For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
June 24, 2012 (The Nativity of Saint John the Baptizer)
In many families it is customary to name the first-born son after his father or grandfather and to name the other children after aunts, uncles, and other relatives. And even if the parents pick a different first name, often they will choose the child’s middle name from among his relatives. My own middle name, Daniel, just so happens to be my dad’s first name. While it’s just a custom and there’s nothing wrong with disregarding it, it’s a good custom because it expresses the hope that the good things about one’s father or other relatives will be carried on by their descendants, and that in that way the father or grandfather or other relatives will be seen to have had a positive impact upon the world through his descendants. In ancient times, this custom was followed much more frequently than we do today. Naming a child after his father or grandfather wasn’t just one option among many; it was expected. Since they didn’t have the sort of family-based last names that we have, the expectation that at least one of a man’s descendants would bear his name was that much stronger, so as to carry on the memory of the good things about that man.
But in the account of the Nativity of John the Baptist, we hear about something different happening. In fact, it is so different that the other relatives and friends protest. There’s nobody in the family by that name! Nobody in the family has ever borne the name of John. Why don’t you call him Zechariah, like his father? The situation is even more puzzling to the relatives since Zechariah is very old, and so is Elizabeth. The fact that they have a child at all is a miracle, and they can’t hope for another. And so this is the last chance they have to pass on Zechariah’s name. But they don’t. Instead they give Him a name which comes, not from his earthly family, but from heaven. A name which indicates not his earthly parentage but who he is in God’s sight. A name which means, “The Lord is gracious.” And that’s the message that John will preach, namely repentance and the forgiveness of sins. His mission will be to prepare the way of the Lord by proclaiming repentance and administering Baptism for the forgiveness of sins. His proclamation will be that our heavenly Father is gracious and has sent His Son to restore us into His family.
As I mentioned before, when parents name children after themselves or other relatives, they do so out of a desire that the good things about the person after whom the child is named, will be inherited by the child. But what happens instead is often that the worst parts of the parents rub off on the children. But actually, the reality is far worse than that. We inherit nothing less than hatred toward God and desire to do everything except what He would have us do from our parents. In the same way they inherited this opposition toward God from their parents, and their parents’ parents, and so on all the way back to Adam and Eve. It’s called original sin. It means that we are born enemies of God and subject to His wrath and displeasure, temporal death and eternal damnation. And while the fact that we bear the last names of our fathers, and some of us even bear their first names, was intended by our parents to be a sign of hope that we inherit their good qualities, it also indicates that we have followed them in the fact that they are by nature sinful and unclean.
Which is why in Holy Baptism God gives us a new name, one which comes down from Him. He claims us as His children, adopted into His family by virtue of the sufferings and death of our adopted Brother, Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is His family name that we receive there. We are no longer Bode or Elsenbroich or Schellenbach or Armbrecht or Buffham or Bellin. By virtue of our baptism, we are now known by the new family name of Christian, that is, belonging to Christ. This new family name is like the name that John was given at his circumcision. It isn’t a name that is derived from our earthly families, from whom we have inherited eternal death, even though it is still through our earthly families that God gives us our earthly existence as well as many of the blessings we do enjoy in this life, and thus we do give thanks to God for them. It is rather a name that is given by our heavenly Father whose Son has purchased us and brought us into His family solely by His grace and mercy and love, and who has and continues to remake us in His family image, causing us to be in fact what He has declared us to be, namely perfect and holy people who serve God and our neighbor with perfect love.
Until the name John was given to the baby, Zechariah couldn’t speak. His speech was taken away from him because he didn’t believe the Word of God which spoken to him by the messenger. In our old sinful condition, we cannot rightly speak of or to God, either. The Old Adam may try to pretend to praise God, but really all that he ends up doing is talking about himself. Telling everyone how much you want to praise God, how much you love to praise God, and so on, is not the same as actually praising Him. Praising Him is repeating back to Him and each other what He has done for you. It is confession of faith, in other words, not expression of feelings. And you can only receive the faith which is confessed by hearing. Until Zechariah had confessed what God had told him, by naming the baby John, he wasn’t able to speak at all. Until we confess what God has done for him, anything else we might say about God is really just an expression of our weak and fickle feelings about Him rather than a confession of His great and mighty acts for us.
But God does speak to you through His messenger, sent by Him to bring you His Word and His Sacraments. As the King David says in Psalm 51, “O Lord, open Thou my lips, and my mouth shall show forth Thy praise.” King David had just learned the hard way that, left to himself, he will fall and fail. Psalm 51 was written after David repented of his fall into sin with Bathsheba. He knew that, if he were to be able to praise and confess God at all, it would only be by a gift of God. And God gave him that gift, just as He gives it to you and me, through His Word. Believing that Word, receiving it, we are granted the new life which does open our lips so that we may confess, to believers and unbelievers, to men and even to God, the great things that He has done for us, just as did both Zechariah and later John himself.
As we know, John grew up and became the last and greatest Old Testament prophet, the one who most immediately and directly prepared the way for the coming of the Messiah, which was of course the job of all the prophets. He was eventually killed for his faithful confession of his Lord and Savior. His wasn’t an easy life, and in fact much of what he went through was precisely because of his faithful confession of his Lord and Savior. We too will experience hardships and trials, not only because we live in a sin-filled world, but precisely because we are Christians. Bearing this new name that God has given us in Holy Baptism isn’t always easy, in other words. But when we face these trials and temptations, God’s Word still proclaims to us that the end of these things is eternal life. The new name which we have been given, the new family into which we are adopted, these things tell us that, no matter what happens to us now, we will be gathered eternally with our heavenly Father, there to enjoy His presence and His peace forever. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +