We know this story. We’ve heard this story before. We know how it ties to the story of Jesus’ birth; we know how the interaction between Elizabeth and Mary plays out; we know who this baby, John, goes on to be in adulthood. So how do we explore the idea of claiming new possibilities, as our sermon title suggests, through a familiar story that has been part of our faith history for nearly two thousand years? What could be new in this story for us, or what could we possibly hear in a new way from this familiar passage?
Well, to begin with, these are new people. This is the first and only place in Scripture where we hear the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah. And as the story tells us, John is a new name. It’s not, as we discussed in dealing with naming a couple of weeks ago, a name in this couples’ family history, which breaks with tradition. But even more, for us, this is the first time that we hear the name John in all of Scripture. While there are several men named John in the New Testament, there is nobody by that name mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament. New as well is our timing for hearing this story. We usually hear this passage read during the season of Advent leading up to Christmas, not post-Easter. So this different timing invites us to hear this story in a new way, amidst a new context.
What’s not so new in this story?
Well, the idea of a childless or barren couple having a child through the blessing of God is not new. We’ve heard this saga before with Abraham and Sarah, whose story we explored a couple of weeks ago, and also in the story of Elkanah and Hannah from 1 Samuel. So, this is not uncharted territory for us.
The appearance of an angel who tells someone, “Be not afraid…” is also not a new thing. It happens throughout Scripture, almost as though “Be not afraid,” or “Fear not,” could be written on their angelic calling cards - “Hi! I’m Gabriel from “Fear Not” Ministries!” So, while this angelic visitation is the first of its kind for Zechariah, for those of us reading or hearing this story, there’s nothing really new here. In fact, having a character rendered “speechless, mute, or unable to speak” is also not something out of the ordinary. This happens at various times throughout Scripture, particularly to prophets.
So while there are some new things presented here, there is also much that is “tried and true” in biblical storytelling present in today’s reading.
So how do we mine this familiar passage for new possibilities?
One way would be to play a familiar game with this passage - the “What If” game. You’re familiar with the “What If” game - you think about something that has happened, in history or even in your own life, and simply imagine, “what if” this had happened instead of that, or “what if” someone had done that instead of this? How would things be different if a different choice had been made?
In fact, this is a very popular genre in both literature and entertainment. Stephen King wrote a book a few years ago titled “11.22.63” that has been adapted into a series on Hulu about a man who finds a portal back in time and is tasked with trying to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. And, being a Stephen King creation, it imagines that history itself fights back against the man trying to change it.
The current television series, “Timeless,” on NBC is about a secret government agency chasing bad guys through history in time machines, seeking to prevent the bad guys from changing history in such a way that brings their organization into a place of world domination.
And along the way they encounter “Bonnie and Clyde,” the “Hindenburg Disaster,” the beginnings of NASCAR and other seminal events or periods of history.
Science fiction writer Philip K. Dick penned a short story years ago, “The Man in the High Castle,” that has been adapted into a series on Amazon Video, that imagines a post World War II America in which the Allied forces lost and Germany and Japan were victorious. Imagining alternative history stories is, and has been popular in literature and entertainment for many, many years.
But we don’t have to limit the “What If” game to popular culture. We can imagine, on both a large historical scale as well as on a personal scale, the ramifications of alternative developments.
What if Hitler had never risen to power?
How would things be different?
What if the Union had lost the Civil War, or if Lincoln had not been assassinated? What would be different today?
Or more personally, what if you had chosen a different career?
What if you had chosen a different college?
What if you had met and married a different person?
What would be different? And in all of these circumstances, what difference would it have made.
And what about in Scripture,
What if…Zechariah (or Abraham before him) had, instead of just doubting the angelic proclamations that they would bear children, had refused, deciding that they were too old and no longer desired children?
What if…the virgin Mary, had told the angel, “thanks, but no thanks?”
What if…Jesus had given in to one or more of the temptations he faced in the wilderness after his baptism?
Or, more profoundly, what if…Jesus had decided not to continue the teaching and preaching that would eventually lead to his crucifixion and had instead returned to his life as a carpenter and started a family?
