Sermon Transcript: A Tale of Two Baby Names
A Tale of Two Baby Names (Luke 1:5-17, Luke 1:57-80)
As the father of a very cute 1-year-old, I am contractually obligated to start my sermon with a story about Asher. Although this isn’t a story about Asher per se, more so Asher’s name.
The route Amy and I took in deciding to adopt again was incredibly spiritual. We entered with hearts open to God’s leading, we drew closer to Him and to each other as we pondered the possibilities with increasing excitement, and again and again we were brought to our knees by the difficulty of the process and by the scariness of the challenges that he faced in the womb and that he might face out in the world.
And so it became important to us that the baby’s name come from the Bible and that it mean something to signify his arrival into our lives and his future days in our family. Asher was one of the 12 tribes of Israel, and it means “happy” or “blessed,” and that really resonated with us. And, with some notable late-night exceptions, we do feel happy and blessed to have Asher in our lives, and we do hope that he lives a happy and blessed life in our family.
Baby names matter. It is something new parents delight over and/or stress about, because it is the literal label for that child that will define them for the rest of their lives.
Names matter in the Bible, too, and the 1st chapter of the gospel according to Luke is a tale of two baby names. “John” is the Greek version of the Hebrew name, “Johanan,” which means “gracious gift of Jehovah,” while “Jesus” is the Greek version of the Hebrew name, “Yeshua,” which means “Jehovah saves.”
We’ll come back to those meanings in a sec, but first a little background on the book of Luke. Of the four gospels, Mark stands alone as a book of Jesus’ action. Most scholars believe Mark was written first, and may have been a source document for Luke. John stands alone as a book of Jesus’ spirituality. Most scholars believe John was written last, and likely much later than the other three gospels.
So that leaves Matthew and Luke. And I want to talk about these two parallel gospels, especially as it relates to how they start. Matthew was written to a Jewish audience, to show how the life of Jesus was the fulfillment of prophesies from long ago; Matthew has by far the most Old Testament references of the four gospels.
And yet the gospel of Matthew starts with a genealogy that is decidedly worldly and Gentile in nature. Genealogies were important ways in Hebrew culture to establish literally where someone came from, so it makes sense for Matthew to start his gospel with a genealogy of Jesus, connecting Him directly back to fathers of the faith like Abraham and David.
But, slipped into this genealogy are five women, which is highly unusual for a Jewish genealogy. What’s even more scandalous is who which five women are mentioned:
· Tamar was Judah’s daughter in law, who disguised herself as a prostitute and slept with Judah; she and the twin boys that resulted from her romp with Judah are in Jesus’ genealogy. (Genesis 38)
· Speaking of prostitutes, Rahab was a madam and an abetter of spies and a liar and (gasp!) a Gentile. (Joshua 2)
· Rahab’s son, Boaz, married another Gentile, Ruth, a Moabite woman and descendent of Sodom. (Ruth)
· Bathsheba is the woman David committed adultery with, and then David murdered her husband so he could marry her. (2 Samuel 11)
· And of course there’s Mary. She was a refugee and a teen mom, and even worse the town folk surely murmured to each other that she had gotten herself pregnant before her and Joseph had gotten married.
So Matthew is writing to traditional Jews, and yet his intro to Jesus is very worldly and very Gentile. Luke, on the other hand, is writing to worldly Gentiles living in cities across the Middle East. And yet his intro to Jesus is very traditional and Jewish and rural:
· He introduces John’s parents as Zacharias from the division of Abijah and Elizabeth from the daughters of Aaron. (1:5)
· Zacharias is visited by an angel while performing his priestly service before God in the temple, which Luke describes in details that would be familiar and important to Jews but utterly boring to Gentiles. (1:8-9)
· By the way, the angel is revealed to be Gabriel, who made his first appearance in the book of Daniel and so would be familiar to Scripture-reading Jews. (1:19)
· Mary and Elizabeth, the mothers of the babies we’re talking about today, connect later in the chapter, and Luke takes care to tell the reader that takes place out in the hill country. (1:39)
· Speaking of the hill country, Luke repeats this fact when John is named during his circumcision ceremony, and I don’t have to tell you that circumcision is something that mattered to Jews but not to Gentiles. (1:65)
· Finally, Zacharias’ prophecy at the conclusion of the chapter has all kinds of language about the Israelites but not once does he throw a bone to the Gentiles, like saying that Jesus is for “all peoples” or “all nations” or something inclusive like that. (1:68-79)
So Matthew wrote to traditional Jews, and yet his intro to Jesus is very worldly and Gentile. Luke wrote to urban Gentiles, and yet his intro to Jesus is very Jewish and rural.
