What's in a Name?
We don't think much about the meaning of names that people are given in our western society today. We choose names for our children that we like the sound of. Or we name them after the celebrities. Brazilian football fans pay homage to their favourite players by naming their children after their idols. Just a week ago the name of David Luiz was more popular than that of Neymar. How will a child growing up with the name of the captain of the humiliated Brazilian team feel about that in years to come can only be imagined.
The names of some people are so well known that you don't even need to hear the whole name before you can guess who is being talked about – and you'd probably be right!
Adolf – Hitler
Winston – Churchill
Fidel – Castro
Bing – Crosby
And of course the mere mention of some names can trigger very strong reactions. One of the most divisive names in recent British history would be that of "Maggie" or Margaret Thatcher.
The further we step back in time the less likely we are to have strong emotive reactions to the names we hear. Names that once struck fear and terror into the lives of their contemporaries now need more and more to be explained: Who was Paul Pot? Who was Genghis Khan? Who was Caligula?
Luke has explained to his friend Theophilus his intention of writing an orderly account of "the things that have been accomplished among us" and now he is about to begin. His account is going to focus upon the life, death and resurrection and Jesus Christ but he begins his narrative a little over a year before Jesus was born. Luke wants to set the scene for Jesus' coming into the world and he does so by referring to referring to a number of different people – some of the names were well known others had very significant meanings.
This morning we'll proceed by seeing how the use of these names can help us understand just what was going on.
The story begins, Luke tells us, when Herod was King (v.5). He didn't give any more detail – but then he didn't need to, everyone knew about Herod!
Herod was a name that could strike terror into the hearts of those who heard the name just as easily as the name of Hitler could in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Herod's name means "heroic" and although he has gone down in history as Herod the Great Herod was bad news. He was appointed King of Judea by the Romans in 40 BC but he was not welcomed by the inhabitants of that country and it took him 3 years to overcome their great opposition towards him. He then reigned ruthlessly from 37-
Brave and skilled in war he was also extremely suspicious and cruel. Hence he destroyed the entire royal family of Hasmonaeans, the dynasty that ruled before he did, and he put to death many of the Jews that opposed his government. He even killed his dearly beloved wife Mariamne of the Hasmonaean line and his two sons she had borne him.
By these acts of bloodshed, and especially by his love and imitation of Roman customs and institutions and by the burdensome taxes imposed upon his subjects, he so alienated the Jews that he was unable to regain their favour by his splendid restoration of the temple and other acts of munificence.
He was the king who ordered the "massacre of the innocents" when he was told that a new king had been born in the land.
What does this tell us about the circumstances prevailing at the outset of Luke's orderly narrative? It tells us that the days were dark days.
God had made wonderful promises to his chosen people in the past but where was the fulfilment of these promises? How could they possibly be fulfilled? Israel was occupied by the hated Romans and a hated half-
But they do say that the darkest hour of the night is that which precedes the dawn! And the dawn was about to break! God was at work!! You see God doesn't always do things in the way we think he ought to – his ways are different from ours. We tend to look for favourable circumstances, when things are coming together nicely so that progress is possible. But our God is not dependent upon circumstances he rules over them!!
At a moment when there looks as if there is no hope that is the moment when he chooses to act – there will be no doubt then that it is God who is at work, no other explanation will do.
Zechariah and Elizabeth
In these dark days Luke draws our attention to the ongoing religious life of the people. In particular he introduces us to an old married couple: Zechariah and Elizabeth.
In the dark days of Herod's rule there were still some lights shining brightly.
This should help us when we think about our own day and the prevailing spiritual conditions. We too may be living in dark days but we must not exaggerate the darkness and lose heart – God still has his faithful servants like Zechariah and Elizabeth.
And it is exactly their faithfulness that Luke wants to put before us – he describes them as being righteous before God and blameless in their conduct. We shouldn't imagine that they were perfect but they were honestly serving God and genuine in their efforts to live in a way that pleased him. These were lovely folk to have around, a united couple with shared spiritual interests.
But Luke has something else to tell us about this couple something that would have been difficult for them to cope with: they had no child, for Elizabeth was barren. It is not easy for childless couples today and many endure real pain and sorrow at not being able to have children. For Zechariah and Elizabeth fruitfulness was part of God's general promise to those who lived according to his ways – their childlessness seemed to mock their commitment to God.
We need to pause briefly to underline that bad things do happen to good people! We need to take that on board because all too easily we come to imagine that we know best, better than God in fact. We either then pass judgment on others – they've brought it on themselves – or we criticize God. We live in a fallen world and God has not promised us a trouble free existence in it. But he has broken into this fallen world to provide his solutions for our greatest need! And this is the story that Luke is beginning to unfold for us.
In dark days then a nice old couple were living and serving the Lord God and their names carried a message of hope that shone like a beacon.
