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Sermon: Third Sunday of Advent

Sunday 16th December 2012

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel: for he hath visited his people and redeemed them.

A couple of weeks ago the list of the most popular boys and girls names was announced, with Harry and Amelia topping their respective sexes. And Old Testament names are up in the rankings, which is curiously relevant to this sermon. And visiting friends yesterday they told us of the birth of a child in their family. A little girl. ‘How lovely’ we said, ‘what’s she called?’ ‘Well, there’s the thing, it’s been a week and we still don’t know!’

Today on this Third Sunday in Advent we traditionally reflect on John the Baptist, the herald, the signpost to the coming Messiah and Lamb of God, Jesus. And this morning in the wake of the singing of James Macmillan’s setting of Zechariah’s canticle by the choir, we might reasonably reflect on Zechariah’s words sung as he declares his son’s name.

In Christian liturgy the Benedictus is the normative canticle of the office Lauds, or as we have it in Anglican liturgy, Morning Prayer, Matins, to be sung after the second lesson and before the Creed. In this canticle, which with the Magnificat, to be sung at Vespers, our Evensong, we have two songs, one by Mary and the other by Zechariah, sung somewhere in the hills of Judea, where, as a thirteenth century Gospel  paraphrase says “two beautiful canticles were created”.

You will recall that the appearance of the angel of the Lord to Zechariah announcing John’s impending birth had rendered him speechless, and the annunciation to Mary had left her both questioning, ‘how can this be?’ and emphatic, ‘be unto me according to thy word’. Zechariah’s tongue is only loosed when the naming of John takes place.

And so they gather on the eighth day, the day of the child’s circumcision and incorporation into God’s covenant with his people, Israel. And perhaps we can imagine the occasion as the kinsfolk and community gather on tenterhooks: what are they going to call this child? Why don’t we know already? For Jews of the time it was even more shocking not to know a name than our friends wondering at the moment. Elizabeth tells them he will not be named following his father. ‘John? None of your relatives has this name.’ But casting their minds back they should know that the naming of a child is rich with theological significance. After all, Abraham and Sarah name their son Issac, meaning, ‘he laughs’; that was his parent’s incredulous reaction on hearing that elderly Sarah, who was equally biologically unlikely as the aged Elizabeth to be a mother, was pregnant.

So the mute Zechariah writes, ‘His name is John’. He is emphatic. His name is already John, just as the angel had previously told him in the temple. John is a name that means, ‘God is gracious’. God is faithful and unchanging, yet ever gracious, whilst changing human names and purpose.

That written declaration looses Zechariah’s tongue, and he was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied saying, ‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel: for he hath visited his people and redeemed them.’ The canticle isn’t about Zechariah’s self-indulgence, but his gratitude for God’s graciousness: ‘he has remembered his holy covenant’. And in John is the preparation for the Messiah, ‘to give knowledge of salvation unto his people for the remission of their sins’ (Luke 1.77) all this perhaps giving the morning liturgical association, ‘through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the day-spring on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness, and in the shadow of death, and to guide our feet into the way of peace.’ (Luke 1.78).

The song of Zechariah divides into two clear parts, first in praise of the God of Israel and the second characterising John’s specific role in repairing and preparing the hearts of the people, like a second Elijah, for repentance and forgiveness before the Advent of a Messiah.

But there is another intriguing thread too, woven by the names of the principal protagonists in Zechariah’s family. The name Zechariah means ‘God has remembered again’, echoed in the promise that God will ‘remember his holy covenant’ (Luke 1.72), and Elizabeth means ‘God is my oath’, reflected in ‘to perform the oath which he sware to our forefather Abraham’ (Luke 1.73), and John, ‘God is gracious’ reflects, ‘the tender mercy of our God’ (Luke 1.78).

We have lost something of the power and significance of names in our own day but to recapture the Biblical imagination they come alive, as clearly in the name Jesus, ‘he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew ) and his title Emmanuel, ‘God with us’ (Matthew .

As a contemporary writer points out, with the psalms of David and the Magnificat, the words and music of the Benedictus have been ‘on the lips and in the hearts of Christian worshippers now for centuries, such that one can say of those Judean hills that for the faithful church they had come alive with the sound of a music that would endure for all time.’ (Lyle Jeffrey, 2012: 35)