How does she know that the baby’s name is John? We know, because Luke tells us, that the Angel Gabriel had appeared to Zechariah, the husband of Elizabeth, and had told him that she would bear a child, even though they were both getting on in years. Gabriel said the child’s name would be John, a name apparently alien to that family. None of their relatives had that name, and the neighbors expected, when the time came, that he would be called Zechariah like his father.
But how did Elizabeth know that the name had to be John? Zechariah, after all, had been struck dumb at the angel’s appearance. He was a priest, and he was on the roster that day at the Temple, offering incense in the sanctuary. Located as he was right in the center of all things religious, he must have felt that he had some special privilege or responsibility to know the mind of God. When the angel spoke, Zechariah asked for verification: “How will I know that this is so?”
I guess he wasn’t thinking clearly. Surely the pregnancy of his wife who had never been able to have a child, and who now was past the age of childbearing, would have been confirmation enough in its own time. Surely waiting for a few months would have made everything obvious. The pregnancy itself would have been the great miracle, and it would have been relatively easy after that to believe all the other things that Gabriel had said that day in the sanctuary, with the clouds of incense wafting all around them. John would be filled with the Holy Spirit, the angel said, even before his birth. He would prepare many in Israel to encounter the Lord their God. He would have the spirit and power of the great prophet Elijah.
Gabriel’s words could have been fulfilled, day by day, month by month, and Zechariah could have spoken in wonder with his wife about all these things as they lay in their bed at night.
But Zechariah couldn’t discuss these things with Elizabeth. The angel had left him mute. Did he write out a strange message for her, telling her all that the angel had said? Could she read? To whom else would Zechariah have written? To some neighbor or fellow priest? I guess the message would have gone something like this: “Please tell my wife that I can’t talk because the Angel Gabriel told me she was going to have a baby and I didn’t handle the situation well.” Awkward. In any case there is no sign in this story of a literate friend who already knows that the baby’s name is John. Elizabeth seems to be on her own with that knowledge, and Zechariah seems to regain his speech on the day of the child’s birth precisely because he writes for the first time that the child’s name is John.
So I guess Elizabeth just knows.
Just as she knows, when Mary comes to visit her, that Mary is going to be the mother of her Lord. “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb,” she cries, “For as soon as I heard your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” Granted, the child in Elizabeth’s womb will be a prophet of great power, but Elizabeth clearly has some gift of her own, some receptivity. She is attuned not only to God but to God in the people around her. To God who makes her husband undergo a mysterious trial. To God who makes her young relative Mary the improbable bearer of her own savior. To John, who is already responding to the presence of the Christ and to the words of the Christ-bearer, Mary.
The theologian Rowan Williams says that many of us have this same kind of receptivity, at least at certain moments. He calls them “Elizabeth moments,” times when, in his words, “life stirs inside, heralding some future with Christ that we can't yet get our minds around.”*
These are times when we can’t quite express what it is that Jesus is doing in our lives or in the world around us, but we are surprised and filled with a mysterious joy. We feel the love of God pulling us forward, quickening something within us, maybe even in response to the way God is acting in someone else’s life.
These moments may take place, Williams says, when we are in the midst of a liturgy like today’s, when the actions and words that we have shared a thousand times together suddenly seem pregnant with meaning and hope in a new way. Or when someone’s words, like Mary’s greeting, are filled with the presence of Christ as we have never before experienced it. Life stirs inside, heralding some future. As it did for Elizabeth, giving her the strength to declare that her child had a God-given identity, a God-given name, and a godly calling.
Our God is now and always has been willing to work this way, viscerally, improbably, unmistakably for those who are receptive enough to feel the stirring. There are now and there always have been those who feel God’s future growing inside them, the life of Jesus and his church taking form and coming to fruition, even against all the odds.
If that’s you, don’t ever give up. Don’t let your neighbors tell you that there is a more conventional name for what’s growing inside you if you know that you are claimed by Jesus and compelled to bear witness to his coming. If you see him in other people, and something within you stirs, proclaim your joy. Bless those who visit you, bearing salvation.
You may be too old or too female, transgender or black or Asian. You may be one of those millenials. Maybe you are that straight white guy. You may be in Puerto Rico where your citizenship is barely acknowledged and your disasters handled with callous indifference. You may be escaping death for yourself and your children in Honduras, and your child may have been taken from you forcibly, with the very same callous indifference, and you may for the first, truly devastating time, realize the full measure of the contempt in which the poor of the earth are held by the wealthy and the free. You may be in anguish, registering the unjust suffering of other people, looking for just the right the phone number to call to let it be known that you demand change. You may be scanning the news for details of policies that will help, looking in spite of everything you know for that politician who will save the day. You may be praying on your knees at night by the side of your bed. You may be recycling your bottles and cans and hoping that these small gestures will stave off disaster. You may be disgusted by the way your views on all these things are mischaracterized by self-righteous liberals.
But you know what you know, deep inside. You know something about grace.
And in all this, you may still be aware of the presence of God calling you forward, for your own salvation and for that of all the world. Something in you may still be capable of joy and surprise and hope, and I want to tell you right now that you should never give up. You are here this morning and in this world, because you have the gift of bearing witness to Jesus.
We say it every day in evening prayer, repeating the words that tumble forth from Zechariah’s mouth in Luke’s gospel:
By the tender mercy of our God,
the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
You know and I know that nothing is easy, nothing will come easily, hope, and even the salvation Jesus brings, will not be a simple remedy. That child Elizabeth bore would go on to feel the full measure of the world’s contempt. John would die by the whim of a paranoid king. Mary’s child would give his life on the cross.
But this moment of nativity, of prophetic birth, lives eternally and resonates through the ages. Prophetic life stirs within us still. The life in you is immortal life. We too shall be called prophets of the most high.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
24 June 2018
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia