Isaiah 35:1-7, Luke 1:1-25
November 30, 2008
This is the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist. It’s story of how Zechariah was visited by the angel Gabriel, in the time leading up to the birth of John.
I think it’s very interesting how much time Luke takes telling us this story! This is a much longer account than that of the angel’s visit to Mary. In fact, this story of John’s birth takes up most of this first chapter! And the other Gospel writers don’t mention it at all. Luke saw John’s role as very important. And he wanted to “set it up right” for this man to whom he is writing, the man whom he names as “most excellent Theophilus.” (Sounds like “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” doesn’t it?)
Zechariah is working serving as a priest in the Temple, and there he meets this angel, Gabriel. Gabriel played the horn, as you know. (Someday I want to jam with that cat!) And I got to thinking, if he really blew that horn loud(ly) – to prove his point – maybe Zechariah would have been made deaf! But that’s not the way the story goes.
As it goes, Zechariah was scared speechless. Actually that’s not exactly the way the story goes, either. But I said it that way because I wanted to help with your “mental picture.” As I’ve mentioned before, we sometimes get the wrong image of angels. And often that image doesn’t come from the Bible. Somehow in artists depictions of angels over the years, angels have been transformed into tall, thin, blonde, women. But the Bible doesn’t say that. In fact, the only two angels named in the Bible have men’s names – Gabriel, and Michael.
We’ve also been given the impression that angels are really people who have died and gone to heaven. But the Bible doesn’t say that, either! Popular movies and even Cartoons have depicted angels that way. In cartoons when the character dies, you see the spirit leaving the body and floating upwards, already dressed in robes with wings, a halo, and a harp. You’ve seen them. Sorry, Warner Brothers, you make great cartoons, but they’re not very biblically based!
At this time of year, maybe you like to watch the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life?” Well, there’s that one line everybody remembers where the little girl says so sweetly, “Teacher says that each time a bell rings an angel gets their wings.” Well, I’m sorry, that’s a sweet sentiment, but teacher was wrong! Scripture tell us that angels were a separate order of created beings in the spiritual realm. There were a whole lot of such beings. There were cherubim and seraphim, angels and archangels, and so on…
So the idea is, that to be visited by an angel – in person – was a frightening thing. And I’m not just talking about fear of a ghostly apparition. These messengers from God – and that was often their function – were beings of great power. They were fearsome! The very first thing an angel said to a person almost every time was “Be not afraid.” And this story is no exception. The angel Gabriel comes to Zechariah in the Temple, and he says, “Be not afraid, Zechariah.” And he tells him the wheels are in motion for coming Messiah, and the Messiah would be heralded by a son who would be born to he and Elizabeth.
Now, I love the way this plays out. Because the way Gabriel introduces this is by saying to Zechariah is, “your prayer is heard and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.” So, even though he was old, Zechariah was “wishing in prayer,” apparently, that he could have had a son. (Get it? He was praying apparantly!) But then, when he hears the angel say this, he questions him. “How can this be? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” (Isn’t that a nice way of saying “my wife is old”? Zechariah was no dummy!)
The beauty of this story is that Zechariah’s story was like that of all his people! They had been praying for the coming of the Lord’s Messiah for hundreds of years! In fact, it was somewhere on the order of four hundred years! Every Passover, they had set a place at their tables for Elijah, because Elijah was to come before the Messiah. And now Zechariah was to be the father of that Elijah figure. Yet like Zechariah, many in Israel couldn’t believe it when their prayer was answered, and their Messiah had come.
So here was Zechariah talking with Gabriel, first chair trumpet player in God’s orchestra! And yet he questions the message he has come to deliver. And I love what happens next! The angel gets all indignant. This apparently is not a good idea! Do you remember the old commercials, “it’s not nice to fool Mother Nature!” Well it’s not such a good idea to fool with an angel, either! He says, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. I was sent by the ‘Big Man’ to tell you this! So behold you will be unable to speak until these things happen!” And boom! Zechariah is speechless. And do you think there was fear here? I’m sure there was! Zechariah truly was “scared speechless!”
Then, can you see Gabriel reporting back to God? He goes back and God asks, “So, did you deliver my message?” And Gabriel says, “Well, yes…” “So?” “Well… there was a bit of a snag…” “What happened?” “Let’s just say don’t worry if you don’t hear Zechariah praying for a while – out loud, anyway.” I’m sure it happened something like that!
Anyway, fast forward now to the part of the story we didn’t read. It’s nine months later, and the baby is born. And he’s destined to be called “Little Zack,” or so thought all the neighbors. But Elizabeth tells them, “No. He’s going to be called John.” (“That’s a nice household name!”) And they said, “Nonsense! There’s no one in your family named John.” So what did they do when they didn’t believe the wife? They asked the husband! And in this deliciously dramatic scene, Zechariah calls for a pen and paper, writes boldly, in big letters – and right to left, of course! – “His name is John!” And his mouth is open, the angel’s “censorship” is lifted, and for the first time in nine months he begins to speak and praise God!
What a wonderful story! And I wonder if we find ourselves in it. Is Zechariah’s story our story, too? Do we sometimes not believe that things we pray for will happen? I’m sure that’s a tough one. I know I do that sometimes! Then, like Zechariah, do we sometimes find ourselves silenced for whatever reason? Do we have times when we’re scared to speak about our faith because of what other people will think?
I want you to think about the boldness with which Zechariah spoke when the Lord opened his mouth! And I’d like you to consider asking God for the power to be bold in speaking about your faith. What better time of the year for that? What better time of the year to “Go tell it on the mountain?” What better time of year to share with others your traditions, your joys, and even your struggles of faith, than this time of year we celebrate that most unbelievable of events – the time when God decided to step into history and become one of us?!
That can be such an easy thing to do at this time of year. It can be as simple as asking someone, “Are you ready for Christmas?” which can lead very easily into, “How do you celebrate it?” Then sharing your own traditions. “We have family around.” “We go to church.” “I love the Advent season.” And so on…
Today is the start of that Advent season. And as we begin, I challenge you to have such conversations. Be intentional about weaving in the subject of Christmas when you’re talking to people. It doesn’t have to be confrontational, in fact, it shouldn’t be. Simply share with people you know, the wonder of the season for you, and invite them to be part of the Advent season here. As we celebrate this time of year when we “Prepare the way of the Lord,” I challenge you to prepare the way of the Lord – yourself.
Eternal God, we do love this time of year when we celebrate that time you stepped into our world in person! Help us to share that with others. Help us to celebrate your stepping into our lives as well. May this be a blessed season of the year, no matter what the circumstances life might bring us. For this we pray in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Messiah, Amen.