Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The Reformer Martin Luther was inspired by remembering the saints, and so he wrote, “Next to Holy Scripture, there is certainly no more useful book for Christendom that that of the lives of the saints… For in these stories one is greatly pleased to find how they sincerely believed God’s Word, confessed it with their lips, praised it by their living, and honored and confirmed it by their dying.” Today, we remember the miraculous birth of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ. And since it’s Father’s Day, it seems especially appropriate to meditate on John’s father, the priest Zechariah as well
Mothers and Fathers do not see their children in the same ways. They have different dreams for theirs sons and daughters. Fathers want their sons to be chip of the old-block. Mothers want their sons to be adoring and honest. Mothers and fathers teach different lessons and they fill their children with different thoughts. When studying a new born son a father may say, “Well, I’ll wait till I have something to teach them, I’ll wait till I can play with them, I’ll wait till I can talk with them.” Mothers on the other hand find pleasure in the smallest changes: the gurgle, the tracking eyes, the tiny movements of the hands. Fathers often put off till tomorrow what they could and should enjoy today. Mothers enjoy their children now. I am reminded of the tired father who came home from work exhausted. He lounged in his recliner while his son struggled with his homework. The mother who was working away in the kitchen nudged her husband into action by saying, “You know, you’d better help him while you still can. Next year he’ll be in sixth grade.”
Of course, some fathers are involved in their children’s educations, much to their sons and daughters’ chagrin. When I was in 9th grade science, our teacher’s asked when is boiling point reached, and my lab partner answered without blushing, “When my father sees my report card.” Sometimes, however, fathers simply don’t have a clue. A little boy said to his father one day, “Dad do you know the difference between a pack of cookies and a pack of elephants?” The father answered candidly, “No.” The boy responded, “Then it’s a good thing Mom does the grocery shopping.” Mothers and father just seem to know different things.
The old priest Zechariah had been waiting all his life to share his knowledge and wisdom with a son. He had always dreamed of celebrating Father’s Day- of receiving his first neck tie, and marking the day with a barbeque in the backyard. Unfortunately, the years passed quickly and there was never a son to bear his name or a daughter with whom to share his lessons of life. According, to St. Luke, Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were very old. They were righteous before God and living blamelessly, but they had no children. One day while Zechariah was serving in the Temple’s holy sanctuary, offering incense at the side of the altar, the angel Gabriel appeared to him. The angel said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord.”
The angel’s message alone should have been enough for the faithful servant of God. But perhaps because he was a man, and future father, Zechariah had to show his worldly, skeptical side. It’s seemed natural enough. How will I know that this is true? Or maybe Zechariah didn’t like the name John. Yes, after all the years he had waited serving in God in the Temple, didn’t he serve to have his first-born son named after himself? Zechariah the Second or at least Little Zech. Maybe it was something more, perhaps in his old age. Zechariah was afraid that one would believe him at all. So just to be sure, he asked for a confirming sign. Zechariah was quickly rebuked by angel, and was struck dumb. What a sign he had been given. By his silence, rather than by his speech, it was clear that Zechariah had seen a vision and that God was active in his life.
After completing his priestly duties, Zechariah went back to his home village in the hill country of Judah. His wife Elizabeth soon became pregnant, just as the angel had said. She remained in seclusion for five months, and in her sixth month she was visited by her cousin Mary, who had just received the news from the angel Gabriel that she was to bear the Messiah. The two women expressed their marvel at God’s Word and of his work in their lives.
Our gospel this morning begins at this point in the story. The aged Elizabeth has given birth to the promised “miracle child,” and her neighbors have come to rejoice with her in this blessing. The excitement opens on the scene in the elderly priest’s home on the eighth day, the when the heritage of the father is passed to the son, in the circumcision and the service of naming. It is a wonderful and painful day for the silent Zechariah. Under normal circumstances, his son would unquestionably be named Zechariah after him. But to the surprise of the family, Elizabeth insists that their son be named John, and then a family fight breaks out.
