Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her 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.
As I write, Jeff Bozos has returned from his brief jaunt into space. Leaving aside what I think of burning that much fuel and money for 4 minutes of weightless somersaulting, this feels like the start of something new. I am just old enough to have seen the first moon landing and I reckon I will live to see the first space hotel. This pleasure-cruise feels like the start.
Today’s passage also feels like the start of something new. The birth of John marks the transition from Old Testament to New. His unexpected name means ‘YHWH is gracious’ – pre-figuring the grace expounded in the rest of the Gospel. It contrasts with the name everyone assumed he would have, Zechariah, meaning ‘YHWH remembers’. That’s a great name and great reminder of God’s faithfulness, but John’s role would be looking forwards, not back.
The reaction of all those present was fear. That’s an interesting choice of word. The Greek is φόβος (phobos), but we’re not talking arachnophobia here, nor the common malady of ergophobia (fear of work), nor the rarer sesquipedalophobia (fear of words a foot-and-a-half long).
This fear is more the silencing of chatter as you sit atop an 18-metre rocket … and the engines start. “I got goose bumps,” said one person watching the launch from 40 km away. “The hair on the back of my neck stood up, just witnessing history.” If that’s what it was like watching the launch, what must it have been like actually doing it?
We experience such awe, wonder and open-mouthed amazement in the presence of the huge, the powerful, the majestic, in outstanding beauty, in overwhelming joy like holding one’s new-born child. Not frightened fear, but the adrenaline-packed knowledge that this is a moment of eternity, happening now.
In a couple of days we will celebrate the coming of another baby, one before whom all heaven stands in awe, wonder and open-mouthed amazement.
This is the start of something new.
Sovereign Lord, You stand above the cherubim, glorious in majesty, majestic in glory. We stand in awe, and worship.
Gentle Saviour, You lie in a peasant woman’s womb, perfect in humility, humble in perfection. We kneel in wonder, and worship. Amen.
Fay Rowland, author and graduate researcher at Wesley House, Cambridge, worshipping at Christ the King