"A New Name"

LUKE 1:57-66

22Dec 2013


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            In 1968 the Phillip Morris Company launched a memorable advertising campaign to sell Virginia Slims, a new brand of cigarettes targeting women.  It also had a brand-new slogan: Youve come a long way, baby.   The company plastered it on billboards and put it in TV ads that featured women of the early twentieth century being punished for smoking.  In all their advertising, smoking Virginia Slims was tied to a set of traits meant to capture the essence of women in a new era of equality  -- and remember this was 1968 -- independence,  glamour, and liberation.

            As it happened, the only equality this campaign ended up supporting involved lung cancer.  Today, women and men die at similar rates from that disease.

            "You've come a long way, baby."  And women did in the 20th century, but still there is a ways to go.  Someday a female CEO of General Motors, or any Fortune 500 company won't be front page news.  Of course, compared to first century Palestine the progress has been phenomenal.

            In Palestine the birth of a child was an occasion of great joy, but only if the child happened to be a boy.  When the time of the birth was near at hand, the friends and the local musicians gathered near the house.  When the birth was announced, if it was a boy, the people broke into music and song, followed by universal congratulation and rejoicing.  If it was a girl the musicians packed up their instruments and went silently away.  There was a saying at the time ... "The birth of a male child causes universal joy, but the birth of a female child causes universal sorrow."

            So given the times in which they lived, in Elizabeth and Zechariah experienced a double joy.  At last, in their old age, Elizabeth had a child and that child was a boy.  On the eighth day the boy was circumcised and given his name.  

            In our passage for today I want to stress three things.  First, note the amount of air time Luke gives to John.   

            For example, when we include what John's father Zechariah says at the end of the chapter we come up with twenty-four verses devoted to John's birth, while the parallel account of Jesus' birth contains only twenty-one verses.  So the question is this:  Why so much free publicity to a man who would later draw many disciples who would choose him over Jesus?  We tend to forget that.  We twenty-first century Christians have safely placed John in the role of the forerunner to the Messiah, the one who pointed to the coming Messiah.  And he did indeed do that, but to the people of the day, people exposed to both John and Jesus, some chose to follow John rather than Jesus. 

            Luke, of course, was aware of John's popularity.  He mentions some of John's followers in his history of the early church, in the Book of Acts.  Luke records that the eloquent Apollos of Alexandra was a disciple of John before becoming a Christian, and when Paul arrived at Ephesus he encountered a community of John's followers.  Try as he would to relegate himself to second place, try as he would to point people away from himself to Jesus, some still preferred John to Jesus.  John was that well respected and loved. 

            We have a similar problem at work today.  That is to say, persons whose work it is to point others to Jesus can themselves become the objects and centers of attention, affection, and loyalty.  I'm sure you have friends or family members who stopped going to church after a popular pastor left.  Most stayed, but a handful, maybe one or two people left because they had grown so close to the pastor who had left.  Their loyalty was to the pastor, not necessarily the church or even Jesus. 

            So note, the amount of air time Luke gives John.  Second, note the significance of names.  

            Today a name does not seem to mean as much as it did back them.  A person's name is only a label, a mark of identification.  Because a name doesn't mean as much in our time, some people give their children odd names.  The Hogg family ... H-O-G-G ... named their daughter "Ima."  One mother named her daughter "Alpha Omega" because she was her first and hopefully her last child.  A black child was named "Nevaseena" because her father died before her birth and he had never seen her.  There was a family in our hometown who's last name was Trout, and they named their two boys Lake and Brook.  I'm sure if they would have had a daughter they would have named her Rainbow.  No wonder 50,000 people a year go to courts to have their names changed.

            I was named after a song my dad liked.  He loved the song "Open the Door, Richard" and he thought that would be a great name for his firstborn, and Trudy, well, Trudy's mom and dad wanted to name her after her paternal grandmother, but her name was Gertrude and they didn't want to saddle her with that name, so they abbreviated it to Trudy.   How did you get your name?  What do you know about what went into your parents' decision to name you? 

            In Palestine names were descriptive.  They sometimes described a circumstance attending to the birth as was the case with Jacob.  You might recall Jacob came out of the womb second, gripping his brother Esau's heel, so they named him such.  They named him "supplanter" or Jacob.  They sometimes named the child after seeing him for the first time.  Jacob's brother Esau was named "red" or Esau because he had red hair while Laban means white or blond so we assume he came out of the womb with very light hair.  Sometimes the name described the parents' joy.  Saul, for instance, means "asked for."  Other times the name declared the parents' faith.  Elijah, for instance, means "Jehovah is my god."  Thus in a time of Baal worship Elijah's parents asserted their faith in the true God.

            In the bible a name is most important.  In biblical thinking you do not have a name; you are a name, and God gets into the act by naming his son.  Gabriel told Mary that she should name her child "Jesus" which means "God saves.  God also chose John's name.  Look with me at Luke 1:12.


