FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT
Readings: Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Malachi 4, Luke 1 5-25
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, November 29th 2015
On October 31, 1939, thousands of people across the USA panicked because they thought creatures form Mars had invaded the earth. It was all the result of a radio drama by Orson Welles on the mercury theater of the Air that imitated a live news broadcast. The imitation was so good that the police received thousands of hysterical phone calls from people expecting extra-terrestrial beings to appear on their street at any moment.
The idea of extra-terrestrial beings visiting our planet is one that continues to fascinate people. T.V. Series about aliens and movies about other worldly visitors are as common entertainment feature that refuse to go away. Yet maybe the idea isn't so new.
The bible has it's own extra-terrestrial characters in the person of angels. Their function appears to be that of bringing a Word of God into a particular situation. Both the Greek and Hebrew words for angel (Angelos and Mala'ch) have the root meaning of 'Messenger'.
Angels have a particularly important role to play in the Christmas story. As we travel through Advent , heading towards Christmas, I want to take a look at some close encounters of the third kind that took place between individuals and angelic messengers. The first of them is an encounter between an angel called Gabriel and a doubting priest called Zechariah
It is fifteen months before Jesus will be born. Elderly Zechariah, married with no children, has the task of burning incense in the temple. He puts on his priestly vestments and walks into the priests quarters, and then across the porch of the temple, whilst all the people stand outside in the courtyard praying.
He carries a gold container of incense as he enters the great doors of the temple. Inside, by the flickering light of the tall seven branched lamp-stand, he pours the incense onto the golden altar in front of the huge tapestry of drapes that concealed the most Holy Place. He lights the incense and a large cloud of fragrant smoke fills the air.
Then perhaps he raised his hands and closed his eyes, to offer the prayers that accompanied the burning of the incense. Normally, once the prayers were finished he would walk back out of the temple, through the doors and then turn around and bless the people who were gathered in the courtyard outside.
But this time it is different- and how! Zechariah opens his eyes and there is an angel standing beside the altar of incense. We are not told how Zechariah knew it was an angel or even what the angel looked like. The bible simply records that an angel was there. Zechariah starts to lose it. This was scary.
The angel addresses him saying 'Don't be afraid. Your prayers have been heard'. I don't know about you, but if I was Zechariah I'd be thinking, 'Now which prayer was that, the one about world peace, the one about the idiot who lives down the road, the one about winning the next ball game, which prayer?'
The answer comes in the next words, 'Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.' The angel went on to tell what this child's name would be, what he would do when he grew up and how he would prepare the way for the Messiah. This child was to be the special one spoken of by the prophet Malachi who would 'restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers'.
Bear in mind that Zechariah is now an elderly gentleman. That prayer about his wife being able to conceive and give birth to a child was probably one he had stopped verbalizing some time ago. His reaction to the angels statement is not one of joy and gratitude but of skepticism and bitterness. Essentially he says, 'How do you expect me to believe something like that after all these years?'
These are not the words of an atheist or a man indifferent to spiritual things. The bible tells us that both Zechariah and his wife were good, righteous people, religious people – full of faith. Even good and faithful servants sometimes have a problem believing in the promises of their God.
The coming of Jesus Christ is an event that positively overflows with hope and promise. As the years go by maybe we lose some of the awe and wonder that are the right response to make to the love of God being born into our world. Maybe, like Zechariah, who was after all simply doing his bit in observing an annual national festival, we don't expect to be radically confronted in a personal way by a God of promise.
God's promises though are made to all human beings throughout all history, and they involve God's readiness to do things in our lives which are just as staggering to us, as it was to Zechariah to believe that he and his wife were going to have a child in their old age. And for some of us, like Zechariah, those promises may involve things we have prayed abut for years without seeming to receive an answer.
What is there that God could do in our life or in the lives of those we love, that would absolutely stagger and astonish and amaze us? Are there prayers that we prayed long ago whose fulfillment now seems beyond the realm of possibility?
We should remind ourselves of some of the promises that come to us as a result of Jesus birth. Matthew 7:7 'Ask and it shall be given you; Seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened up to you' Matthew 19:26 'With God all things are possible'. John 10:10 'I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly' Rich promises!
