I never tire of hearing (or telling) the story of Christmas...and that story begins with a man in search of hope (Luke 1: 5-25). His name was Zechariah, a direct descendent of Aaron (Moses’ brother) – and like every male descendent of Aaron, he was a priest – and as a priest it was important that he marry a woman of absolutely pure Israelite lineage. Now it was considered a special blessing if one married a woman who was also a descendent of Aaron: that extraordinary woman was Elizabeth. As infants, their parents had given them both very special names. The boy was named “Zechariah” which means “God remembers” and the girl was named “Elizabeth – or El Isheba” which means “Oath of God; or as we might say today, “The Promise of God.” Imagine the joy, then, when these two children of Aaron were married. Imagine the hope that together their lives might reflect the truth that indeed: “God remembers his promises!”
These were dark days in Israel – a nation now occupied by Rome, and under the cruel authority of Herod the Great. No doubt their parents hoped and prayed that their children might be part of God’s solution, God’s answer to the cries of their people. Zechariah and Elizabeth would have carried within them the powerful message of their names, and the message of hope that their marriage signified. But as the years went on, and Elizabeth was unable to conceive, that hope was severely tested. To be childless in that day (and without a son) was considered a great embarrassment; and they lived with this shame throughout their married life. For years they prayed for God to give them a son; yet that hope must have surely faded when Elizabeth entered menopause and “both were getting on in years” (Luke 1:7). Even so, Luke tells us, they continued to live “righteously” before God and continued to trust him. They did not allow this shame to overwhelm them: a seed of hope remained within them…a hope from beyond this world.
Now there were as many as 2000 priests in Zechariah’s day – which meant that there were far too many priests to serve in the Temple on any one occasion. The priests were divided therefore into 24 sections; which were called up for two periods of one week each annually. You can imagine that priests considered their service in the Temple to be the greatest honor imaginable. For those priests who were called up for Temple service, there was an even greater honor, and it was literally a once in a lifetime opportunity. This was the privilege of burning incense on the altar within the Holy Place of the Temple. This privilege was granted by lot, and if you were ever chosen, you would never have the opportunity again, for you were only allowed to do this once in your entire life. Luke tells us it was Zechariah’s lot, on that hope-filled day, that was chosen. He was to be the one to enter the Holy Place and burn incense on the altar, and pray for the people. And it was here, in this holiest of places that Zechariah saw the angel… a Messenger from another world sent to remind him that God’s people have not been forgotten in this one…and that neither has he. His message had three parts…and the first was spoken without words. It was simply this…
We are still standing. “Then there appeared to [Zechariah] an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense.... ‘I am Gabriel, I stand in the presence of God and I have been sent to speak to you’” (Luke 1: 8-12, 19; cf. Rev. 5:11). God’s messengers are often described in Scripture as silently standing watch; or in Rev. 5:11 as a numberless multitude circling the throne of God; and when Zechariah is pouring out his heart in prayer in the Holy of Holies, what he sees first is the Messenger of God…standing beside the altar.
One of the great preoccupations of the 21st century is to know whether or not humankind is alone in the universe. I find it interesting that while our post-Enlightenment culture is rather skeptical about angels; there is an increased fascination with the idea of life on other planets, or even extra-terrestrial visitors to our world. A few years ago on a family trip to New Mexico we decided to stop in Roswell where "alien-fever" is high. The streetlights are painted like ET's, and there is a museum dedicated to the supposed government cover-up of an alien spaceship that crashedlanded in Area 51 during the 1950's. As we left the museum, my dad was actually interviewed by a local news station out in front. They asked him if he believed there was a "cover-up" and he replied with a wink and a smile, “Cover-up? When has the gov’t ever been involved in a cover-up?” Some may think me foolish to say this, but I personally see no reason to doubt that there may be other forms of intelligent physical life in the universe. However, as a Christian I already know that there are other forms of intelligent spiritual life in the universe; that the cosmos is populated by spiritual beings whose purpose is to “serve [God]” for the sake of those he came to save" (Hebrews 1:14).
The Bible says they are guardians and protectors of the people of God: “The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him, and delivers them” (Psalm 34:7); and that “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways” (Psalm 91:11). Indeed, they are described as the unseen rulers and guardians of nations (Daniel 10:13). While they are spiritual beings, Scripture describes them as having ethereal bodies that can assume human form and communicate with us directly; as when Abraham entertained three angels unaware who came to announce that Sarah would have a son. In the gospels, angels are present at the three great events of Jesus’ life…his birth, his death, and his resurrection (see Luke 24:4, 23, Acts 1:10). So, when Zechariah saw the Messenger of God standing beside the altar of incense, it was a visible reminder that God is still standing too; that hope is alive; that those who try to "cover-up" or deny the activity of God in this universe will be shown to be the real fools. How we need to be reminded of that today.
