Just before Christmas, God was looking down at Earth and saw all of the evil that was going on. He decided to send an angel down to Earth to check it out. So he called one of His best angels and sent the angel to Earth for a time. When she returned she told God, yes it is bad on Earth, 95% is bad and 5% is good.
Well, he thought for a moment and said, maybe I had better send down a second angel to get another point of view. So God called another angel and sent her to Earth for a time too. When the angel returned she went to God and told him yes, the Earth was in decline, 95% was bad and 5% was good.
God said this was not good. So He decided to email the 5% that were good and He wanted to encourage them, give them a little something to help them keep going.
Do you know what that email said? Ah, so you didn't get one either?
When we were out in California, I had the distinct pleasure of working with Ann Weems, a Presbyterian elder out of St. Louis, Missouri, whom many regard as the poet laureate of our denomination. In her book Kneeling in Bethlehem, she writes a marvelous poem entitled, “An Angel-filled Advent,” where she asks “wouldn’t it be wonderful if Advent came filled with angels and alleluias,” “a hovering of heavenly hosts tuning their harps and brushing up on their falalas” every morning, their music filling our waking hours with the promise of peace on earth” and their message filling our nighttime dreams with nothing but goodwill.” An angel-filled Advent, she says, “has so many possibilities.”
So this Advent/Christmas season, I have laid out a series of sermons which will take us to the time of Ephiphany which contain a directive from the angels we find in Scripture. Since the word “angel” literally means messenger, together we will attend to the messages that these angels brought to those they first encountered. Then we will focus on what those encounters might have to teach us. Hopefully, in the process of listening to these angel voices in worship, we will all be more attentive to the angel voices we hear elsewhere in our lives throughout this season. After all, not every messenger from God comes clad in gossamer wings and a halo.
Today we begin with the angel Gabriel visiting an old priest named Zechariah. Along with his wife Elizabeth, Zechariah are devout worshippers of God; they are also childless and “getting along in years.” It is no accident that Luke begins his story of Jesus’ life right here with an old, childless Hebrew couple.
You see, any reader or hearer of that account would immediately make the mental leap to the patriarchal narrative of the aging Abram and Sarai, who having packed up all their belongings and set out for unknown lands at God’s promise and command, then waited and waited and waited for the child that God had promised to be born to them. Eventually, they had all but given up any hope of a child, when their angel appeared. In the guise of three travelers in need of hospitality, there is this announcement that Isaac will be born to Sarai. In a situation that seemed utterly hopeless, humanly impossible, God steps in and does something totally new. That was a story that was foundational to the Hebrew people. This is the context that Luke wants to set for the birth and life of Jesus. That’s why he doesn’t start with Mary and Joseph, but with Zechariah and Elizabeth. Like Abram and Sarai, they represent the faithful people of God, waiting, waiting, waiting for the promise the prophet Jeremiah made to be fulfilled. For hundreds of years they waited, from the time of the Babylonian exile, through the period of Persian rule, to the era of the Greek domination and the repression of the Seleucids, and finally to the time of the Roman conquests, the people had been hungrily awaiting the coming of the Messiah, a deliverer from God. Generation after generation, they had known nothing but disappointment, but there was still that hunger, still that longing. And then, the angel of God appeared.
It all starts like your average, ordinary day at the Temple. Zechariah, whose section of priests in on duty, is chosen by the casting of lots, to be the priest who goes into the Temple and offers incense. For those of you who have been liturgists, it is like getting a call from Andrea about being the liturgist for the coming month, and you say “yes” and you take your turn being up here as worship leader. So Zechariah was just doing what he was supposed to do, taking his turn, when bam! an angel appears.
For most of us, an encounter with a bearer of God’s message to us is going to happen pretty much that way. In worship, in prayer, in a study group, in your workshop, sitting on your deck; it can happen in a conversation with a family member or a friend. Some new insight strikes us; something like an epiphany, and we wonder “where did that come from?” We go from feeling all Grinchy to having our heart grow three sizes that day. Tears come unbidden. We have a clear sense that we need to do something or other. It’s not exactly like what we would think an encounter with an angel would be like – but then, maybe it is.
In the movie, The Blind Side, I believe we see evidence of an angelic visitation, perhaps even the answer to prayer. Leigh Anne Tuohy, played by Sandra Bullock, is in the car with her family riding home from a high school event when she sees this large, 6’5” 350 pound black teenager walking in shorts in the dead of a Memphis winter. She knew him from having seen him around the school earlier. And something told her, “I need to stop.” She had her husband turn the car around and went back and asked him, “Where are you going Big Mike?” When he told her the gym, because it would be warm in there, and it was well past the time for the gym to be open, she said, “Get in. Get in you can come home with us.” She took him home, let him sleep on the couch that night, and the next night, and the next, and before the story was through, she like Elizabeth and Sarai, had a new son.
I don’t think she was praying to have a new child. Certainly not a 6’5” 350 lb African-American child. But I wonder if Michael Oher wasn’t an answer to her prayers. I think the probably went something like this: “Oh God, show me what you want me to do with my life. Show me some way that I can reach out to people in need.”
That is a prayer that will always be answered. I’ve been around ministry long enough to know that there are some prayers we make that do not get answered, at least not in the way we’d like, but that prayer will always be answered. “Show me what I can do to reach out to someone in need, and help me not to be afraid of the answer when it comes.’’ When I remember many of things I’ve done in my life, I did them because I was afraid of one thing or person or another. How about you? Did fear ever stop you from doing the right thing? Was fear an obstacle to showing kindness or practicing justice? What if you took the angel’s voice seriously that said, “Fear not, my friend, God has something good in store for you. Don’t be afraid. Learn from the past, but don’t drag it into the future. Today is a new day. Fear not!” Even if we are afraid of failure, or our ability or our in ability, what if we push those fears to the side and hear the angel declaring, “Fear not!” What marvelous things we could accomplish if we simply took those angelic words seriously!
In that annual Christmas special on television, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Charlie Brown says, "Isn't there anyone who can tell us what Christmas is all about"? And Linus says, "Sure Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about." And Linus drags his security blanket to the center of the stage, says: "Lights please." And then he recites from memory these familiar words from St. Luke, "And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people...." And I saw something I had never noticed before. When Linus says, "Fear not...," he drops his security blanket. Just as Ebenezer Scrooge in “A Christmas Carol” wakes to the dawn of a new day and lets go of the security of his wealth, so Linus drops his security blanket as he recites the words, "Fear not."
You may think that you are too old to make plans for a radical new start in your life; you may think that the best days, and years of your life are behind you, but the good news on this first Sunday of Advent is that hope abounds for those who love and serve the Lord their God. It is to you that the Angel’s Voice is spoken, and the angel said, “Fear not …”
Let us pray …
“Zechariah, you may think that you and your wife are too old, no possibilities await you, all hope is gone, but I’ve got news for you. I’ve got good news for you from God. There is possibility; there is hope,” And the angel said, “Fear not …”