57Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.
59On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. 60But his mother said, "No; he is to be called John." 61They said to her, "None of your relatives has this name." 62Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. 63He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, "His name is John." And all of them were amazed. 64Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. 65Fear came over all their neighbors, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. 66All who heard them pondered them and said, "What then will this child become?" For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.
"What's in a name?" Juliet asks. "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Juliet (of Romeo and Juliet) has a point here. The name of the flower which we call 'rose' could have been called by some other name. The name itself would not have changed the characteristics of the flower ("would smell as sweet"). Juliet is a one smart young lady.
John the Baptist could have been called 'Zechariah' after his father. We would have known him as 'Zechariah the Baptist'. OK, too many syllables. Doesn't have quite the ring as 'John the Baptist'. However, 'Zechariah the Baptist' was a possible name. And it would have been the baby's name had not Zechariah intervened with the prophetic word that his son shall be called 'John', in agreement with Elizabeth, the baby's mother.
So it came down in Gospel history that Jesus' second cousin, who would prepare the Messiah's way, was to be named 'John' and later be known as 'John the Baptist'. We might ask, What's the big deal how someone is named? Is there a huge difference between the meanings of "John" vs. "Zechariah"? 'Zechariah' means "YHWH has remembered," whereas, "John" [Hebrew, Yohanan (יוֹחָנָן)] means "Graced by YHWH." The difference between the two meanings is there but not such a big difference that one is clearly head and shoulders above the other.
The name of the baby was a big deal to Elizabeth and Zechariah, the baby's parents, because the angel Gabriel (Luke 1:13) told Zechariah directly that 'John' is to be the boy's name. The name was commanded by Gabriel, the messenger of YHWH. In other words, the name was given by YHWH Himself. You don't mess with such orders.
The larger point, however, is that John the Baptist is known by God because God has created him and called him. Naming in the ancient world and in our contemporary world serve a similar foundational purpose: to individuate a person. To be nameless means to be unrecognized. To be nameless means you don't count. You don't matter. You're not significant. On the other hand, to have a name indicates that you are recognized, you have an identity, that you count and you do matter. Furthermore, to be named by God means you have a destiny, that you a role to play in God's unfolding redemptive history.
This idea of God knowing us by name is not unique to this passage, as you are aware. Isaiah 43:1: "But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: 'Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine'." Jeremiah 1:5: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” John 10:14-15: "I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep." John 10:13: "To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out."
God knows us by name. The Lord, who has created you and called you into His Kingdom and the one who is calling you out into the world, knows you like none other. You will never have to introduce yourself to the Lord as you would with a stranger. He knows you!
Do you know Him? Are you getting to know Him? One of life's great journeys is the journey to know God better and deeper. To know God by his name, by his character, by his love, by his power, by his glory, by his wisdom, by his mystery. Let's deepen our knowledge of the Triune God who calls us by name and loves us unconditionally.
Let's pray: O God, Father, Son, and Spirit, we open our hearts and minds to get to know you better. We rejoice that you know everyone of us by name. You know our passions as well as our quirks. You who created us have plans for us. You have destinies for each one of us. To love and to be loved is every human being's deep need. You fulfill that created need in us. As we get filled with your love, may we in turn reach out to others with the same power of love that knows the other by name. In Jesus' name, amen.