Zechariah's name means "Jehovah has remembered" – and that is exactly what was happening. The promises concerning the coming of a Messiah were on the verge of being fulfilled. The Lord God had remembered! Amongst the promises concerning the coming of the Messiah were promises about one who would come to act as his forerunner -
Elizabeth's name also points away from herself to God. "God is an oath" is what her name signifies. In other words God is the Absolutely Trustworthy and Reliable One.
What Zechariah was Doing
There were plenty of priests around in Jerusalem , so many in fact that the work had to be organised carefully. In order to ensure that the work was distributed evenly lots were cast for the most important tasks and one of those tasks was that of offering incense in the Temple. It was a great honour that would befall a priest only once in his lifetime and there were many priests who would never see the honour fall to them.
For a spiritual man like Zechariah this was a great day in his life. He would have gone into the restricted places within the Temple accompanied by a couple of other priests who were there to help him. When all was ready those helpers would withdraw leaving Zechariah alone before the altar where he would burn his incense on behalf of his people.
At such an intensely spiritual moment he would doubtless have prayed for the salvation of the people – we know that there were at this time in Jerusalem a number of spiritually minded folk who were eagerly looking for the consolation of Israel, the coming of God's salvation through the promised Messiah.
While Zechariah was inside the Temple large crowds gathered outside the Temple praying.
Never in a million years did Zechariah expect what happened next!
Something extraordinary was about to take place. I've told that the days were dark under Herod but there was something else that was extremely difficult for the people of God – the days were silent and had been for a long time. The voice of prophecy had dried up and had done so many years before. There had in fact been no word from God for 400 years. And now all that is about to change!!
Zechariah had been a priest for a long time but never in all that time had God spoken a fresh word to his people, never had an angel appeared. And now an angel appeared to him in the Temple – how vivid the record is, how in subsequent years Zechariah must have reflected on this scene – an angel came and stood on the right side of the altar of incense!!
Small wonder that Zechariah was troubled – nothing like this had happened to him before, nothing like this had happened to all of God's people for 400 years, what did it all mean? And Zechariah was afraid.
The Angel's Message
Angels in the Bible frequently carry out the role of a messenger and that was certainly the task that was given to Gabriel at this time. His message contains several important elements:
Encouragement – don't be afraid
Explanation – his prayer has been heard (doesn't that just fit in with Zechariah's own name – Jehovah has remembered?)
What prayer is the angel referring to? Was his prayer for a child of his own or for a Messiah? Opinions differ but if Zechariah was praying in the Temple at this time surely his thoughts would not have been upon his own personal situation but rather more upon the needs of the nation. His reply to Gabriel certainly suggests that he recognised age to be against the idea of him and Elizabeth having children.
Zechariah's prayer has been answered – salvation is on the way and in God's gracious goodness this godly couple will play an important part – they will bring up the son who will act as the forerunner of the Messiah!
What will happen next
The angel has some specific detail to pass on to Zechariah and it is news that he really wasn't expecting to hear at all. Elizabeth his old and barren wife is going to give birth to a child, to a son to be precise.
The days had been dark and the circumstances of Zechariah's family life looked hopeless but joy and gladness will soon be the order of the day as a baby boy will be born and he will be some son – he will be great before the Lord.
Isn't there here a reason why we should not give up and become depressed when circumstances appear bleak with seemingly no possible way forward? We may forget our prayers and requests but God is reliable and trustworthy and he remembers! Not that we can pray whatever we might fancy and feel to have tied God's hands – prayer is not about us trying to make God jump through hoops or to get him to perform for us like some trained dog – but God remembers his people whom he has promised to help, to accompany his people whom he has promised never to abandon, God remembers the promises he has made and will, when it suits him and the promotion of his glory best, act.
Sometimes such action on God's part will be most apparently his action when the situation is at its bleakest!
Now the angel doesn't just inform Zechariah about what is to take place he also instructs Zechariah in what his responsibilities will be as the time approaches for the promises are accomplished.
The son must bear the name John – Zechariah is not free to choose but he is called to obey and the name he is to give the as yet un-
The angel concluded his message with a description of just what it was that this special child would do. This child would be involved in a spiritual revival movement as he went forth in the power and spirit of Elijah. Why Elijah? Well because he too lived and ministered in dark days. Elijah was a fearless servant of God and this boy John would grow up to be similar. There would be opposition, as in Elijah's day, but this child would be well-
This son would prepare for the very coming of the Lord himself into the world – this son would be the forerunner of the Messiah!
What an introduction to Luke's orderly account! After so many years of spiritual silence – heaven was once again communicating with earth. Yes, the political/socio/economic circumstances might be so very, very dark and unpromising but God is not dependent upon favourable circumstances in order to carry out his plans.
Do you sometimes think that God's promises are slow in being fulfilled? Well I guess many in Israel would have joined with you in thinking that way. But God remembered and showed himself reliable and trustworthy and went to work. His gracious generosity was about to be made very clear.
The message too begins with a message of peace – the Lord would have you believe in him and put your trust in him. Have you done so?
To God be the glory.