This sermon is the first time I followed the Lectionary since I started pastoring. At first I was unsure as to how it would be received, but I think it had a pretty good effect.
This mornings sermon comes from Luke 1: 57-66
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 was loosed, and he began to speak, praising God. The neighbors were all 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.
In this set of scriptures, we have the events just prior to the scripture that was read earlier this morning. In it, we find Elizabeth and Zechariah about to have their first child. Elizabeth felt that she was cursed since she had been barren and unable to have children. Zechariah was a priest and one day it fell upon him to go into the temple and perform an offering unto God. And it was during this time that Zechariah was confronted by the angel Gabriel. It was during this time that Zechariah was told that his wife Elizabeth would produce a son and he was to be named John. And while scripture tells us that Zechariah and Elizabeth were people of great faith and dedication to the Lord, Zechariah had some reservations about what Gabriel was telling him.
As a result, he questions Gabriel, asking him how could all of this be happening, given his age and his wife's age. But Gabriel revealed himself to Zechariah and then told him that because of his doubts, he would be unable to speak until after his son was born.
When Zechariah came out of the temple that day, all of the people assumed that he had experienced a vision or something because it took so long. When his time of service to the temple was over, Zechariah returned home, and shortly thereafter, Elizabeth became pregnant. During this time, Elizabeth's cousin, Mary came to stay with her for a few months. Now Gabriel appeared to Mary in similar fashion as he had appeared to Zechariah, but Mary had no doubts and accepted the word of the angel, and became pregnant. When Mary first walked into the house of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the baby in the womb of Elizabeth jumped, and Elizabeth rightly recognized that Mary was blessed by the Father. Mary and Elizabeth then exchanged testimonies and Mary stayed on for three months.
When it was time for Elizabeth to give birth, all of the neighbors were excited because they knew that the Lord smiled upon this woman who was advanced in years. The child was born, and as the angel Gabriel had foretold, it was a boy. When the appointed time of circumcision arrived, they were asked what to name the child.
Now remember, in those days, it was the Jewish custom not to name children at birth. Instead, at the moment of circumcision, which in today's culture is equal to that of baptism, the child was named. The act of circumcision, like baptism, was an outward sign of an inner commitment. But it took on physical properties. This, as we should remember, was the practice that God have to Abraham and it served as a sign of the covenant that God made with the people of Abraham. It was also at this time that God instructed Abraham when a male child was to be circumcised, which was on the eighth day following his birth. So this was a holy act commanded by God and passed down from generation to generation.
So on this day, everyone was gathered for the circumcision and naming of the male child. When the subject of what to name the child arose, it was suggested that the child be named for his father. After all Zechariah was a upright and dedicated servant of the Lord, a man with honor, and his son would have been honored to carry his father's name. It was also the custom during this time that a male child take the name of one of his ancestors. This would continue to family's tradition and legacy, ensuring that the child would grow up and honor those who went before him.
However, Elizabeth, doing as Gabriel has instructed Zechariah, stated that the child would be named John. The people who were gathered were shocked as no one could remember Zechariah having an ancestor named John. In fact, nowhere in the Old Testament is the name of John even mentioned. So the people turned to Zechariah to ask him what the child was to be named, figuring that Elizabeth must not have known what she was doing.
When Zechariah, who still was unable to talk, gave the sign that he wanted a tablet to write on, it was given to him, then he wrote the words, "His name is John." Zechariah knew that in spirit, the child had already been named since he had been told by an angel of the Lord that that was to be his name. As soon as he finished writing the name of his son, he ability to speak was returned to him and he began praising God and giving testimony to the greatness of God. The people around him were astounded at what was going on, and I can imagine that several people immediately ran out and began telling all of the people in the village what had happened. Then Zechariah, who was filled with the Holy Spirit, testified once again as to who God was and what he had done and what he will do.
Before I go any further, we should all remember that the New Testament does not begin with the birth of Jesus, nor does the new age begin with Jesus. It actually begins here in these scriptures with the pregnancy of Elizabeth and the birth of John. For it was through John that God began to take the steps necessary to begin Jesus' reign here on earth. And it was through the birth of John, just like the birth of Jesus, which signaled a change in how God would forever handle us and take care of us.
Both the Christian and Jewish faiths are built upon tradition. We do things because it is "tradition" to do so. We say certain things and perform certain acts in order that we might keep the tradition alive. The whole area of naming a child was very ritualistic and everything was done to hold fast to "The Laws of Moses." Now the Law of Moses is not just limited to the Ten Commandments. There are actually over 600 commandments that were handed down by God to Moses, Abraham, and Isaac.
In these commandments were everything from how long you should sleep, how much you should eat, what you should eat, how long or short your hair should be depending on your gender and almost everything else you can think of. It is very easy in the Christian ethic to cast out these commandments as being outdated or unnecessary, chalking them up to nothing more than Jewish law. But let us never forget that the whole basis of Christianity, the whole preparation for Jesus, even though they largely rejected him and still rejected him, was laid down by the Jews.
So not keeping to the letter of the Laws of Moses was something that was unheard of. You could not be a good and faithful Jew if you did not follow those laws. By not observing even one of them, you were labeled as a sinner, someone who was against the will of God.
So when Zechariah and Elizabeth decided to break tradition and not give their son a family name, it had to have caused quite a bit more commotion than what was recorded in the Bible. We all know how family and friends are, they know everything, and what they don't know, they still know more than you. The people had to be thinking that Zechariah and Elizabeth were doing something ungodly by naming their son John, a name that most of them had probably never heard of before. But regardless of that and unbeknown to most of those in attendance, Zechariah and Elizabeth were following the Lord, and that was all that matters.
