God Remembers

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | December 19, 2021

Luke 1

Today’s story is called, “God Remembers,” or “How John the Baptist Got His Name.”

That covers the “Who” and “What” of the story. When and Where are when Herod was king of Judea. The stage is set.

Herod was called “Herod the Great.” He was a king loyal to the Roman Empire. He was an absolute ruler. If someone displeased him, they suffered for it. He had two of his own sons strangled to death. He had the ears cut off a high priest who didn’t listen to him. He was married to ten women at the same time.

When things happen during the rule of an epic figure, people say, “That was when Herod was king of Judea.”

One of the story devices in Bible stories is the names of the characters. The names are more than convenient labels; the names carry meaning.

When Herod was king of Judea there was a woman named Elizabeth. Elizabeth is a name that comes from a combination of Hebrew words that when put together mean, “God’s Oath.” We think of an oath as a sworn testimony. An oath could be a promise. In a story where one of the characters is named “God’s Oath” we know that it will involve God’s “word.” What is the value of God’s oath on a matter?

The woman Elizabeth followed all the rules of her religion. We might say she was a “good woman.” She was even married to a priest. Her husband was named Zechariah. Zechariah means, “God remembers.”

So, we could say, “This is a story of how God remembers God’s Oath.”

Elizabeth and Zechariah didn’t have any children. When our story begins, they were past childbearing age. Not elderly as we would think of it, but past the time of having children for that time and place.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of family in Jewish culture. Family is the means of God’s blessing. For a couple not to have children was viewed as a sign that God had for some reason withheld blessing. And whenever there was a couple like that who did not have children, in those days they saw only one reason – the woman was at fault. They had a word for it – maybe you’ve heard it – the word was “barren.” “Barren” is a harsh word and when it was applied to women, in a world where men dictate the terms, it implied that they were cursed by God.

Zechariah was a working priest from a village in the Judean hill country. He would never be the High Priest and he would never serve on the important councils. He was the sort of religious professional found in any village in any hill country – hard-working, dedicated, crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s and keeping his head down and doing his job.

Priests had to go to Jerusalem and serve some time working in the Temple. Zechariah was called up for such duty. One of the things priests had to do was keep the incense burning in the “Holy of Holies.”

The Holy of Holies was an area much like the front of a sanctuary. A thick curtain was drawn across it. It was the most sacred space in all of Judaism. The incense burned as a sign of constant prayers rising up to God. When a priest went into the Holy of Holies, he had to make sure he was pure of heart. Legend had it that if a priest went into the Holy of Holies and he held some sly secret, then he could be struck dead. As a precaution a rope was tied around the ankle of the priest so that if he were to drop dead, he could be pulled out without anyone having to go in a retrieve him.

This was not necessarily an honor or a privilege; rather it was a duty, and lots were cast to choose who would have to do it. Zechariah won the lottery. On the appointed day he entered the holy of holies to light the incense. He soon realized he was not alone. There was an angel in the holy of holies.

His reaction was fear. But the angel was not there to strike him dead. The angel was there to tell Zechariah about the son that would be born to he and his wife Elizabeth.

What do you say when you hear that your life will change forever, and in a good way? What do you say when the prayer you have prayed is answered? What do you say when the one thing you have always wanted, but never thought you could have and what you had given up hope of ever getting is suddenly promised to you?

What you say probably depends on your attitude toward life. If you are a hopeful person you might shout, “Hallelujah! Thank you, God,”

But if you are a fearful person you might say, “I don’t know, I’m not sure; how do I know what you are telling me is true?” And you start adding excuses for why it won’t happen, “I’m too old.” Underlying it all is the mantra of every dashed hope and unrealized dream, “It just seems too good to be true.”

The angel said, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God. But because you doubt me, you will not be able to speak until it comes to pass as I have told you.” 

From that moment Zechariah was unable to utter a word. He made his way out of the Holy of Holies and people realized he must have seen something.

Not being able to speak didn’t get him out of any Temple work. He had to stay on until his term was up.  After he went home, Elizabeth became pregnant like Gabriel said she would. She stayed in seclusion for the first five months and then when she came out in public, obviously pregnant she said this about it: “God has taken away my public disgrace.”  

Many stories would end there with something along the lines of, “And that’s how John got his name.” This is a bigger story than that and so there is an “in the meantime.”

In the meantime, by the time Elizabeth was six months along in her pregnancy, Gabriel the angel came back for another visit, this time to a young woman named Mary, who was a cousin of Elizabeth. She was a young woman engaged to married. Which means she was probably around fourteen or fifteen years old.

Gabriel had some good news for Mary similar to that he told her cousin’s husband. Mary would become pregnant and give birth to a son and he would be God’s saviour of the world, king of kings and lord of lords. The one whom her cousin Elizabeth’s son would someday pave the way for.

Mary was a wise young woman and she answered Gabriel wisely. She wasn’t so concerned about whether this would all happen; she didn’t need a sign from God. She wanted to know more about the details of how this news would come to pass. Specifically, the fact of which she reminded the angel, that she was a virgin.

Gabriel gave her a fairly vague, non-technical answer involving the Holy Spirit and God’s power. In fact, Gabriel fairly changed the subject by saying, “Your cousin Elizabeth is with child now, so God can do anything.” And at that Mary agreed to the proposal.

The first thing she did was to go visit her cousin Elizabeth who lived near Bethlehem. They enjoyed a great time together. Mary wrote a poem about it and they could feel Elizabeth’s baby in the womb moving and kicking.  

When the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, all of her friends and family were very happy. She had a son just like the angel had said. Everyone said how God had been good to her and now she no longer had to be ashamed of not being able to give her husband any children. If it bothered her, she was too happy to let on about it.

Eight days after their son was born Elizabeth and Zechariah gathered in all their friends and relatives for the ritual of circumcision at which time their son would be officially named. People were saying, “A son for Zechariah and Elizabeth – Zechariah the son of Zechariah has a nice ring to it.”

Elizabeth said, “We are not naming him Zechariah. His name is John.”

“John!” they all moaned. No one in your family is named John! You cannot name this baby John! What kind of a name is John!?”

Traditionally as the mother of the child, Elizabeth really didn’t have a say in these matters. It was really up to the father to give the final word and so all the friends and relatives and neighbors turned to Zechariah to see what he would say, or motion to or write down, as the case may have been. He made writing motions and so they brought him a tablet and a piece of chalk.

He wrote on the tablet the words – His name is John. And then Zechariah said, “His name is John. Just like she said. What’s the matter with you people didn’t you hear her the first time?” Afterward they could hardly shut him up for all the preaching and praising he was doing. Elizabeth, who had done all the talking for both of them for last year was happy to let him have his say.

The story ends on the note, “the child grew and developed in body and spirit. He lived in the desert until the day when he appeared publicly to the people of Israel.” Elizabeth lived up to her name, God’s Oath. And Zechariah would always remember that God remembers.  

And that’s how the baby who was the son of the cousin of the mother Jesus came to be known as John, “Favored by God.” It’s also the story of how God Remembers God’s Oath – God never forgets a promise.

And if the Angel Gabriel ever shows up in your Holy of Holies and says, “Do not be afraid, I bring you good news,” try to listen. It’s okay to ask questions, but just know that no matter how great the Herod may be who sits on the current throne of earthly dominions, God will always remember what God has promised. Amen.

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