Text: Luke 1:5-24; 57-80
In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly. But they were childless because Elizabeth was not able to conceive, and they were both very old.
Once when Zechariah’s division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And when the time for the burning of incense came, all the assembled worshipers were praying outside.
Then an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear. But the angel said to him: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah; your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to call him John. He will be a joy and delight to you, and many will rejoice because of his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He is never to take wine or other fermented drink,and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before he is born. He will bring back many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. And he will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous—to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.”
The angel said to him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their appointed time.”
Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple. When he came out, he could not speak to them. They realized he had seen a vision in the temple, for he kept making signs to them but remained unable to speak.
When his time of service was completed, he returned home. After this his wife Elizabeth became pregnant and for five months remained in seclusion.
When it was time for Elizabeth to have her baby, she gave birth to a son. Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy, and they shared her joy.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him after his father Zechariah, but his mother spoke up and said, “No! He is to be called John.”
They said to her, “There is no one among your relatives who has that name.”
Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child. He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, “His name is John.” Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. All the neighbors were filled with awe, and throughout the hill country of Judea people were talking about all these things. Everyone who heard this wondered about it, asking, “What then is this child going to be?” For the Lord’s hand was with him.
His father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
“Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us—
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness
and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.”
And the child grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.
When we found out I was pregnant, one of the first things we did was to choose potential names for our child. We agreed on a boy’s name and a girl’s name – each chosen with significance and intention. When our child was born and we saw that we’d had a boy, we joyfully named him Augustine Thomas, after St. Augustine and Doubting Thomas/Thomas Aquinas. Each of these people have had significant influence on our faith journeys, and so we gave our son those names, with the hope that he will go on his own faith journey.
Names are important in Scripture. They often tell us more about what is going on in a narrative. In today’s text, we meet two such people whose names reveal much: Zechariah and Elizabeth. We learn that Zechariah and Elizabeth are up there in years, and that they have been childless all this time. Of course, when we hear about an elderly, infertile couple in Scripture, we know that the unexpected is about to ensue! It’s no different here. Zechariah and Elizabeth are about to get the surprise of a lifetime – they will conceive and bear a child – the child who will grow up to be John the Baptist.
We know this story – but what do their names reveal? In her book, Light of the World: A Beginner’s Guide to Advent (which, incidentally is the book we are using for this year’s Advent study), Dr. Amy-Jill Levine tells us that the name Zechariah comes from the Hebrew root z-k-r, which means “remember” and the “yah” sound at the end of his name is the traditional marker for YHWH, the Divine Name. With this knowledge, we learn that Zechariah’s name literally means, “God remembers.”
Memory is a consistent theme throughout the Bible. Not only does God remember God’s people time and again, but God also calls God’s people to remember. In fact, memory is often tied to recognizing God’s miraculous and liberating work in the life of God’s people. God constantly calls God’s people to remember the covenant, to remember how God brought the people out of slavery in Egypt. God constantly calls God’s people to remember how God has been present, how God has spoken, how God has loved, and how God has delivered God’s people. Zechariah is one whom God remembers, just as he is also called to remember how God has worked throughout the life of the people of Israel.
And yet, we find that Zechariah seems to temporarily forget when the angel comes upon him in the Temple. He forgets the ways God has worked in the past, so he is unable to see how God is working in the present. He questions what the angel is saying, in disbelief. He loses his ability to speak as his memory of what God has done and can do fails him. It isn’t until his son is born that he is able to speak again. And what are the first words out of his mouth? A song remembering the way God has always remembered his people! Zechariah is now able to see the way God’s memory gets played out in his own present – he sees the relationship between memory and seeing the miraculous!
Elizabeth, too, is a name that echoes this theme of memory. According to Dr. Levine, her name likely derives from the Hebrew Eli, which means “my God,” and sheva, which means “oath.” Her name means “God’s oath” or “God keeps promises.” In other words, Elizabeth’s name reveals that God remembers what God has promised. God does not forget, and God follows through.
The whole of this first chapter of Luke’s gospel is one that proclaims that God remembers God’s people. God does not abandon, forget, or destroy them. God’s memory is long. And what does God remember? Love. God remembers God’s love for his people and he makes a way for them. The story of the birth of John the Baptist is a way that God begins to bridge the past into the present reality of the coming of Jesus Christ.
Like Zechariah, Elizabeth, and all of God’s people, we are called to memory, that we might recognize the miraculous. May we remember, even as God continually remembers us.
o What words, phrases, or images from the text speak to you? What thoughts or feelings do they evoke?
o What stories of Scripture stick out in your memory? What stories have spoken to you?
o Where in your own life do you recall experiencing God’s presence and grace?
If you have been in the practice of journaling or writing prayers and you have access to older journals, go back and read through some of them. You may be surprised at moments they call to mind in your own spiritual journey.
Write a psalm of praise to God, recalling what God has done and is doing in your life.
God, your memory is long. You never forget me. You never forget all of your people. Help me to recall the ways that you have worked in the lives of those who have gone before me, and in my own life, so that I might be able to see how you are working in the present. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.