            When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.  But the angel said to him, "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.  Your wife will bear a son and you will name him John.


            God chose the name.  The crowd expected Zechariah and Elizabeth to name him after Zechariah, and maybe they would call him "Junior."  At first, when Elizabeth told the neighbors what her son would be named, they disapproved.  There was, after all, no other John in the family.  They expected Zechariah to overrule his wife in her strange notion, but remembering what the angel had told him nine months earlier, Zechariah wrote on a tablet, (remember Gabriel had punched the mute button on Zechariah after Zechariah questioned how his post-menopausal wife could ever give birth), he wrote on a tablet "His name is John."  John is the short form of "Jehohanan."  Think of it as John for Jonathan, which means "Jehovah's gift" or "God is gracious."  It was the name God had ordered and it described the parents' gratitude for an unexpected joy. 

            Some of you know I was a census worker for a couple of months during the last census.  I did mapping.  I carried a GPS device, walked to everyone's porch, confirmed the address and moved on the next house.  Every now and again someone asked me what I was doing and I showed them my badge and explained the process.  I told them how the census was going hi-tech, confirming every address by GPS. 

            While working for the census I thought of the old story of a census taker who was making his rounds in the lower East side of New York.  His job was to speak to someone at each residence, and he came upon a woman bending over her washtub.  "Lady, I am taking the census.  What's your name?  How many children have you?"

            She replied, "Well, let me see.  My name is Mary.  And then there's Marcia, and Duggie, and Amy, and Patrick, and..."

            "Never mind the names," he broke in, "just give me the numbers." 

            She straightened up, hands on hips, and said, "I'll have you know, sir, we ain't got into numberin' them yet.  We ain't run out of names!"

            We may only be a number to the Census Bureau.  But God knows our names.  God might not have named us, but God knows our name. 

            Then finally, note the possibilities inherent in every child.  After Zechariah regained his speech, the crowd began visiting among themselves and they asked a question.  Do you see it there in verse sixty-six?  Referring to John they asked, "What then will this child become?" 

            Every child is a bundle of possibilities.  There was an old schoolmaster who always bowed gravely to his class before he taught them.  When he was asked why, he answered, "Because you never know what one of these lads will turn out to be." 

            Unfortunately, not every child has an adult who believes in them.  A friend of mine, now deceased, visited - on the same day - two different families, each of which was expecting a new baby.  The reaction of one family was, "Oh, isn't this awful!  Pregnant again."  The second couple couldn't wait to tell the good news, "We are expecting.  We can't believe our good fortune."  Already, two little lives were being influenced by parental attitudes, one set positive, one set negative.  A large part of what a child will become is tied up in whether a child feels wanted or unwanted.  I'm sure John realized early on how much he was wanted by his parents and held in awe by his neighbors.

            Some years ago Bruce Larson was doing a renewal conference in large Gothic cathedral like Presbyterian church in adjacent Omaha.  As people came in there were given a balloon filled with helium.  There were told to release it at some point in the service when they felt like expressing the joy in their hearts whether it was during the anthem, a hymn, a prayer or the sermon.  Since they were Presbyterians, they were not free to say, "Hallelujah" or "Praise The Lord."  Letting go of a balloon would suffice.  So all through the service, brightly colored balloons were rising up to bounce off the ceiling, visual signs of praise to The Lord.  Oddly enough, however, when the service was over about a third of those balloons were still unreleased.  Those Presbyterians either felt no joy or, feeling it, could not bring themselves to express it. 

            Some of you had parents who hung onto their balloons all their lives.  They didn't rejoice at your birth.  They didn't make you feel wanted.  At John's birth, however, parents and neighbors alike released their balloons. 

            Do your remember Art Linkletter's show, Kids Say the Darndest Things?  Bill Cosby revived it a few years back.  Kids do say the darndest things.  I love the ATT commercials where the guy sits at a table with, it looks like kindergartners, and asks them questions.  I love what comes out of the children's mouths.  I think it's unrehearsed.  If not the children are great actors.     Anyway, our daughter-in-law often calls Trudy.  Our daughter-in-law has two young boys, two and four, and one of the boys is usually in the background when Trudy calls.  A couple of weeks ago, the two year old, Berkeley, was in the background and Trudy asked Jill, "What does Berk want for Christmas?"  So Jill turned to Berk and said, "Yaya wants to know what you want for Christmas." 

            Right away he said, "A balloon." 

            A balloon.  If you are with any children this week, release a balloon.  Rejoice in them.  Believe in them.  Make them feel loved, wanted and appreciated.  I don't know what you put under the tree for them.  I only know that the best gift you can give them you cannot put under a tree.  Believe in them.  Rejoice in them.  It's the best gift you can give them.  Amen.