children, they would have been considered less than righteous in the eyes of many in their village. God knows better, and because of Luke, so do we.
Who are the neighbors and relatives who now hear of the mercy God has bestowed upon Elizabeth and Zechariah? They are probably one and the same. In New Testament times the vast majority of persons who lived in a village are related to one another through birth or marriage. You would typically live the whole of your life in the same village and so would be well known to all. These relatives are ready to rejoice with Elizabeth because she has now been able to fulfill the commandment involving marriage, to be fruitful and multiply. In their world, children, children, and even more children are a direct sign of God’s favor toward any married couple.
It would have been typical for Zechariah to announce the name of his son soon after his birth. The name would normally be that of the grandfather. The naming of this child is delayed until the eighth day of his life, the day of his circumcision. The plan was to break with protocol and name the son after his father Zechariah. The village relatives are ready to go along with this plan. They want to call the child Zechariah. To the shock of all assembled Elizabeth speaks for the couple (Zechariah is still mute) and announces that the child’s name will be John. Her relatives kindly inform her that that is not the name of the child’s grandfather or father. There is no history of that name in the family. They turn to Zechariah and offer him a tablet so that he can correct his wife’s error in judgment. Zechariah agrees with Elizabeth and writes that the child’s name will be John. The relatives are amazed and the tongue of Zechariah is loosed so that he begins to speak the praises of God. Everyone assembled that day knows that the Lord has big plans for this child, John. They are sure that the hand of the Lord will be on him.
The Gospel passage ends by jumping thirty years into the future. John grows strong in the Lord and will become a prophetic fixture at the desert fording point along the Jordan River opposite Jericho. Soon his cousin Jesus will appear and will inaugurate his public ministry by submitting to baptism by John.
“All who heard these things took them to heart, saying, ‘What, then, will this child be?’”
In the Gospel of Luke both the neighbors and relatives in our reading and Mary the mother of Jesus “take things to heart.” What does that mean? In the biblical world you do not process thought in your mind (as we do in our Western world) but rather the heart. The heart is the emotionally-infused center of thought, prayer, and applied consideration. You meditate in your heart.
The villagers are intimately involved in the birth, circumcision, and naming of the son born to old Elizabeth and Zechariah. They have witnessed the miracle of the pregnancy, the birth, and now the public celebration making the child a member of the Jewish faith community through the ritual of circumcision. These men and women sense something special about this child given the unusual circumstances surrounding his conception and birth. He is a child of grace and a gift from God. They cannot know what all of this will mean, but they do know that the child is destined for great things in the service of the Lord.
Can you recall a time when you wondered what a child would become? With five young grandchildren, I am now revisiting these times of wonder all over again. I had an active hand in the formation of our five children but now I have to stand by and watch as my grown children, as parents, follow the Lord as they raise our grandchildren in our midst. What, then, will this child be? It is the perfect question for our meditation this week.
When Zechariah names his son with the name revealed by the angel Gabriel, his tongue is loosed and he begins to speak of the blessings of God. We can share in this blessing of the Lord in our prayer this week gleaned from the opening lines of Zechariah’s inspired prayer in Luke 1:67–79. “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, for he has visited and brought redemption to his people” (Luke 1:68).
What is in a name? The son of promise born to Zechariah and Elizabeth should have had one of two names. Either the name of his grandfather or the name of his own father. Instead both parents insist that his name will be John, the name the angel Gabriel had directed Zechariah to give his son. The name John comes from a Hebrew word that translates into English as “God is merciful” or “God has shown his favor.” This is certainly the case for these new parents. Their son John is a sign of God’s tender kindness and abounding mercy. What is the meaning of your name? How about your middle name? Do you know? The answer to this question is only a few keystrokes away. Ask the question for yourself this week. What does my name mean? Am I living out the meaning of my name? How has God shown me mercy and favor this week?