Sermon for November 29th, 2020
5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. 7 But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
8 Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, 9 he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. 10 Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. 16 He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” 18 Zechariah said to the angel, “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” 19 The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”
21 Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah, and wondered at his delay in the sanctuary. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. 23 When his time of service was ended, he went to his home.
24 After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, 25 “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”
Angel Songs: Afraid to Believe
One day God was looking down at Earth and saw all of the bad things going on here. He decided to send an angel down to Earth to check it out. When the angel returned, he told God, "Yes, it is bad on Earth; 95% of the people are misbehaving, and only 5% are not." God thought for a moment and said, "Maybe I had better send down a second angel to get another opinion." So God called another angel and sent this one to Earth for awhile. When that angel returned, she went to God and said, "Yes, it's true. The Earth is in decline; 95% are misbehaving and only 5% are being good." God was not pleased. But while he was debating whether or not to send a third angel, he decided to send a brief email to the 5% who were doing good to encourage them -- to give them a little something to help them keep going. And do you know what that email said? No? Yeah...I didn't get that email either.
For the next four weeks, we'll be talking about Angels. The word "angel" comes from the Greek word ἄγγελος, which simply means a messenger. And in the Bible, this is exactly what angels are--God's messengers. Angels make appearances throughout the Bible, but those appearances are more frequent and more concentrated in the Christmas story--the events leading up to and including the birth of Jesus--than anywhere else in the Bible.
In our scripture reading today, the angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. Zechariah is one of the temple priests in ancient Israel, and in this story, he has won the priestly lottery--a very high honor--to actually enter into the temple sanctuary (something not even the king could do) and make an offering of incense to the Lord.
To put this in perspective, there were about 18,000 priests serving in Israel at that time. Most of them would never see the inside of the Jerusalem temple, the most sacred place in their religion. Zechariah was the lucky one. And it couldn't have happened to a better person--we read in verse 6 that Zechariah, along with his wife Elizabeth, were both "righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord." There are only two other people described that way in the entire Bible--one is Job, and the other is Jesus. So high praise indeed.
But despite all their goodness, Zechariah and Elizabeth are missing the one thing they both desperately long for--children. And their biological clocks have long ago stopped ticking--or as Luke delicately puts it, "both were getting on in years."
I have often wondered if perhaps Zechariah and Elizabeth saw his one-out-of-eighteen-thousand chance to stand before God's altar in the holy temple of Jerusalem, a place where you might be so near to God that he couldn't help but hear you, as an opportunity to ask God--just one more time--for that one thing they asked for so many times before, to no avail. Just one more time, before they stopped asking, stopped praying, and stopped believing that it was even possible.
Have you ever prayed so hard for something, for so long, that you start to question whether God is even listening anymore?
Verse 10: "Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense."
I want to pause here to say a few things about angels in the Bible.
- The last time an angel appeared in the Bible was 400 years prior to this, ironically in the Book of Zechariah, the Old Testament prophet for whom the Zechariah in our passage today is (presumably) named.
- Whenever an angel appears in the Bible--here and anywhere else--the first thing the angel says is almost always the words "Do not be afraid." The obvious reason for this is that angels are not, in fact, the cute little babies with wings that we often see depicted in popular culture. Whatever they look like, it is terrifying. This is backed up by Zechariah's response in verse 12: "When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him." In the Old Testament, the most common thing someone says when an angel appears is the Hebrew word הִנֵּה (hi-nay), for which there is no good English translation, although one of my favorite authors, Thomas Cahill, has suggested that it's probably something similar to the American slang expression WTF. If you don't know what that acronym stands for, ask a friend.
- Despite the terrifying appearance of an angel, whenever they appear in the Bible, it is most often (though not always) because they are bringing a message of good news--a message of hope or comfort, that God is still at work, in and through the lives of his people.
Now, with all that in mind, back to our story. Verse 13:
But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.
Zechariah, though afraid, and then excited, might have raised an eyebrow at the name John. No one in his family was named John, and we learn later on in the chapter that everyone expected him to name his son Zechariah. John is one of the most popular names today, and it was popular then, too. In Hebrew, יְהוֹחָנָן (Yochanan) means "God has been merciful." Which is exactly what the angel is telling Zechariah: God has heard you. God has listened to you. God is showing you favor.
The angel goes on. Verse 14:
You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit.
These are all the traditional marks of the great prophets in Ancient Israel.
Verse 16: He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
Elijah, of course, is the greatest prophet in Ancient Israel. To put this in perspective, it's as if an angel appeared to someone today and said:
- You're going to have a child (remember that's all Zechariah really wanted--wish granted, game over)
- But wait, there's more: He's going to be really famous, like a President. (Great, but that could go either way--which one?)
- He's going to be like Abraham Lincoln, and he's going to make a difference in the world for good.
