Sermons That Work

Naming, Advent 4 (A) – 2004

December 24, 2004

Note: This sermon was written for Christmas Eve when it falls on Advent 4(A).

In Hawaii the elders of the indigenous people have told why the giving of names is so significant within the extended family tradition of the islands. “Some children were named for their ancestors,” it is said, “some for events, some for or by chiefs, and some were named by the gods. To name a child for a deceased relative was to make the name live again…. The type of name given by the gods is called a night name [so called because it is revealed in the night, perhaps because of a dream]. There are Hawaiians today who believe in the night names but make no mention of it, lest they be laughed at and called superstitious.”

These people remember the story of a pregnant woman who “dreamed of a red-headed woman who rose from a deep pool of water and asked that [her child who was] about to be born be named Water-dweller.” The dreamer was a member of a Christian church and had a fear of following old beliefs, so when her own daughter was born she named her Clara, for a favorite sister-in-law. In a few days the baby’s neck began to swell on both sides. The doctor said it was some kind of glandular trouble, but in spite of the best medical care the swelling grew worse, until the baby’s neck looked like that of a lizard. The aunt for whom the baby was named guessed that a water spirit [like a lizard] was offended by the choice of name for the baby.

She asked, “Have you ever heard from your grandfolk whether one of your ancestors was a water spirit?”

“Yes,” the worried mother replied, “but I do not want anything to do with the old beliefs.”

Aunt Clara persisted, “Has this baby been given a name in a dream?”

“Yes,” the mother replied, but I refuse to giver the name to her.”

“What was the name?” Clara asked.

“Water-dweller,” the mother replied.

Picking up the baby, the aunt said to it, “I will take back my name of Clara. Henceforth, your name is Water-dweller.” The swelling went down and, in a short time, was gone completely.

The dilemma faced by Elizabeth, Zechariah, and their kinfolk in naming their son, John, is one that we are all too familiar with these days, especially when birth records must be completed within days of a child’s birth. And although in Hawaii, as elsewhere, giving a name, to many young families has devolved to the point of choosing the name of a current celebrity that are nicer sounding or less common, there are still parents who seek out the indigenous names of the Hawaiian people. As their ancestors did before them, some native Hawaiians still reflect, fast, pray, and dream for that special name for that special child. So the story of Elizabeth’s boy, John, is more familiar to native Hawaiians because it could well be their story, too.

Hawaiians take special care giving a name, not just because that is the way it has always been done, but because they understand and know that a name is special and important to the life of the child and his or her extended family. What is in that name imbues the child with the qualities, hopes, and wishes of the parents, the extended family, and the community—qualities good and bad, known and unknown.

Zechariah knew all about the importance of a name and, to the astonishment of his kind and neighbors (who wanted the boy to be named after him), he agreed with his wife’s emphatic choice of “John.” John means “God is merciful,” and we must go back to the rarely read beginning of the Gospel of Luke to discover Zechariah’s revelation.

We are told, in Luke, that while conducting the rite of incensing, an angel, specifically Gabriel, appeared to Zechariah and revealed to him the miracle birth of a son to his aged wife, Elizabeth. Gabriel proclaims to Zechariah a description of who that son shall be, and that he must never use wine or other such drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit from the time he is born. He will bring many of Israel’s people back to the Lord their God. And he will prepare the way for the Lord. He will have the same spirit and power that Elijah had. He will turn the hearts of parents to their children. He will also turn people who disobey to the wisdom of those who do right. In this way, he will prepare a people who are ready for the Lord. (Luke1: 16-17).

Since he doubted the possibility of Gabriel’s words, Zechariah must keep these words to himself, for he is made mute. He reveals what has been hidden from everyone at the circumcision of their son, when Elizabeth intervenes at the name-giving. Then, Luke wrote, she said, “His name is John.” (Luke 1:63)

“Right away Zechariah could speak again,” Luke immediately adds.

Zechariah, the patriarch priest, concurred with his wife’s choice of “God is merciful” as a name for their son over his own name because he knew the answer to the question that people “all through Judea’s hill country” would later ask: “What is this child going to be?” It now all makes sense to Zechariah. In iconography is characterized as the forerunner, someone “who gores before another to give notice of the approach of others,” indicating the fulfillment of Zechariah’s vision that his son “would prepare the way of the Lord.” John’s ministry is indicative of the fulfillment of Gabriel’s pronouncement, and what John’s name means, for John’s ministry is one that is quite different from that of his cousin, Jesus.

John, in his ministry, does not use wine. Jesus does. John’s ministry is to “turn the hearts of parents to their children.” (Luke 1:17) Jesus said, “Those who come to me must hate their father and mother.” (Luke 14:26) John is a solitary figure, while Jesus socializes. John eats locusts and honey, while Jesus attends feasts and dines. John’s mission is different, after all, because it was to “prepare a people who are ready for the Lord” (Luke 1:17) and that can only be God’s mercy.

These differences in ministry between John and Jesus should not be taken merely as historical footnotes to our understanding of the Gospels. It is a preeminent component to the way of our Lord that we remember with baptism by water, to be followed in life by the remembrance of Jesus through the drinking of wine.

On this eve of Christmas, we are all quite likely surrounded by the trappings of a magnificent birthday celebration. And we can easily be distracted, during the Sundays leading up to the birth of Jesus, and jump, prematurely, into the spirit of celebration. But the name of “John,” this everyday, too common and popular name, calls out to us to remember, to be prepared and ready for the way of the Lord—on every level and in every way. Amen.

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Christopher Sikkema