The second word of hope that is given to Zechariah may be summed up in this phrase: We are still listening. “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard” (Luke 1: 13b-17). What was on Zechariah’s mind when he first entered the Holy Place and prepared to burn the incense and pray? No doubt the man whose name means “God remembers” would have cried out, “Lord remember your people, deliver them from the oppression of their enemies. Remember your promise to send us the Messiah!" By now he had little hope that he and his wife could have a child, but perhaps he prayed for strength & comfort in his disappointment. That is when the angel appears, and his first words are “Do not be afraid, for your prayer has been heard….” We can only imagine what Zechariah was thinking, “Which prayer? My prayer for Israel’s deliverance, or my all but forgotten prayer for a son…” The answer is both: Zechariah’s prayer for a son (13b-15); and his prayer for the Messiah (16-17). Zechariah falls silent as the angel explains that Elizabeth will bear him a son, and that he will name him John…. “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and the power of Elijah he will go before him…to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (1Luke 1: 13-17) These words were the fulfillment of the promise that one like the prophet Elijah would return to prepare the way for the Lord’s anointed, the Messiah. Zechariah’s son would be that prophet!
How many prayers have been silenced by the lie that God does not listen or care? The angel comes to show Zechariah that God is listening; and that his best for Israel and for the whole world; also includes his best for Zechariah. Agnes Sanford, author of The Healing Light and the daughter of a Presbyterian missionary often spoke of how she could see angels when God’s people gather in prayer…describing them as luminous and powerful as they attended the saints one by one whose hearts were crying out to God. During healing services at our own church, I often feel that with the eyes of my heart I can see those same angels...attending to those who are crying out to God for help.
Last Sunday, one of the founders of Jews for Jesus, Dr. Tuvya Zaretsky, spoke to our congregation about a very angry man who twelve years ago, walked down the aisle of our sanctuary while he was teaching a seminar on how to share the gospel of Y’shua with our Jewish brothers and sisters. He was a devout man, an Orthodox Jew who believed in his heart that this seminar was a threat to the Jewish people; and so he began to shout in a threatening manner and remove arm fulls of literature in order to disrupt the meeting. Sadly, over the next several years, there were other confrontational meetings between Tuvya and this man. Yet two weeks ago he contacted Tuvya to express concern about his atheist son as well as a new respect and appreciation for the transforming power of the Christian faith. They planned to meet following Tuvya's presentation at our church. A "divine" appointment to be sure! Twelve years ago this man had confronted Tuvya with anger and bitterness; but now, on the same day that Tuvya was standing again in our sanctuary, he spoke of the meeting he was about to have after the service with this same man...and asked us to pray for them both. As it turns out, I went along and silently stood in the parking lot, to pray as the conversation unfolded in a local coffee shop. Then the two approached me, and the man sincerely apologized for his angry words 12 years ago (a time before I was even pastor of this church). He heard words of forgiveness and love from us both, and was assured by Tuvya that the same congregation he entered years before would both welcome and respect him as a Jewish man; and be honored to share with him the gospel of Y'shua. I have no doubt that there were other unseen witnesses standing by as well, rejoicing with us that a 12 year old prayer was being answered. For as we pray, the Lord and the heavenly host are listening.
Zechariah asks an important question in response to the angel's announcement: “How will I know that this is so" (Luke 1:18)? He asks this question not only on his own behalf, but on behalf of all the skeptics of our age as well. How do I know that God is real? How do I know God will keep his promises? How do I know that I’m not deluded? The angel’s response is his name: “I am Gabriel" aren't I? The angel whose name means, “God is mighty" ...the same angel who stood before Daniel 600 years before to speak of the coming Messiah (Daniel 8:16ff.); who stands in the presence of God...is standing before you now. In other words, not only are we still standing, not only are we still listening, we are still working! Zechariah is not so different from you and me…wondering if God is still mighty, still alive and well, still working, still able to fulfill his promises.
Five years ago, a young boy attending our Nursery School fell out of his second story bedroom window. I saw the window. It was at least a 16 foot drop. He smashed his head on the concrete…and they rushed him to the hospital. The doctors said that he would not survive the head trauma, and even if he did, he would probably lose the ability to speak, hear, or see. His parents are Orthodox Christians…and they called on their church to pray. His father is a physician, and he was especially awed by his son's miraculous survival and full recovery. Now the power of God that they called upon was represented by Michael, the archangel after which their son was named; and in gratitude to Michael they gave me his icon (an icon is an image or portrait of Christ, an angel, or other biblical figure considered a source of spiritual awakening, divine energy and even healing, but never worshiped). Michael means, “Who is like God?” Who indeed?! And that's what Gabriel came to remind a man who had nearly run out of hope.
Some of us may feel like we’re falling from a two story window today…running out of hope... looking for a way out… tired of praying, filled with worry like Zechariah for our own families and for the larger world of which we are a part. Perhaps your hope is being severely tested, and you need to hear the word of Gabriel like Zechariah or Tuvya’s new friend or Michael’s parents did. The good news is that from beyond this world…hope has arrived, the Messiah has come; and the angels that announced his birth have come to remind you that God has not forgotten you; that God is still standing, still listening and still working!
Gracious God, we thank you that with Zechariah, we can know that you have not forgotten us, that you always keep your promises; and that in your presence fear is banished and hope is restored. You are the Infinite who became an infant, the Word made flesh, the light that shines in our darkness, the Savior of all. You are the promised One who was born in humility, the promised One who walked among us as our teacher and shepherd, the promised One who shared our weaknesses, our sorrows and our pain; the promised One who heals our diseases, mends our bodies and broken spirits; the promised One who shows us the way to the eternal kind of life; the promised One who has won the victory over the things that would destroy us, our every sin and failure and the shadow of death; the One who dwells in our hearts today by the Holy Spirit, and who has given us power to be called children of God and ambassadors of your kingdom. O Lord we bless you today… and we exalt your holy name. Amen.