And somewhere in the middle of all this, Zechariah does what every single one of us would do--he starts looking around for the hidden camera: "You really had me going with all those great special effects and all, but where are you, Dave? I might have fallen for it without all the Abraham Lincoln stuff. That was a little over the top. Stop playing with me. You can come out now."
In verse 18, Zechariah says to the angel, in effect, "If you're real, then prove it to me. Give me a sign." As if the terrifying appearance of an angel...just wasn't enough.
And I wonder: Would it be? For you or for me, today? How often do we say "God just show me a sign that you're there." And when God sends us a messenger--the wisdom of a friend, or a complete stranger--we say, "No, not like that, God. Send me another one. Send me a *real* sign...THEN I'll believe you."
So the angel of the Lord... agrees. He gives Zechariah another sign--he shuts Zechariah's mouth so he can't talk until his faith comes into line with his circumstances. This is a little bit awkward, because Zechariah is supposed to go back outside to all the people waiting for him and say a prayer of blessing. Remember, Zechariah is the man of the hour, the lucky one-in-eighteen-thousand priests who gets to say a prayer of blessing today in front of ALL Israel. No pressure. And clearly, it's not going to happen.
Why? According to the angel in verse 20, it's "because you did not believe."
Five months later, after missing out on the most important speech in his life, but also after witnessing the birth of his son, the most important answered prayer in his life...Zechariah believes. When he is asked about his newborn son's name, still unable to speak, he writes on a tablet the words "His name is John." And then he finds his voice again, and offers a beautiful prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord. I suspect it was a thousand times more more heartfelt and meaningful than any prayer he could have offered five months ago in his spotlight, and his unbelief.
So what's the message for unbelievers and skeptics like us, in the 21st century, after a devastating year filled with loss and fear and divisiveness? What's the angel song for us, headed into the season of Christmas--a season which the world thinks revolves around Black Friday shopping events, family gatherings, and presents underneath a tree--but which for Christians is supposed to have a deeper, ancient and more profound meaning?
The message is this:
- Do Not Be Afraid. This is always the opening verse of the angel song, and probably the one thing we need to hear the most. Do Not Be Afraid--not because the world isn't a scary place, but because we serve a divine creator who is ultimately in charge of that world, and all that happens within it. And that same God walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death, and prepares a table for us in the presence of our enemies. For the world, death is the most frightening thing that can happen to a person, because it represents the end of everything, a complete loss. But for the followers of Jesus, death is just another beginning, and loss...? Loss is a life lived in fear, a life lived without love and connection, a life lived in the shadows of doubt and despair. Do Not Be Afraid, say the angels over and over again, "Do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God shall be with you wherever you shall go."
- Your Strength comes from God. The angel who appears to Zechariah is one of only three angels in the entire bible who has a name. He identifies himself as Gabriel (גַּבְרִיאֵל). In Hebrew, this means (you guessed it) God is my strength. Often the name of an angel is associated with his message. So for Zechariah, and for us, the reminder is that in a world where everyone claims to be your "protector" and have your best interests at heart...your true strength comes from God alone. Not from somewhere within you. Not from the powers and authorities of this world--governments, corporations, social media giants, not even from pastors or preachers, social influencers, mass media, or self proclaimed "experts." Not from "science" but rather from the one who created science, and all the laws of the universe. Your strength, your protection, and therefore your hope comes from God alone.
- Believe. Throughout history--in the Bible and outside of the Bible--those who have accomplished the greatest things, those who have truly changed the world, have always been the ones who choose to believe the unbelievable. Over and over again, when God steps into the world to intervene and lead his people in a new direction, he doesn't do it in predictable and expected ways. He doesn't work through the status quo or conventional wisdom. He doesn't say, "Well, let's see what seems reasonable" or "let's build a consensus first." No! When God shows up on the scene, he sends a burning bush, a chariot of fire, a terrifying angel, or a bright star over Bethlehem. And he says something absolutely crazy and implausible, like "build me an ark" or "lead everyone into the wilderness" or "Your seventy year old wife is going to have a baby!" And the faithful ones--the ones history remembers and celebrates--are the ones who believe. Maybe not the first time--Zechariah got a second chance--but the ones who listen, and then have the capacity to imagine something miraculous, something impossible, and something beyond our wildest hopes and dreams. Stop waiting for a sign, and start believing in all the signs you have already been given. Believe.
People of First Presbyterian Church--while the rest of the world is figuring out how to put the best possible ending on a truly bad year, remember that OUR new year begins today--the First Sunday in Advent, the first Sunday in the church calendar; and it begins in hope, in anticipation, in promise, and in strength... for all who choose to believe. May the song of the Angels echo in your ears and in in your hearts, today and for all your days to come.