Luke 1:5-25 “Angels Among Us”
Messengers from God, angels, are an important part of our Advent and Christmas stories. They appear, suddenly and unexpectedly, to announce God’s promise fulfilled. To announce to ordinary people that something extraordinary was about to happen to them. It is the voice of angels that herald in this season. It is the voices of angels that prepare the people for what is to come. And it is the voices of angels that announce to the shepherds that Jesus has been born. This Advent and Christmas season we are going to listen to the voices of angels in our scripture. We are going to listen to what they say, wonder together about they mean, and lean into one of the greatest mysterious of our faith – that God moves in our world and in our lives in unexpected and yet holy ways. The unexpected and yet holy ways of God are just what we all need, what our world needs today. So, for the next four weeks – our scripture will be filled with angels.
As we move through this season of Advent with the angels, there are going to be two things that are consistent in the stories we hear: the first is the angels always appear unexpectedly. They don’t show up when people are calling for them, they don’t schedule their arrival so people can be ready. The angels just show up and suddenly everything is different. The other consistent part of the stories of the angels is that people are at first afraid. And what we will hear over and over again during this season is the angels saying “Do not be afraid.” Everything will be different now, but do not be afraid. God is calling you to be a part of something extraordinary, but do not be afraid. The world is going to change forever, but do not be afraid. These unexpected visitors from God will bring extraordinary news, but always, we will hear reassurance. Do not be afraid – God is with you.
Upon a first read of the story of the angel visiting Zechariah, the father of the John the Baptist, you would think he shouldn’t be surprised to see an angel, let alone afraid. Zechariah was a priest, a man devoted to God. That day it was Zechariah’s responsibility to take incense into the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary where the people believed God existed. It was a holy task, one central to the ancient Jewish faith. And it was done all of the time. It was a regular ritual of the faith. While it was only the responsibility of the priest, only a priest could approach the place where God dwelled, it was essentially a rote task. The priest regularly brought incense into the sanctuary, the people regularly gathered outside to pray. This was a practice in place for centuries. While it was most certainly sacred, it had also become commonplace. Zechariah was going about his regular and ordinary duties as a man of faith – and all of the sudden, nothing was ordinary anymore.
I concede it would be fair to wonder why Zechariah was surprised at the angel’s appearance. Shouldn’t they have been expecting God? Shouldn’t the appearance of an angel, God’s messenger, been anticipated? Why was Zechariah surprised and afraid if this holy appearance was long awaited?
Let’s try to imagine ourselves in Zechariah’s position. We too have our ancient, regular rituals of our faith. We light candles, every Sunday and special candles during Advent. We pray for God’s voice and guidance in our lives. We read scripture that tells stories of miracles. And each and every Sunday we pray in the way we were taught – literally praying for God’s Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. These are rituals of our faith, the rituals we have continued even while remaining socially distant. But – what would happen if, as we lit the candles and asked for God’s presence in prayer, an angel appeared – bringing us news that God was coming again. That God’s promise to return and be amongst us was now just over the horizon. We pray for this every Sunday and yet we would be surprised and, I believe, afraid. We too, just like Zechariah, would question and argue and say “how can this be?” We have prayed for this each and every week and yet I wonder if we actually think it would happen.
It makes sense, then, that the angel Gabriel struck Zechariah silent after his questions. I don’t believe that Gabriel was chastising him for his lack of faith – I don’t think the months of silence was meant to be a punishment. I think the months of silence are meant to help Zechariah make real in his mind and spirit that indeed his prayers had been answered. That what he prayed for was finally going to happen. That the rituals, no matter how rote they had become, meant something and God was now responding, no matter how unexpectedly. Zechariah needed to be silent for a long while to take this all in. We too, I believe, would need to be silent as well.
We begin every Advent by hearing that familiar hymn “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” It is a hymn that puts to music our great desire that God return to walk amongst us – that the Christmas miracle happen again, that God would take on flesh and bring holy salvation – justice, peace, hope, and grace – to this world so very much in need of God’s appearance. We start this season by lighting the candle of Hope – hope that our prayers will be heard and answered. Hope that God’s Kingdom will come, that everyone will know the love of God. That suffering will be no more, and the weapons of war will be turned into tools of harvest
I don’t know if this year we will experience a new miracle, or if again we will simply remember and celebrate the miracle that set in motion our faith 2000 years ago. I don’t know if an angel will appear and tell us everything will now be different. But I suspect that if that were to happen, we too would need to be told to not be afraid. And we too would need to be in silence for a while.
The angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah to share the extraordinary news that Elizabeth, despite her advanced age, would have a child and that child will be great in the sight of the lord and filled with the Holy Spirit. That child will be John the Baptist, who will be a voice in the wilderness telling the people to prepare. The man whose birth was announced by angels will announce the coming ministry of Jesus Christ. “Be prepared” that child will eventually say. “Be prepared, because all of those things you have been praying for will finally come true.”
The season of Advent is a time for us to prepare once again for that miracle to take place. Advent is a time to listen to the voices of the angels. Those angels who bring a message from God. Those angels who say that everything we have been praying for will come to pass. Those angels who say that everything will change. Those angels who say that the glory of God will be amongst us. Those angels who tell us to not be afraid.
And my Beloved Community, the season of Advent is also a time to be quiet, to take in these messages, to listen for the voices of angels, to hear the Good News and make it real in our hearts. Normally I would be taking time to remind you to slow down during the busyness of this season – pleading with you to not rush through the waiting in order to get to the celebration. I don’t feel that I need to do that this year, though – this year things will be quieter and slower. There will be more time for silence. And I am grateful for that. The holiness of this important season will have the space in our lives and spirits to fill us with expectancy. To fill us with hope. To fill us with the promise of God, the promise of Emmanuel, God with us. This Advent, I think, we will all have the time to allow the holy mystery of this season to enter our lives. And the voices of the angels will guide us along our way.
Let us pray…
O Holy One,
in this season of Advent,
we wait for you to break into our worlds, unexpectedly.
Help us to stay awake, to be aware, to hope against hope.
We pray for your peace in this world
when You will settle things fairly between nations,
and make things right between peoples.
We pray for your peace
when all will turn their weapons into something useful
but not for war.
We pray for you to show us
how to simply be advocates for your peace and hope.
Help us to know that what we do makes a difference.
We pray for the peace you bring within families.
We pray for the peace you bring within ourselves.
We pray for your peace to come for those who are ill,
those who are grieving,
Those who are struggling,
those who are suffering,
those who are lonely,
and those who have been devastated by disaster.
Surprise us with the possibilities
of how your vision of peace and hope might take root,
and how we might live into this vision of justice and love
for all of creation.
We pray all of this in the name of our long-expected Savior, Jesus Christ – whose presence amongst us we await with hope and longing. And even as we wait, we pray in the way he taught us by saying together…Our Father…