Sometimes we get so caught up in how things used to be done and how things should be done that we don't always take the time to figure out how God wants it done. We create our own traditions and rituals and rarely do we take the time to consider what would please God. Do our traditions help to glorify God? By doing what has been done for ages, are we truly following God or following ourselves?
Tradition is very important and I do not downplay them. I recognize that for historical reasons, many traditions should be kept. Even the way we celebrate Christmas is largely traditional in it's very nature. So there are times when tradition is not only positive but should be encouraged.
But when we let tradition get in the way of our relationship with God, when we let it interfere with what God has in store for us, then we are in trouble. When the people gathered at the circumcision of John heard what he was to be made, their devotion for God was overshadowed by tradition. After all, a few years later, Jesus himself would get into several discussions with the Pharisees about what was and was not proper to do on the Sabbath according to tradition. One of the things that Jesus taught us was that we are to do things for the benefit of God and for no other reason.
The naming of a child is no easy task, as I am sure some of you here know. My wife and I pondered and thought and prayed about what to name our son. Friends and family all came up with suggestions, some valid and some just plain silly. It was a big deal, for we knew that this would be something that he would carry with him all of his days, therefore it was not something to be taken lightly.
In the process, we may have started something that I am not sure I was really aware of. My son has my first name as his middle name, and the same is the case with me and my father. So if my son has a son and he does the same thing, you could say there is a tradition building.
I pledged the fraternity I pledged not only because I was attracted to it, but because I knew my cousins were attempting to build a tradition that the college men of the family would join the same fraternity. It is traditional that my family would get together for holidays and selected birthdays.
We all have created our own traditions, even here in the church. It is my hope that the youth revival we had this past summer will become a tradition here at Miller Chapel. Wednesday night Bible Study is a tradition in most Christian churches. Board meetings on Monday or Tuesday nights are another tradition. When members sit in the same seat Sunday after Sunday for months and years on end, it become tradition for them to sit in certain places. It is tradition that causes a preacher to preach a sermon at a designated time in the service even though he may not want to. But it is what is expected of us.
But the one major downfall about tradition is that it inhibits change. It causes us to do the same things the same way, year after year after year. Even in the cases where we know that change is needed, where change is necessary, we resist it all in the name of tradition.
But God saw the need to break this particular cycle. By sending Gabriel to Zechariah, God set into place a series of events that would break the current monotony that had plagued the Jewish people. The people during that time, like today, were largely a complacent bunch, who needed to be shaken up and reminded that God was still God. Just as God did during the time of Noah, change needed to take place. And by allowing an old, barren woman to give birth to the precursor to the savior of man, God was saying, I am about to change things.
And while change is not always good, sometimes being done just for the sake of change, this change, and the changes yet to come, we nothing but good. Because it signified a change in the commitment level of God. He got personally involved this time, more so that he had ever done before. God was willing to send his son into a world of sin, a world that had become rigid and stale due to their following of tradition and ritual.
And it was through this personal involvement that God created a permanent change. A new and changed covenant. Whereas before he required sacrifices, God this time was changing his ways, saying he was changing by making the sacrifice himself.
We like to say that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. But the evidence of the birth of John the Baptist suggests that he is also the God of change. That He is a God who is willing to cast out tradition and rituals, to eradicate the way things used to be done in order to get things done right. And if that meant changing the law, so be it. If that meant changing how people thought, so be it. If that meant changing the way the whole world looked at him, then all the better.
Because change was needed. Not everyone recognized it and some people tried to resist it, but a change was necessary and it was on the way. But allowing John the Baptist to be born and creating the environment for him to come into this world, John, by his mere presence, was changing the way his children would get into Heaven.
No longer would sacrifices of animals and the burning of incense be sufficient. But God was paving the way for, as we say in the communion liturgy, a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice by allowing his son to come into a world that would reject him, that would scorn him, that would doubt him, that would chastise him, that would doubt his very existence.
And in a like manner, God now required a change in people. A change in their attitudes, a changing in their thinking, a change in their habits, a change in how they dealt with God. God wants us to change. God does not want us to rest on tradition or ritual or rely on how we always did things. A change is in the air, and that change is brought on by the birth of John, followed by the birth of Jesus.
God requires a change in all of us. To be born again is to say that you are a changed person. That you no longer cling to the methods of the world, but that you are willing to follow the path of Jesus. To be born again is to change your mode of thinking so that the things that once upset you don't upset you anymore. That you have more patience, more tolerance, more compassion, more hope, more love, more joy. To be born again suggests that you accept the change to come that John represented and that you also accept the change that Jesus created.
To be born again is to change yourself, mind, body and soul. To change yourself into someone that you almost don't recognize anymore. To change yourself into a being that is pleasing in the eyes of God. To change yourself into someone who views life with promise and fulfillment. To change yourself into someone who knows that there is nothing that cannot be done with the help, aid and guidance of God, who created the change, and Jesus, who fulfilled the change.
So this morning, I challenge you to accept the change. Accept the change that began over 2000 years ago with the birth of John. Accept the change that was made when tradition was broken. Accept the change that was made when the savior of man came to earth. Accept the change that a man came to save you, for no other reason but you are loved and that you might be saved.
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(Charles E. Smoot © 2000-2009, all rights reserved)