And remember the baby names. John is “gracious gift of Jehovah,” and Jesus is “Jehovah saves.” Jehovah was the name of the God of Israel. Luke wrote at a time and to an audience that was very polytheistic, which is to say that there were lots of gods out there, representing different geographies and functions and competing for the allegiance of the worldly Gentiles living in the Middle East’s big cities. And yet he introduces his gospel and its first two main characters as having names that reference a specific God of a specific, non-Gentile people.
You might think that Luke, who palled around with the apostle Paul a lot and saw how Paul took the Christian message to worldly Gentiles in cities all over the Middle East, would introduce his gospel with a more overtly inclusive and urbane message.
After all, Paul’s vocabulary is almost all in that direction. Paul came from a very Jewish background – at one point he calls himself “a Hebrew of Hebrews” – and yet he presents Jesus in a very inclusive way. He breaks down barriers by saying that “there is no Jew or Greek,” and if anything he emphasizes that Jews have rejected Jesus and that as a result the message is now going to the Gentiles.
Meanwhile, Paul’s lifestyle and methods are extremely cosmopolitan. He goes from big city to big city, discoursing in the places where worldly conversations take place. He even makes tents, which gave him access to the rich urbanites of the day who could afford this traveling comfort as they went from city to city for business and leisure.
Luke’s gospel eventually hits many of the same themes. But it starts out in a really traditional and Jewish and rural manner.
And this is my main takeaway from this introductory chapter of Luke’s gospel. Yes, the message of Jesus is for the whole world and not just for God’s original people. But, it is just as correct to say – and Luke thinks it important to start his account of Jesus’ life by saying it this way – that the message of Jesus means drawing all the world into the story of God’s original people.
Let me re-read today’s passage, emphasizing the parts of Zacharias’ prophecy that speak of God’s awesome plan for His people, which He has had since the beginning and which is still being worked out to this day and beyond.
The grand narrative of God’s plan for His people is this:
· He created us and put us in paradise.
· We fell, time and again, and banished ourselves from His presence and goodness.
· He made a way back to Him for us.
· He accomplished redemption and salvation and rescue and forgiveness.
· He did this for and through a specific people, the Israelites.
· He did so as a gracious gift to those chosen people.
· And you and I and the whole world can be made into His people to enter into this grand narrative that He has had in mind from since the beginning.
I have Zacharias to thank for this insight. I can relate to where he was when the angel first visited him. I know what it’s like to not have the ability to have kids, and the sharp pain of being under that curse and the dull pain of growing older with no way of getting out from under that curse.
Zacharias went about his business as a faithful priest, but he and his wife bore that heavy burden everywhere they went, everywhere they saw parents and every time they were offered the traditional Jewish greeting of “blessing upon you and your kids” and then those greeters would have to awkwardly mumble the end of the greeting once they realized Zacharias and Elizabeth had no kids.
And then, while in the midst of performing his priestly duties, he is visited by an angel – and by the way, angels were not, well, angelic looking, but rather fearful looking creatures – and if that wasn’t jolting enough he is told that he and Elizabeth are going to have a baby.
Now, if I’m Zacharias, I wouldn’t have heard anything else after that. And, at first, it may seem like he didn’t hear anything else. After all, his first response, which would’ve been mine, was: “No way! We’re too old!” And the angel punishes him with silence for not believing this incredible news.
But by the time the baby arrives, Zacharias has remembered what the angel told him, and in particular he has remembered the instruction that the baby is to be called John, “the gracious gift of Jehovah.”
And so this is how Luke starts his gospel that he wrote to worldly and urbane Gentiles. He notes at the onset of his gospel that there are a lot of narratives floating around, and he wants to set the record straight. And the essential thing Luke wants to say is that the whole world is invited into the Hebrew God’s grand narrative of redemption and salvation and rescue and forgiveness.
And this part of that grand narrative starts with one baby to be named John, “gracious gift of Jehovah,” who will serve as a forerunner for another baby to be named Jesus, “Jehovah saves.” And that baby will accomplish redemption for His people and salvation from their enemies and forgiveness of their sins. That baby will shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide their feet into the way of peace.
Unless you are Jewish in heritage, then this story was not originally addressed to you or I but now it is. Or, as Luke seems to think is important to say, this story is for God’s special people, and you and I can be included in that story. All thanks to a baby named John and a baby named Jesus. Praise be to Jehovah for the gracious gift of salvation.