Graced by God

When it was time for Elizabeth’s baby to be born, she gave birth to a son. And when her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had been very merciful to her, everyone rejoiced with her.

When the baby was eight days old, they all came for the circumcision ceremony. They wanted to name him Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth said, “No! His name is John!”

“What?” they exclaimed. “There is no one in all your family by that name.” So they used gestures to ask the baby’s father what he wanted to name him. He motioned for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s surprise he wrote, “His name is John.” Instantly Zechariah could speak again, and he began praising God. (Luke 1:57–64 NLT)

Choosing a name for your brand-new child can be stressful. After all, this is their identity, the means by which they will be known for the rest of their life. Elizabeth and Zechariah had it easy; the name of their child was given to them by the angel Gabriel in the Temple shortly before Elizabeth became pregnant: John, meaning “graced by God.”

And yet, their neighbors and relatives took issue with the name, simply because John was not a family name. They undoubtedly had the best of intentions in pushing for a new name; most of us could probably think of a time when we could have used the wise guidance of our community. Relying on our community in the midst of these kinds of decisions is an acknowledgement of our own flaws and limitations. We do not know everything, so we trust our “neighbors and relatives” we’ve surrounded ourselves with to lean on when we need guidance, and hopefully we are part of other people’s “neighbors and relatives,” too.

In some ways, this is the idea of the wisdom of the crowd, that a group of people collectively will come up with a better solution than any single individual ever could. While this is often a good strategy, problems arise when we hold up the wisdom of the crowd over the wisdom of God. The neighbors and relatives had no doubt heard the story of Zechariah’s visitor in the Temple and the miracle behind Elizabeth’s pregnancy; despite knowing that God was behind this and that there was a plan for John beyond simply being a gift to Zechariah and Elizabeth in their old age, they still pushed the couple to rethink this “unconventional” name.

In our efforts to be with our neighbors and relatives, we must not forget that this entails keeping our eyes open to where we, our neighbors, and our relatives have been graced by God. If all we do is spend time with people, we are not truly announcing the arrival of the Kingdom of God in our world and in our lives. If Elizabeth and Zechariah’s neighbors and relatives had remembered this, they would not have pushed against the directions God had given the couple; they would have stood alongside them and celebrated the name John.

As you practice being with others this season, keeping your calendar, home, and arms open to those around you, be sure to keep your eyes open as well; take note of where God is gracing us with his presence – “graced by God” – so you can announce where he is at work and celebrate with your community everything he is doing.

Michael Benson is the communications director for the North American Baptist Conference.