It’s been a tradition in our family – like many other families – to name the first boy child after his father or grandfather. My brother is Scott Luther, named for our dad, Luther Simon, who is named for his grandfather Simon. My husband is David Charles, named for his father, Charles Ray, who is named for his father, Charles. So when Dave and I were expecting our kids, it was a no brainer that if we had a boy, his middle name would be David. Matthew David was the name we chose, and when kid No. 2 came along, that was his name.
If we had a girl, it seemed to me, she might as well be named for her mother, don’t you think? So as we thought about girls’ names, I would try them out with Kristine as a middle name. We landed on the name Anna, and in my mind, Anna Kristine had a nice ring to it.
Don’t you suppose, child No. 1, the girl child, was slow in coming. Her labor went on and on, and there was a nurse that tended to me for part of it. Her name was Anna Marie. She was nice enough, but frankly, I wouldn’t have remembered her, had it not been for a silly comment from my husband Dave: “Maybe we should name the baby Anna Marie,” he said jokingly, “in honor of that nice nurse…that we met five minutes ago.” We thought a little longer and harder and named her Anna Kristine.
Our story today centers around the birth of a child, the giving of a name, and the passing on of a story, a faith, and a call. An old woman and an old man are the unlikely, first-time parents of a baby boy. Zechariah and Elizabeth are past the age of having children, and yet… here we are nine months later. The promise spoken by the angel Gabriel has come to pass. The birth of the child brings unexpected joy to an old man and an old woman, and indeed to all who know them. He is a sign of God’s favor and mercy to parents in their old age, and to all of Israel, as well.
On the eighth day, their neighbors and relatives come for a bris. Through ritual and with blessing, the child is circumcised and joined to God’s covenant with his ancestors. And then he’s given a name.
The neighbors and relatives assume his name will be Zechariah, his father’s name. It means, “God remembered.” Could there be a name more fitting? But his mother, Elizabeth, said, “No. His name is John. ‘God is gracious.’” His father reached for a writing tablet and confirmed, “His name is John.” Indeed, “‘God has shown favor.’” For nine long months, the man had not spoken. And now his tongue was set free.
The angel had said his name would be John. God did not simply remember Elizabeth and Zechariah. God heard their prayers and answered them, showing favor and mercy. Long after it was possible, God did the impossible. “Your prayer has been heard,” the angel said.
There were blessings all around that day when the child received his name. A blessing for the newly welcomed child. A blessing for the commandment to circumcise all boys. A blessing and prayer for the child to enter into the Torah and one day the marriage canopy, as well as a life of good deeds.
And his father sang a blessing of all that God had done for their ancestors, of what God was doing now to save them from their enemies, of the promises yet to be fulfilled. Funny thing about the songs of the prophets.
As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “Prophets almost never get their verb tenses straight, because part of their gift is being able to see the world as God sees it – not divided into things that are already over and things that have not happened yet, but as an eternally unfolding mystery that surprises everyone – maybe even God.” 
Maybe that’s why their words are so hopeful. We long for their fulfillment.
Zechariah sings of salvation from enemies, of peace that has come. But we live in Advent time, a time of already-not-yet, even beyond these days leading to Christmas.
Last night was the longest night of the year, the winter solstice. At 10:19 pm, the sun reached its southernmost point in the sky. For those of us living in the Northern Hemisphere, yesterday was the shortest day. For some of us, the cloak of darkness hangs especially low this year. We sit in darkness and the shadow of death. We are not at peace. Zechariah’s words are music to our ears as he sings to his newborn son: “Because of God’s tender mercy, the Dawn from on high will visit us to shine on those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” “You, my son,” he sings, “will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him.”
We long for light in the dark places, and we ache for a light to guide our feet in pathways of peace. But such a big dream for a little child – to prepare the way for the one who is to come.
Earlier this month, there was a video on YouTube that went viral, called Beautiful Twos, and it was set to music called, “Patient Love.” A little girl and her dad are sitting on the floor in a hallway. The girl is two, and she’s having a fit. The dad sits beside her and waits. It’s a 3-minute video, an edited version of a tantrum that went on much longer.
In the first half, the little girl is alone. She sits down and turns away from her dad.
As she bows her head and cries, she is curved in on herself. When she can’t bear it any longer, she comes to her dad and reaches out to him, with her feet still kicking. She fights against him, even as she knows she needs him. He receives her, but he still gives her space and allows her to do what she will do. He wraps his arms around her to reassure her but then backs off. He supports her but doesn’t interfere. He waits. And when she is ready, he enfolds her in his arms, offering unconditional, patient love.
That’s the kind of love God has for us. It’s a love that waits and welcomes and enfolds us. It’s tender mercy.
God sees us for who we really are and doesn’t pretend otherwise. God loves us in spite of us. And so God came to us as one of us. God sent the Son to let us know the length and breadth and depth to which he’ll go for us. In the darkest time of the year, God sent us the Son.
And lest we miss him, God sends prophets who point the way, prophets who prepare us for God’s coming. Who knows, maybe God is at work in you.
The Spirit is still at work using ordinary people to make ready the path for our Savior. The Spirit is still at work stirring imaginations to work for peace.
May the Spirit fill us and use us to point to Jesus as we celebrate his birth. Amen.
1 – Barbara Brown Taylor, “Home by Another Way.”