Some days about some things, we may be prepared to say, 'Yes, Lord, I can believe You for that.' But about other things we can be even more skeptical and cynical than Zachariah was when informed of Elizabeth's immanent pregnancy. How do we deal with that? We find some clues in the way God dealt with Zachariah.
Firstly, notice that the angel did not respond to his skepticism with anger or condemnation. He did not call down punishment on the old priest for daring to question a promise of God. Instead Zachariah is dealt with gently and kindly, as though God understands that because of our human frailty there are times when God's promises challenge our faith to the point that we find them unbelievable.
The angel identifies himself. 'I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God.' The name Gabriel, in Hebrew means 'God shows Himself mighty'. He is one of only two angels whose names are given us in scripture. The other is Michael, whose name means 'Who is like God?' When God reveals God self to us it is often in a very personal way.
For most of us we don't know God through visions of angels or burning bushes that aren't consumed. But we can know God and know that Jesus calls in a very personal way to be His disciples. Because we have the gospel, we can say that 'God shows that God is mighty' Because of the ever present help of God's Holy Spirit, we can declare 'Who is like God?'
Secondly, the angel says 'I was sent to bring you this good news.' Zechariah needed reminding that messages from God were good news. We also need reminding that the Christian message is a positive one. Some of us have been raised in such a way that we think religion is about not doing things. That the main concern of God is saying' Thou shalt not... or else'.
But the message of Jesus appears to be more about what to do, rather than what to avoid. For sure there are things to avoid in life, but being a channel of the Holy Spirit is not one of them. Jesus encourages us 'DO love your neighbor' 'Do pray for each other.' 'DO love God with whole hearted commitment'. He accentuates the positive, He brings good news.
Thirdly, the angel has an unusual prescription for the doubt and skepticism that was bothering Zechariah. He gives him – nine months of silence! This was not a punishment handed out by God in a spirit of anger. It was a kindness. Scripture teaches (And some of you may remember this from the Book of James) that words are one of the most powerful capabilities for human beings to harm each other. 'Who can tame the tongue?'
If Zachariah had gone running out of the temple telling everybody exactly what had just happened, the chances are he would have done so in the wrong spirit of mind. A spirit of disbelief and confusion. Who would have believed him, anyway? 'Yeah, Right... Zach. You saw an angel telling you something you don't believe is going to happen!'
When the promises of God are so big that we can't cope with them, the answer lies, not in frantic questioning, but in this – be quiet and wait. Don't give up on the promises of God, don't reject them or complain about them, be silent and leave it up to God.
Psalm 46:10 'Be still and know that I am God'. Isaiah 41:1 'Listen to me in silence'. Zephaniah 1:7 'Be silent before the Lord, your God'.Zechariah 2:13 'Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord' Habakkuk 2:20 'Let all mortal flesh keep silence' Psalm 37:7 'Be still before the Lord and wait patiently before Him'
Advent is sometimes described as the season of waiting. Waiting upon the astonishing promises of God. They are not promises that have to do with things that are far off and in the distant future. They are promises to apply to our lives here and now, with the great and good things we have prayed for in the past and that we still need to keep on praying and believing God for in the now.
So how do we deal with our own skepticism and cynicism? Quietly, before God. By allowing the Spirits gentle discipline to renew our struggling faith and cast out our fear. 'Do not be afraid'. Those were the Christmas words to Zechariah, to Mary and to a group of shepherds on a lonely hillside. God's perfect love casts out all fear.
At the end of nine months, after the birth of their son, John the Baptist, Zachariah poured forth one of the most eloquent songs of praise found in scripture, a great poem known as the Benedictus. His period of silent waiting was followed by a time of ecstatic praise. The silence accomplished it's purpose. He was renewed just as God intended.
The coming of Christ reveals to us that God has plans for this world, plans for God's church, plans for our lives. If in the face of such promise we find ourselves struggling with cynicism or skepticism, let us remember the way God dealt with Zachariah.
- Firstly, note that God did not condemn him, but sent an angel to encourage him. We can be those kind of angels for each other. People who don't put others down, but lift each other up.
- Secondly, we see how what Zachariah perceived was bad news and unbelievable, turned out to be the greatest news, the good news that something new really was to be birthed in his situation. Can we believe that God is able to do new things in our lives and our church and in our our families?
- Finally, Gabriel's message is for us all. Don't be afraid. Be quiet before God. Wait for God to act... for the time will come when your heart will overflow in praise.
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.