Luke 1: 57-66 (CEB)
57When the time came for Elizabeth to have her child, she gave birth to a boy. 58Her neighbors and relatives celebrated with her because they had heard that the Lord had shown her great mercy. 59On the eighth day, it came time to circumcise the child. They wanted to name him Zechariah because that was his father’s name. 60But his mother replied, “No, his name will be John.”
61They said to her, “None of your relatives have that name.”62Then they began gesturing to his father to see what he wanted to call him.
63After asking for a tablet, he surprised everyone by writing, “His name is John.”64At that moment, Zechariah was able to speak again, and he began praising God.
65All their neighbors were filled with awe, and everyone throughout the Judean highlands talked about what had happened. 66All who heard about this considered it carefully. They said, “What then will this child be?” Indeed, the Lord’s power was with him.
Earlier in Luke chapter one, we read that Zechariah was serving his tour of duty of a lifetime in the temple making the offering in the Holy of Holy place. And, it was in the temple that he heard the word of the Lord that was unthinkable to him: he was going to have a son.
According to Jewish tradition at the time, it was expected that the first-born son would carry on the family tradition by receiving the surname of his father.
But, this would not be; for, as unusual as the circumstances of the birth were (Elizabeth and Zechariah were well past childbearing years), the name would be just as unusual. The angel Gabriel said the baby would be named John which means “God has been gracious.” And, nine months later came this babe.
So, according to Mosaic law, on the 8th day of life, when the circumcision was to take place, this surprising name choice was made known in the neighborhood too. For when Elizabeth said the baby’s name was to be John and Zechariah affirmed the choice, the neighbors who had come to celebrate with them in this ritual practice were surprised. Probably saying something like: “What are they thinking bucking tradition in this manner?” as verse 61 (NSRV) records the response of the onlookers probably spoken in an accusatory tone to this new family of three, “None of your relatives has this name. [John].”
And not only was the actual community surprised at Elizabeth’s childbearing abilities and the name given, but the prophecy declared over this newborn child’s life.
Verse 66 says about the babe, “for the Lord’s hand was with him.” And, at this time in scripture history, you just didn’t say that about anybody.
For even more than usual, God was in this birth as answer to prayers like none other. Baby John was called out to play a crucial role in salvation history though the details of it all would be determined over time.
So with the surprise of all of this intact, what does the story say was the response? Seems like a silly question doesn’t it because surprises usually make people happy, make people want to go out of their houses skipping, or make one break out into song like they are living in a musical, right?
But if we consider the full context of Zechariah, this fellow had every reason not to be joyful about this surprise.
Sure, it was great that he finally held that son in his arms that he’d be hoping for. But, in his elder years, if his left brain was turned on, he knew that he probably was not going to live long enough to see his son do all the things every father hoped to experience with his child. It might have been too old to watch John learn how to throw or chop wood or say words from the Torah by himself much less gotten married. And so Zechariah, could have said, “God if you had just brought me this blessing just a little bit sooner, THEN, I could be happy about it. But, now, I just can’t.”
Also, Zechariah could have been a poor looser about the choice of name. He finally gets the son he had dreamed about having for years and he doesn’t get to name him after himself. John would not be “marked” as his according to culture, no one would have automatically known he was Zechariah’s child. And, so Zechariah could have barked at God saying: “Ok God, don’t expect me to happy about it.”
And, furthermore, Zechariah, like any proud dad, could have refused celebration because his son was not THE one, God’s choose servant– the Emmanuel God with us that they had all been hoping and praying would arrive. Just like any baseball coach dad or soccer mom, whose son is good but not that good to play on the all-stars team, Zechariah could have complained: “I am glad John is here, but I am not going to thank you for him because, you could have given me more. If you were going to all the trouble to bring about this one miraculously, why could not have my boy been the Messiah?”
But instead of being so uptight and self-seeking in exactly what kind of blessing that God needed to bring him, Zechariah took the path not so widely traveled called joy.
He accepted what he has been given as good. He didn’t cling so much to the lost dreams of the past so that he couldn’t take in this blessing. And, ultimately he allowed God to bless him so that there was nothing left to do but to sing for joy.
As I read and re-read the words of this Psalm known formally as the Benedictus which follows, what I couldn’t help but notice is that the description was not about Zechariah. It wasn’t about his son, funny name or not.
And it wasn’t about the neighbors who came to coo and woo at the baby. This song of proclamation of a birth was not about any of the typical things you’d expect a first time dad to shout about.
Rather, the joy that Zechariah just had to proclaim was about God.
It was about how God had remembered a people who long thought they were forgotten.
It was about how faith in God could connect the past to the present.
It was about being so full of thanksgiving for God’s presence that he just couldn’t be held back.
How easy it is this time of year to think that joy comes in packages, that joy comes in the perfect holiday parties or the perfect family memories, but what if we allowed ourselves like Zechariah to be surprised for how the ways of joy led us too?
No matter what we see on the surface of our lives, joy can find us. It can find us if our Christmas tree is big and beautiful or if it looks like Charlie Brown’s.
Joy can find us if we bake cookies or we eat store-bought ones.
Joy can find us if we watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the 20th time or boycott tv altogether.
Joy is not about this season and all its gifts, joy ultimately is about God: the One who gives us hope that our life is greater than just what we see or can even understand right now.
So where are the corners of joy in your life that need to be uncovered? No matter what is going on in your life. No matter how difficult some circumstances are. No matter how out of hope you feel, I know deep down somewhere there is joy to be let loose for God is with us. And so, surprise, joy can find even you!