Do you ever sit and struggle to find just that right word to say what is in your heart? I know I do. I am not a person who reworks what I write a lot…and you can probably tell that when you find a misspelling here or there or a wrongly used clause or some of the other mistakes I make while dashing on one of these pieces about “what I think” about such and such. But years of therapy and spiritual direction and reading and writing have taught me that words do indeed have power and must be chosen carefully.
So what about those times when we know the word to say and it just won’t come out? That is the position in which Zechariah finds himself in our story. He can’t get the word out until those around him were ready to receive it:
57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
The all important word in this passage that needs to be spoken or at least understood and accepted is the name of the boy, John. Why is it so important? The first reason is that the angel Gabriel prophesied the name in Luke 1:13; the second reason is the meaning of the name itself.
The name John is one of those things we just don’t think about. John is a good, solid name…a common name. We are used to it. My father’s name was John. My brother’s name was John. It is a family name in the Sevier family, going back generations to our famous (infamous) early American ancestor. But here, the name is the key to the action and the key to the miracle in our passage.
Studying the ancient Hebrew language, you quickly learn that all the things we call names are actually words in the language: the word we translate as “Sarah” is actually the Hebrew word seed, “Ruth” is the word for friend, and so on. A name is never just a name in Hebrew language and culture.
The name we translate as John comes from the Hebrew יוֹחָנָן (Yochanan) and means “YAHWEH is Gracious.” YAHWEH is gracious…Zechariah had an important message to carry to the people at that circumcision ceremony. The real message of the event of John’s birth, the message that he had come to bring in preparation for the work of his cousin (whose coming is foretold to Mary in the verses just before this story), is buried in the name of the child…YAHWEH is gracious. And in the writing of that name, Zechariah spread the message and the story of faith that had been entrusted to him.
Yes, this passage is part of the story we retell each year to remind us of the mystery of incarnation and the gift of salvation. Yes, this story tells us of miracle after miracle: the birth of a child in childlessness, the restoration of speech and hearing in the face of silence. But just like in life, the right word, the word that unlocks that mystery for each of us was very simple. And it reminds me that the right word, the word that unlocks all the beauty of God’s love, can be hidden in some unsuspecting place…like the name of a beloved friend or pet, or a child, or a place, or the simple hello of a stranger.
The right word is always a word of love. Remember, YAHWEH is gracious.