The matter of the names of children is always sensitive. Every mother and father knows how important it is to choose the perfect name for their baby. You have to consider what words rhyme with their new name. You don’t want to choose a name that is going to be a constant source of torture on the playground. You choose a name that children can grow into. In the ancient world of Holy Scripture, we read that God sometimes changes the name of a person, such as changing the name of Abram to Abraham, of Sarai to Sarah, and of Jacob to Israel. And at other times, God gives the names for children even before their birth. Such was the case for both John and Jesus. The tension in Zechariah’s home that day was that the family did not understand Elizabeth’s wish to call their 8 day-old son John, “None of your relatives has this name.” What was she thinking? What a Father’s Day’s gift! To deny Zechariah the honor of naming his long awaited son after himself.
The moment was even more poignant. The naming of the son after his father implied that this child would “walk in the steps of his father,” and that he would carry on the father’s name, and his work as well. Had the boy been named Zechariah, he would have been expected to grow up to be a priest. To be named by any other name would have implied just the opposite. This long awaited son would not follow in his father’s steps. He would not learn to do what his father did or carry on his legacy. If the boy was called by another name he would renounce his family, its work, and its perpetuation through the next generation. Is that really what Elizabeth wanted for her son? Was that what Zechariah wanted? So they all watched as Zechariah took the writing tablet, and scratched, “His name is John.” It’s no wonder that ever one who hear this pondered, “What then will this child become?”
It’s a moving and touching scene. At that moment, Zechariah was forced to write, what every parent knows is ultimately true and is pained to admit. Our son and daughters do not belong to us. They belong to God. They are merely entrusted to us to love and to nurture. At some point, we must let them go to be what God has created them to be. At that moment, Zechariah’s tongue was loosened and he uttered a great prophecy, “You, my child shall be called the prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his way, to give his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins.”
No, John would not carry on his father’s name, nor his work. The lives of father and son would go two different ways. Zechariah was a priest, John would become a prophet. John was a Nazarite, who lived an ascetic life with no wine nor rich food, and clothed in camel hair; his father was not. Zechariah lived among the people; while John lived in the solitude of the desert. Zechariah was a part of the old religious system; John would usher in the new age.
How could Zechariah do such a noble, sacrificial thing to offer his new born son another name and let him? It is a tough question on Father’s Day. It is difficult to let our biases and hopes go, and for our children to mature into the people God had created them to be. Some of us have difficulty letting go of the memories of our fathers and pleasant memories of our children. But as with so many things in the life, the ability to do this depends on how well we know God and how much time we spend in his Word. We cannot trust someone we don’t know, and we can’t know God except through Scripture. If we belong to God, he will be faithful to us and to our children, and the more we know and trust him, the more we are able to put our children into his capable hands. That is what Zechariah knew and trusted.
We don’t know how many Father’s Days Zechariah the priest would celebrate his son John. According to the Orthodox tradition, at the time of the massacre of the holy innocents, when King Herod ordered the slaughter of all males under the age of two in an attempt to prevent the prophesied new born from becoming the King of the Jews, Zechariah refused to divulge the whereabouts of his son who was in hiding. The early Father Origen wrote that Zechariah was therefore killed in the Temple near altar by Herod’s soldiers. John’s mother Elizabeth then brought him far from Jerusalem to the desert to raise him there.
Martin Luther preached about John the Baptist on the Nativity of St. John in 1532. He said this, “the real reason for observing this festival, the day of John the Baptist, is not because of his austere life, not because of his phenomenal birth, but because of his beloved finger, message and office.” Yes, John pointed his finger, not to himself, but rather John pointed people to Jesus. His message was to repent, to get ready, not for himself, but all for Jesus. As John the Baptist himself said in the light of Christ’s coming, “I must decrease so that He may increase.” It is the message all loving parents must dare to proclaim and teach their children. The new age is coming. It was the lesson he learned from his own father Zechariah. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.