“But his mother responded, ‘No. He will be called John.’ Then they said to her, ‘None of your relatives has that name.’ So they motioned to his father to find out what he wanted him to be called. He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And they were all amazed.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
I saw a chart the other day from the Pew Research Group showing by comparison the percentage of Americans who claim Christianity as their religious identity versus those who claim no religious identity at all. The former has been on a steady decline, and the latter, a steady rise, since the turn of this millennium. In other words, for the first time in our nation’s history, we are finding ourselves living in a culture that is increasingly more likely than not to push back against us for seeking to live out our faith in public and meaningful ways. The question for us is not whether we can turn back this tide, but how we will respond to it. As we continue into the final week of our Advent journey this morning, we are reminded that this is a place God’s people have found themselves before.
Zechariah and Elizabeth’s pregnancy journey had to have been a wondrous one for everyone around them. Of course, it was for them too, but the people around them were no doubt marveling at and celebrating God’s goodness vicariously through them. That shouldn’t come as much of a surprise either. Today still, a mother’s journey through pregnancy is often not one she does alone. But for the minority of people who have been culturally brainwashed into believing having children is somehow bad for the environment, seeing a pregnant mother brings with it a natural hopefulness to the people around her. No one brings a baby into the world believing her life is going to be worse than what her parents have experienced. We want better for our children than we had for ourselves. Bearing them is always an act of defiant hopefulness in the face of a hopeless world. There’s a reason things like abortion and infanticide have always flourished in cultures where the Christian worldview does not hold strong sway.
The thing about people being encouraged by something going on in your life (and especially when that something is having a baby) is that they begin to not simply be excited by your plans, but that they begin to make plans of their own for you. Isn’t that nice of them? Perhaps you’ve experienced this. It could be a mother or mother-in-law. It could be a close friend or maybe a well-meaning aunt or cousin. Sometimes even fathers or fathers-in-law can jump into the mix here. Whoever it is, though, they begin to make some plans for what and how your life should go. If it is indeed that you are pregnant, they might start making plans for how your baby’s life should go. These plans may be well-intentioned, but when they are not your plans – or worse, when they are not God’s plans – this can become a bit of a stressful affair. Saying no may be necessary, but it’s not going to be easy. It’ll hurt feelings. It’ll create division. It’ll invite argument. It’ll generally make a mess.
For Elizabeth and Zechariah, the angel who announced her pregnancy to Zechariah had told him they were to name their baby boy John. Culturally, though, it was very customary to name a firstborn son after his father. At the very least, children were to have family names. As the day came to circumcise and name the new miracle baby, all the family and friends gathered there to celebrate the joyous occasion with them wanted to name the child after his father. They wanted to do this because, as far as they understood it, it was the right thing to do. The trouble was…it wasn’t. But if Zechariah and Elizabeth were going to do what they knew in their hearts and minds God had told them to do, they were going to have to stand firm against a rising tide that neither understood nor appreciated their resistance. The people around them knew they knew what was best, and there was likely a price to be paid for not playing along. Yet stand firm they did, and God’s plans moved forward just like He wanted them to go.
Here’s the connection point for us. As the culture around us continues shedding any sort of allegiance it may have once had to the Christian worldview, those who still hold to it are going to begin experiencing more and more resistance to their efforts. If the trend continues as it has been going for the last 20 years, we are only a few years away from the point that more people claim no religious identity than claim a Christian one. Christians in this culture are going to find themselves living in truly foreign territory for the first time in our lives (news to which our brothers and sisters around the world will respond with a hearty, “Welcome to the party”). The challenge we will increasingly face in the days ahead is a simple one: Will we stand firm against the rising tide of non- and anti-Christian thinking pushing back against our efforts to live out our faith in public, meaningful ways?
John’s parents here offer us a model to follow in this battle. There are three things, in fact, they demonstrate and of which we would do ourselves a favor to take note. First and foremost, they stood firm. When the world around us begins pressing back against our expressions of faithfulness to Christ, we must stand firm. We must be clear on which things are essential and which are not (the Scriptures are our guide here which is why staying deeply rooted in them is an absolute must in this process), and for those which are, we must very simply refuse to move.
Zechariah and Elizabeth’s friends and family wanted to name the child after his father. There’s something to notice here too. Sometimes, the things the world comes after us to do will seem like good and even God-honoring things. That’s how they’ll be spun. The Enemy knows honey attracts flies better than vinegar. Their friends and family were trying to honor Zechariah by making sure the child bore his name. What could be wrong with that? In normal circumstances, nothing. But this wasn’t what God wanted them to do. So they refused. When it comes to the things God has called us to do, when the world tries to get us to do something different, we must refuse.
Second, their refusal was not an emotional one. They didn’t throw a fit. They didn’t have a pity party. They didn’t lash out and meet attack with attack. They simply refused. When the world pushes back against our efforts at Christian fidelity, we cannot respond with anger and emotion. We simply say, “No, I’m not going to do that,” and move on. When the world ups the ante and comes at us harder, we do not meet it on its own terms. We never respond in kind. We always respond with patience and kindness. The only debate terms we ever accept are the ones that honor Christ. We are gentle and humble and loving at all times. This doesn’t mean we are robots. There is a time for emotion. But this is not it. Letting the world bait us into undue anger won’t make our efforts easier or somehow convince the world to leave us alone. It’ll leave us fighting on its terms. The world always wins when we fight like it does.
Third, they stood together. The crowd gathered for the ceremony started with Elizabeth and didn’t get the answer they wanted. So, they went to Zechariah. He gave them the same response. He backed up his wife 100%. If they had not stood firm together, they would have caved to the pressure being placed on them. In the same sort of way, if we are going to stand firm against the world’s incursions, we cannot do it alone. In our efforts to be faithful to our confession, if we are not making them from within the context of a loving and committed church community, we will not be able to stand firm. When the culture around us was mostly Christian in worldview (if not necessarily in confession or behavior), the idea that someone could do a relationship with Jesus just fine without the church was arguably justifiable (I think the arguments were terrible and reject them entirely, but at least an effort could be made). Today that is simply not the case. Someone who tries to serve Jesus apart from the church is not going to serve Jesus. He is going to cave in to the world’s demands and become just like any other unbeliever around him. If we are going to stand, we must stand together.
As we await and prepare for the arrival of Christ in our lives and, one day, in our world fully and finally, these three things will help keep us on track. And all because a couple of parents refused to name their son Zechariah. God’s word is good. Stick with in this and every season so that your life will be ready for His Advent.