Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Knowing this beautiful new banner was coming, I’ve been thinking a lot about angels as I’ve prepared for Advent this year. Look closely and you’ll see that Brom designed these two, paired banners so that the lines along the bottom of the angel’s robe on the left actually flow into the lines of the hills around Bethlehem, on the right. Angels are central to the early chapters of Luke’s gospel, to the Advent and Christmas stories there. Angels set the stage and prepare the way; they deliver important messages from God - critical assignments too - and when the baby Jesus is born, they are on the scene to proclaim the good news. So it’s fitting that an angel stands before us as we enter the season of Advent today, visually tied in with all that will follow in the coming weeks.
We’re featuring angels when we can in our Advent music this year as well. We gathered ourselves for worship this morning – and will each Advent Sunday – singing of “angels bending near the earth to touch their harps of gold.” We’ve also sung this morning about “hear[ing] the brush of angel wings”– a reminder of the holiness of this space, and God’s presence with us in it.
Angels. We have one beautiful artistic rendition before us. What other images come to mind when we speak of angels? Do you think of classic Renaissance paintings with winged cherubs on high? Or do your thoughts run toward portrayals of angels in films? If you’ve ever met Denzel Washington as the angel Dudley in “The Preacher’s Wife,” or Carey Grant in that same role in “The Bishop’s Wife” decades earlier, it’s hard not to add them to the mix, when you think of angels. And how many of us carry in our mind’s eye lovely illustrations of angels from the children’s Bibles and Christmas books we most love? For that matter, how many of us call to mind the pint-sized dressed-up angels we enjoy in our children’s Christmas pageants here each year? We’ll see them again soon, with this year’s pageant just two weeks away.
Biblical angels are certainly interesting creatures. Gabriel, whose name in Hebrew means “God is my warrior,” is one of only two named angels in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, the other being Michael. Gabriel is “sent to Daniel to explain a vision of ‘the time appointed for the end’ (8:15-26) and later to reveal the hidden meaning of [prophetic words] (9:20-27).” Whereas most messengers from God in the Old Testament are unnamed, and sometimes it’s even a little unclear whether they’re of human or heavenly origin, Gabriel’s angelic credentials are impressive. Which perhaps explains one of the funnier elements in the story you just heard from Luke’s gospel. When Zechariah questions the message Gabriel delivers, saying “How will I know this is so?” the angel replies “I am Gabriel.” (Luke 1:19) As if to say: are you seriously going to question me? Do you not understand who I am? Or, in the more elegant language of our actual Scripture text: “I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.” (Luke 1:19) My takeaway from that little exchange? When Gabriel talks, people oughta listen!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Because it’s important to understand why the angel Gabriel was sent to Zechariah in the first place. Both Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth themselves have impeccable credentials, being from priestly families. And we’re told both are “righteous” and “blameless” before God. (Luke 1:6) Unfortunately, as was the case for our friend Job about whom we’ve been reading over the last couple of weeks, being blameless and upright doesn’t necessarily mean everything turns out exactly as you might hope. The lives of good people, too, can be touched by disappointment and tragedy, and in the case of Elizabeth and Zechariah, their greatest disappointment was not being able to conceive a child. Like Abraham and Sarah, their OT counterparts, they have waited, and waited, and waited, longing for a gift from God that simply would not come. Doing the right thing while they waited, too. Serving God in the temple, in Zechariah’s case, and praying, both of them, that their prayer for a child would be heard.
That’s the back story we need to understand, when one day Zechariah is going about his regular duties as a priest in the temple, and suddenly there is Gabriel standing in front of him, next to the altar. The text says Zechariah “was terrified, and fear overwhelmed him.” And the angel said to him “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.” (Luke 1:12-13)
As I read around in biblical commentaries it seems to me an awful lot is made of Zechariah’s fear. But as my daughter once wisely pointed out years ago, “angels are always saying ‘fear not,’” which tells me it’s a pretty natural reaction to be frightened when they turn up! I’m inclined not to single Zechariah out on that account.
