Thursday

23 December 2010

"'His name is John.' And all of them were amzed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God." (vv. 63-64)

Background

The name John means, in Hebrew, 'God has shown his favour' and this is the theme of much of chapter 1 of Luke's Gospel (God shows his favour to Mary (v. 48) and to Elizabeth (v. 25)). However because Luke's original hearers are thought to have been Greek speakers it is not likely that the meaning of the name was the intended focus of this passage. Rather, what is underlined is the miraculous source of the name. 

Independently both Elizabeth and Zechariah have been told that the boy is to be called John. The amazement of the neighbours (v. 63) emphasises the event as a miracle. For this is precisely the reaction of the crowds to Jesus' calming of the storm (Luke 8:25); the exorcism of the boy with a demon (Luke 9:43) and the casting out of the demon that was mute (Luke 11:14). 

Zechariah's muteness is an interesting feature of the story. When earlier (Luke 1:18) he questioned the angel Gabriel about how an old couple might conceive a child he was struck dumb. His inability to speak is not removed until John has been named. Given that questioning angels who bring such news is not uncommon (compare Zechariah's reaction in verse 18 with Mary's in verse 34) it seems harsh that Zechariah should lose his speech, seemingly as a punishment (v. 20). Nine months of speechlessness, however, seems to work a miracle in Zechariah. As the child John grows inside Elizabeth, in Zechariah grows a faith that once his mouth is opened (v. 64), bursts out into praise. 

This is the proper response to God's mighty acts. Charles Wesley alludes to it in his hymn, "O for a thousand tongues": 

Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb, 
your loosened tongues employ; 

And the Order for Morning Prayer from the Methodist Worship Book makes it plain that as God opens our lips, our first words should be words of praise: 

O Lord, open our lips, 
and we shall praise your name. 

Not only is this the proper response to the miraculous and the extraordinary, but also to the ordinary miracle of daily life that God sustains in being. 

To Ponder

Who chooses a child's name in your cultural tradition? What would it mean to set this aside for a name of God's choosing?

Why do you think Zechariah is struck dumb whilst Mary is not?

How would you define a miracle? Has one ever happened to you?

Bible notes author: The Revd Dr Jane Leach

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