Published on 26 Jun 2012
The Birth of St. John the Baptist – June 24, 2012
Archdeacon Ellen Clark-King
Christ Church Cathedral
Click Here to listen to an audio MP3 of the sermon
Do you know where your name came from? How your parents chose it? What you would have been called if you had been the other gender? My name Ellen comes from my father’s mother, it’s Old English and means ‘Light’. My middle-name, Jane – the female form of John from the Hebrew meaning ‘God is gracious’ – comes from a less-expected source. There was a comic strip in the newspaper in England during the Second World War that my dad was apparently very fond of. It involved a central character, Jane, who regularly saved England from Nazi plots – and somehow managed to lose most of her clothing in each adventure!
‘God is gracious’ – John – is the name that both Elizabeth and Zechariah choose for their baby boy – the miracle child they thought they would never have. This was not a family name but something new, something unexpected – carrying a suggestion, right from the first moment of his life, that John’s birth was going to be the beginning of change, the disruption of expectations and traditional ways of being. This true act of naming, this acceptance that God can do and has done something new, frees Zechariah into speech. Having been stuck dumb months earlier by doubt and uncertainty he is freed into speech by faith and new hope.
And what speech he is freed into! Some of the most beautiful language of the New Testament springs from Zechariah’s lips: “we would be saved from our enemies, from the hands of all that hate us” and ‘by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.’ Glorious, singing, hopeful words of change and new possibilities – new light, an end to enmity and an end to fear.
It is most appropriate the John, the herald to the Word made flesh, is surrounded by words of beauty and power from the very beginning.
Now names can be freeing, as they were for Zechariah, but they can also be restrictive when they do not feel as if they are true to who we are. One trivial example – until I was 11 I went by my second name Jane, because that was what my parents called me at home. But when I changed schools I also changed to Ellen – partly because I preferred it, and partly because I was sick of jumping guiltily whenever one of the many Janes in my class were told off! More significantly my niece changed names a year or so ago from Anna to Jay because Anna felt too feminine and didn’t reflect Jay’s self-understanding of being gender-queer. Jay’s choice reflects those of trans-gendered people who must find a new name to reflect their new way of living out who they truly are.
Now most of us don’t change our first names: usually, even though we may not love them, we are content to live with them. What is often harder to live with are the informal names that other people, or our own subconscious, have for us. I’m not talking about affectionate nicknames but the names which allow others to dismiss us as of little account: dumb blonde, crazy teenager, grumpy old man, fatty, wimp, lowlife. The list goes on and on, and I’m avoiding the most offensive names – the racist and sexist ones – which would be brutal to hear in the context of worship. And are no less brutal and wounding to hear when they’re shouted at you across the room or across the street.
When we listen to names like this – whether echoing in our own heads or on other people’s lips – we can find ourselves shamed into silence. Something in us believes that they are right to name us so dismissively – that what we have to share with the world is not worth hearing, that our words are better left unspoken, that we have ultimately nothing to say. But God does not say ‘stay quiet’. God says, not just to Isaiah but to all people: “Cry out!” God opens mouths, frees tongues and calls us to speak our truths to the world. It is in speaking that we mirror God’s action in sending his Word into the world. It is only in hearing one another that we can begin to grasp the wonder and breadth of God’s gift of life and our experience of that gift.
God does not just tell us to speak out and leave us to work out how we’re to do that. God graces us with one of the most important first steps to finding our own voice. God names us. Three chapters further on in the book of Isaiah is one of my favourite passages- Isaiah 43: 1-7, in which God says ‘I have called you by name, you are mine.’ Listen for a moment to the names that God knows you by, pause and experience them: my child … my friend … my own precious creation … my fellow worker … my delight … my beloved. These are god’s names for us. These are the names we should allow to find their home in the deepest places of our self-understanding. These are the names we should use as a shield to protect us from the belittling terms that others may use for us.
It may take a long time for these names to penetrate and to do their work of change – depending on how wounded we have been by other namings. Zechariah, after all, was dumb for a number of months before a birth and a name set him free. But when they have begun their work then we, like Zechariah, can begin to speak the truth of our heart. Our words may not be as poetic as his but we can hope that we find similar themes to speak of: light, mercy, righteousness, salvation, peace. But even if our themes are darker, are more marked by suffering; even if we need to speak of loneliness, of loss, of hopelessness and desolation, then we should still speak. All these are part of what it means to live a human life, all these are experiences which contribute to truth in its beauty and love in its tenderness – we need words of lament as well as praise. With Isaiah we may cry out: ‘All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it.’ Words do not have to be cheerful and upbeat to be important to say.
And sometimes the names that need to change, as is the case in the gospel story, are not those that we carry ourselves but those we use for other people. We have been hurt by other people’s names for us but we have also hurt others by our naming of them. If we refuse to open our eyes to the true nature of our neighbours as God’s beloveds then we will still not be able to speak truth to the world. As we live into our own true names we must also ask for God’s grace to name others with truth and love, so that we may all be freed from that which holds us captive to silence.
The birth and naming of John the Baptist was a time for new words to be spoken into the world. Indeed, his birth heralded the birth of the Word itself: the divine, creative, forgiving, loving, liberating Word that is Jesus the Christ. Let us pray that Christ the Word may remove whatever blocks our ability to speak the truth of who we are. Let us pray that we may name ourselves and others as the beloved of God. And let us pray that, whatever language we speak, we may use it to speak words of truth and love so that the dawn form on high may break upon us and all may walk in ways of peace. Amen.
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