I also find it troubling that Zechariah is apparently punished for questioning the angel’s promise – that God had heard their desperate prayer, and Elizabeth was going to bear a son. If you’d hoped for something not just for months or years but for decades, and not seen it materialize, it’s understandable that when news like this finally came, you might be a little skeptical, right? And keep in mind, what was standing in front of Zechariah in that moment was not yet his wife, in her sixth or eighth month looking especially pregnant, but an angel delivering words of promise. And the thing about promises is that the actual evidence of their truthfulness only comes in hindsight, right? We can’t know beyond a shadow of a doubt that a promise is true ahead of time. That is, we don’t have evidence for it in the form of cold, hard facts until we actually watch it come true, sometime later on… which is why faith is required.
But whatever we may think of Gabriel’s frustration with Zechariah’s difficulty believing him, whatever we may think of poor Zeke being struck mute for months as he awaits his baby boy, here’s the marvelous thing. His doubts did not in any way impede God’s fulfillment of the promise. That is, God’s ability to work a miracle didn’t hinge on Zechariah’s ability to believe it. It reminds me of the story in Mark’s gospel, of another father who in great desperation said to Jesus: “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” As far as I can tell, the divine answer to each of these men seems to be: “that’s good enough for me!” And then the God for whom nothing is impossible gets to work on a miracle, and hope is restored.
Amy McCullough suggests, too, that while plenty discouraged, the couple hadn’t actually been hope-less. Their hope had just, over the years, morphed into a sort of hoping against hope:
"By the time we meet Zechariah and Elizabeth, they have stopped believing a baby will join their family. The years have gone by, the gray hairs have sprouted, their bodies have wrinkled, and the child hasn’t come. But I’m not sure they’ve stopped hoping for a baby. Gabriel’s words tell us that they have prayed for a child, just like one might pray for … a month without a school shooting [or a Christmas when the world isn’t at war] … Past experience might suggest it is worthless to pray for such things, but your heart cries out nonetheless, hoping past hope that this year something might be different. The cry holds a flicker of faith in God’s power to revive, the hope that never truly, fully dies."
And now Zechariah is told that his prayer has been heard. I can’t explain why every couple hoping for a baby doesn’t get the same answer; I dearly wish they did. But in God’s response to Elizabeth and Zechariah we at least see that God’s spirit can be at work in parts of our lives over which we’ve given up hope.
Barrenness? Hopelessness? Emptiness? From a human perspective, it’s hard to see the promise in such places. But for God, these situations seem to invite intervention. And so, Zechariah, your prayer has been heard. Whether you can believe it or not. Whether or not you find the promise of your wife’s conceiving a child utterly in-conceivable. Fear not, Zechariah, even your disbelief won’t slow God down when he’s ready to get moving on something this important. After all, it’s time to bring John the Baptist onto the scene here, so he can prepare the way for Jesus!
I’ll admit the “why’s” of this story of Gabriel and Zechariah still confuse me. Why, for instance, did Zechariah and Elizabeth have to wait so very long to have a child? Why, for that matter, do some couples wait their whole lives, in vain, and never receive the same good news? Why was Zechariah’s fairly understandable difficulty in believing apparently punished with this strange inability to speak? And why wouldn’t he have been afraid, suddenly to see an angel of God appear at the altar?
The “why” questions may confuse me, but what comforts me are the promises of God that shine through it all. For the “who” and the “what” of Zechariah’s story are clear. God’s at work; and God’s working miracles.
Please pray with me:
Lord, we believe. Help our unbelief. Or help us, in spite of our unbelief. Whatever it takes, God. When we enter your sanctuary entirely unprepared for you to actually turn up, we know that won’t stop you from sending an angel our way. When we’re so discouraged by past experience that it’s hard to hang on, we know you are quite capable of bringing life and hope to barren, empty places. When we’re frightened, we trust that you’ll continue to send messengers our way with comforting words: “Do not be afraid.” “I am with you.”
God, lift up those who are discouraged. Bind up the brokenhearted. Bring light into our dark places. Breathe hope back into hopeless hearts. Bring messages of life and peace to a hurting world. In our best moments, we know you can do these things. And we’re eternally grateful that you keep on doing your thing, that you continue working wonders, even when we’re not so sure. You are at work behind every story, and nothing is impossible for you. Thank you, God. In the name of the Christ Child of Bethlehem we pray. Amen.
 “Gabriel,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary.
 Amy P. McCullough, “Musings on Advent” Journal for Preachers Advent 2015, pp. 5-6.