Considering the “what ifs” in a backward looking way can result in some very interesting ideas and conversations, all of which are fairly safe for us because, unlike the characters in TV or movies, we do not have time machines and we cannot go back in history and change things in these ways.
Our history, like it or leave it, is safe.
But what about our future? Yours? Mine? The church’s?
What if we apply the “What If” question to our future and consider how we might claim new possibilities in that way? I refer to this kind of futuristic wondering as exploring the “What-If-Itudes.” So, for example, one What-if-itude, on a personal level might be: What if we spent just 10 minutes each day stretching? What difference could that make to our flexibility?
Or, what if I reduced my morning coffee consumption by one cup each day? What difference would that make to my health?
So, taken to the next level, and I’ll give you a moment after each of these to silently consider the question, what if we thought about church differently?
What difference could it make?
Or to take that one step further, what if we thought of church, not as a noun - as someplace we go, but as a verb - something we do? What difference could THAT make to our congregation and to our community?
What if, either as the church or as individuals, we stopped focusing on our limitations, those things we think we can’t do, and began focusing on the things we can do, on our possibilities? What difference could that make?
What if our idea of the “Sunday Service” was not about us being “served” in some way, or of being consumers of religion, but was about our going out and serving? What difference could that make?
What if we celebrated who God is leading us and calling us to become as much or more than we celebrate who we have been in the past? What difference could that make?
What if we focused the majority of our time and energy on making a difference in the world outside these four walls instead of primarily inside them?
What difference could that make?
What if each of us, every single person here, devoted just 10-15 minutes each day to praying, not just for our own needs or desires, but for the people around us, both in our church family and in our community?
What difference could that make?
What if each of us, every single person here, devoted just 10-15 minutes each day, studying scripture, not to confirm what we think we already know, but to open ourselves to what new possibilities God is inviting us to claim through the Word? What difference could that make?
What if we looked at that person who looks different than us - who thinks, votes, speaks, or loves different from us - as a new friend instead of as a person we need to separate from, judge, or injure in some way? What if we looked at them as God looks at them, as we would want to be viewed, as beloved children of God? What difference could that make in our hearts, our lives, and our world?
What if, as we said in our baptism and membership vows, we really “renounced the spiritual forces of wickedness, and rejected the evil powers of this world,” in all their forms, even when they come from people and places we like? What difference could that make?
What if we really trusted God with our lives, instead of just saying that we do? What difference could that make?
What if we supported the ministry of the church with our prayers, and our presence, and our gifts, and our service, and our witness - all of them and not just some of them - as we vowed we would do? What difference could that make? That is, what new possibilities could God open up to us if God knew we meant what we said?
You see, God wants to provide us with new possibilities, and God wants us to claim those possibilities for ourselves and for the world. God wants us to live in joy and peace with one another, not in conflict with one another.
God wants to do great things in us and through us, but God wants to know that we can be trusted partners with this Good News.
What if, when we sang the song, “Change My Heart, O God,” we actually meant it, really wanted it, instead of just singing along with the crowd because that’s what we’re supposed to do? What difference could THAT make?
Without really saying it, the writer of Luke tells us that in the midst of this story, Zechariah and Elizabeth played the “What If” game. What if what the angel told us is true and we will have a child in our old age?
What if he will bring joy and delight to us, and that many people will rejoice at his birth? What if he really will be great in the Lord’s eyes? What if he will be great like Elijah, filled with the Holy Spirit, and will bring many people to the Lord? What difference could all of that make?
Through the angel Gabriel, God presented new possibilities that seemed unthinkable, unimaginable to Zechariah and Elizabeth in their old way of thinking. But whenever God presents new things to us, it always requires a change on our part - a change of heart, a change of thinking, a change in our doing. In scripture the word used to signify that is the Greek metanoia, which is usually translated into English as repent. But it means much, much more than simply repenting or asking forgiveness for our sins. No, it actually means turning in a new direction, changing the track of our lives or our thinking to go in a different way.
Jesus presented that new way when he spoke of the Kingdom or Reign of God being present, being within us, and that if we embraced the new possibilities of THAT we would find salvation. What if…what Jesus said was true? What difference would that make…for you? What new possibilities might unfold in your life? Amen