Head to Panera for my morning bagel and sweet tea. (Yes, there’s nothing like sweet tea to get you revved up for the day.)
This is my morning tradition. In many ways, it has become sacred to me. It is, after all, the space I carve out to spend time with God. But what if in my sincere effort to seek God, I am hindering him from doing something new in my life?
This is a question I pondered as I read the early verses of Luke’s gospel, specifically Luke 1:57–80. Luke, ever the investigator, doesn’t begin his story with Jesus, or Joseph, or Mary. Instead, he puts the spotlight on Zechariah and Elizabeth, a sweet-natured couple who are entering their twilight years without any children. Their dream of having a baby seems lost, but one day the angel Gabriel delivers the good news that they will, indeed, give birth to a son. Gabriel makes it clear that the baby is to be named John. Unfortunately for Zechariah, he questions Gabriel one too many times about the “how” of it all, and Gabriel renders him unable to talk until the day John is born. (I still don’t know if God told Gabriel to do this, or if it was an executive decision made by a slightly annoyed angel.)
When John was born, Zechariah and Elizabeth threw a little party to celebrate. All their neighbors and relatives came to visit, and everyone was genuinely happy for this couple to have a child after such a long period of waiting. Then it came time to name the newborn baby, and that’s where things get complicated.
Family Drama is Nothing New
Have you ever noticed that when it comes to naming babies, people get weird? All sorts of family dynamics and unspoken rules are at play. There was even a situation in my family long ago where a grandmother refused to acknowledge her grandson for the first few weeks of his life simply because, in her view, his parents gave him the wrong name. For whatever reason, names are a touchy subject.
In Zechariah and Elizabeth’s case, everyone just assumed that the baby would be named Zechariah. You can’t really fault them for this assumption. You named the firstborn male after the father or grandfather. This was the tradition of the time, and there’s nothing wrong with tradition… except if it gets in the way of when God is doing something new.
At this point, Zechariah is still speechless, and so Elizabeth speaks up. “No,” she says, confidently. “The baby will be named John.”
Silence for a moment.
You can hear a pin drop.
Then the family drama kicks in.
“Uhhh, Elizabeth, there’s no one in your family with that name,” someone replies. (Maybe a cousin. It’s always a cousin.)
In other words, Elizabeth, be reasonable. This is the way we do things here. Let’s get on with it and name the baby Zechariah so that we can cut the cake and whack the piñata. But Elizabeth isn’t budging.
They turn to Zechariah since surely he’ll put an end to this “John” nonsense. But to their surprise, he agrees with his wife. (This, by the way, is an excellent lesson to husbands. When your wife is following God, you will do well to follow her!) Only after Zechariah confirms the baby’s name does he get his voice back.
So what’s the lesson here? Don’t get involved in family baby-naming drama, for one. And two, and probably more importantly, that God is always up to new things.
In the beloved musical Fiddler on The Roof, the Jewish community of Anatevka lives life according to the traditions and customs handed down for generations. There is nothing inherently wrong with most of these traditions, but Tevye, the patriarch of his family, admits that he has forgotten how some of them have started. And as times start changing, he has to decide what’s more important — tradition, or relationship with the people he loves.
If I’m not careful, I can let my own traditions get in the way of something new God is doing. Now, maybe you’re thinking, okay, but I don’t really have any deep-seated traditions in my life. I’m not my grandparents. Well, just replace the word “traditions” with “routines.” We all have daily routines, and just like traditions, they’re not inherently bad. But God isn’t tied to routines as we are. He doesn’t settle into the comfortable. He’s always up to something new.
I’m amazed at how easily my day can be thrown off by a break in my routine. It’s pretty ridiculous, and I’m embarrassed to say it, but if I miss my morning asiago bagel at Panera, there’s no redeeming the day. I get so grumpy! Yes, I like to start my day with some Bible reading at my favorite table. And I’m slightly annoyed when someone I barely know sits at the table next to me and is in a chatty mood. How dare they interrupt my communion with God? Is there any way I can render them speechless as, say, Gabriel did? (And Panera, you’re not helping when I get emails from you saying, “Michael, take joy in your morning routine.”)
But Isn’t God “Unchanging”?
Is God really about new things? Isn’t Jesus Christ “the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8)? Absolutely! We know that God’s character — His goodness, faithfulness, justice, kindness, and mercy — never changes. It was God’s plan since the beginning of time to come down to earth as a man and rescue us from sin and death. It wasn’t a surprise to him, but it was a surprise to us. And when the time came for Jesus to be born, it was God’s people who had to get on board with what God was doing.
And when Jesus ushered in a new way of living, a new way of loving, it was God’s people who had to get on board with what God was doing.
And when Jesus took the holiday of Passover, a day steeped in tradition, and made it about himself, it was God’s people who had to get on board with what God was doing.
And when Jesus formed this messy, beautiful new community called the Church, it was God’s people who had to get on board with what God was doing.
And when God asks me to put down my iPad and make a new friend at Panera, it’s me who has to get on board with what God is doing.
Heaven is About to Break Upon Us
I think Zechariah and Elizabeth’s family eventually got on board with this new thing God was doing. Verse 65 tells us that “all the neighbors were filled with awe, and…people were talking about all these things.” It seems like they got over the name drama pretty quickly. And Zechariah, who was once silenced, now erupts in a song of praise as he looks forward in anticipation to this new thing God is about to do through his newborn son John:
You will tell his people how to find salvation
through forgiveness of their sins.
Because of God’s tender mercy,
the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
and to guide us to the path of peace. — Luke 1:77–79, NLT
John was the beginning of something new, and he pointed a whole generation of people toward Jesus. I wish I awoke each morning in anticipation of the new things God is doing. Most days, I am content to slog along in my routine. There may be temporary discomfort when God leads us in a new direction, but what hangs in the balance to our following? Our God is a God who’s up to new things because he doesn’t want anyone left out.