I really enjoyed my vacation last week, but I couldn’t wait to get back. I wanted so much to see the sanctuary decorated for Christmas and to see our new Advent wreath. I hurried over Saturday to sit in the sanctuary and admire the decorations before I sat down to finish writing this sermon. I saw only one thing missing, an angel.
We are going to hear the story of the archangel Gabriel today, and the next 2 Sundays. He is the archangel that appears to Zechariah, Mary and Joseph bringing the news of the births of John the Baptist and Jesus. It seems appropriate that we have an angel in the sanctuary since we’re going to be hearing about Gabriel.
I added this angel here next to the pulpit. I have lots of angels, but she is my favorite and she’s big enough for all of us to see. Her halo is a little crooked, but…so is mine.
I’ll tell you more about angels and archangels as we go along these 3 Sundays. Here is the story of the archangel Gabriel’s visit to Zechariah.
Zechariah was a priest and Elizabeth was the daughter of a priest. Zechariah served in one of 24 groups of priests. Each group served 2 weeks a year in the Temple. On this day, Zechariah was chosen from his group to go into the holy of holies to burn the incense. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for a priest. Zechariah enters to perform a task and encounters Gabriel.
There are a couple things we should know about archangel Gabriel. Gabriel is God’s special messenger. He is one of seven archangels. They are called archangels because they are chief among the angels. Based on tradition, they are: Michael, Gabriel, Rapheal, Uriel, Raquel, Saraqael, and Remiel, but only Michael and Gabriel are named in the Bible. These 7 archangels may be the 7 angels mentioned in the book of Revelation.
Archangel Gabriel had the special work of announcing the births of John the Baptist and Jesus, as well as interpreting a vision for the prophet Daniel. Gabriel is known as a messenger who also offers consolation and guidance. His role as a heavenly messenger who announces births makes him the patron saint of parents and postal workers.
Gabriel means man of God or strength of God. The book of Daniel says Gabriel looks like a man. All those he visits are said to be frightened by his presence, but he always offers consolation. Most importantly, Gabriel anticipates Jesus. He relays a prophecy concerning the Messiah to Daniel; he tells Zechariah of John the Baptist and Mary and Joseph of Jesus.
Zechariah was frightened by Gabriel’s appearance. There is no evidence that God had spoken to the people of Israel through a prophet in over 400 years. Zechariah was certainly not expecting a word from God, let alone a visit from an archangel. There, at the altar, when Zechariah was going about his priestly duties, Gabriel shows up with a message for him.
There are a couple key components to an angel’s annunciation of a birth that the Bible follows in the several birth announcements throughout Scripture. First, there is an appearance of an angel who addresses the one receiving the announcement by name. The person responds in fear and is consoled to not be afraid. The angel gives a divine message about the boy to be born – birth announcements are always about male children with instruction for naming the child and their future role in God’s plan. The person objects the message and a sign is given to guarantee the announcement. The coming birth “announces the end of [a] waiting period. God is beginning to do a new and wonderful thing.”
Zechariah and Elizabeth will have a son whom they should name John. He is to be a Nazarite, like Samson; he will not drink wine or eat grapes and he will never cut his hair. John will be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth so that he can carry out his function. He will be a prophet like Elijah and he will turn people’s hearts to prepare the way of the Lord. Zechariah, in his disbelief, asks for a sign that what Gabriel says will be true. The sign is that Zechariah will not be able to speak until the birth of his son.
So, Zechariah emerges from the holy of holies with great news to share, but he can’t say a word. Can you imagine having this news to share and not being able to tell people? Its not like he was sworn to secrecy and couldn’t tell people. He just couldn’t speak to tell people. He couldn’t write it down. He couldn’t text or tweet it out or post it on Facebook. He didn’t have a picture of Gabriel to post on Instagram. His best bet of sharing the news was a game of charades. I’m not sure how that went.
Point to me – I
Point to eyes – saw
Flap wings – Angel
Point to me – I
Cradle baby – baby
No one would believe that he was going to have a baby. He and Elizabeth were old and beyond their childbearing years. No one would believe, like he didn’t believe, they were going to have a baby. But, the people had to know something happened, because he couldn’t speak.
God had heard the prayers of Zechariah and Elizabeth for a child. They had waited and prayed and had almost given up. Zechariah’s final plea for a child was in the Temple when he had been chosen to go in to burn the incense. He must have made one final plea in the place that was believed to be the place you could come closest to God. The Lord heard his prayer and the archangel Gabriel came to announce the good news that he would bear a son to be named John who would commit his life to serving the Lord and would herald the coming Savior.
Here’s the thing about prayer. We don’t know what we’re going to get. That can be scary. I often fearfully pray knowing that what I am praying for will likely not come in the way I envision. We don’t always get what we want; we get what God knows we need and are capable of handling. The answer to a prayer may often require more responsibility than what we think will be required.
Zechariah and Elizabeth wanted a child, probably a son. Any child would have made them happy. They prayed and prayed for a child waiting to be parents. God had chosen them to bear a son with a special role in God’s plan of salvation. They would need to be the type of parents, who could raise a son who would devote himself to service of the Lord, who would be capable of preparing the way of the Lord and heralding His coming.
God placed a lot of responsibility on Zechariah and Elizabeth by answering their prayer. I think all parents seek to be the kind of parent who will raise their children to fulfill their greatest potential and cultivate their gifts and talents. But, parents don’t know when a child is born their potential. Parents see hopes and dreams for their new born baby. Zechariah and Elizabeth knew before John the Baptist was born what his calling in life would be. With helping John fulfill that calling, Zechariah and Elizabeth had a heavy burden placed on them.
I think that is how it is often with prayer. We get more than we bargained for. Our answers don’t come in the way we anticipated. It is sometimes difficult to recognize the answer to our prayers, because we don’t get what we envisioned. That’s the way it was with John the Baptist and the coming Savior. Zechariah and Elizabeth wanted a child and were given a son with a special calling that required great responsibility of them.
The people of Israel wanted a Savior who would free them from the oppression of the Roman empire, restore the nation of Israel and take the throne of King David. Instead, they got Jesus. Jesus would not restore the nation of Israel and give them yet another chance to disappoint God with empty worship and failure to live up to the covenant. God would free them from the power of sin, not the power of Rome. God would seat Jesus on the throne of Heaven, not on the throne of King David. God would offer them grace instead of another chance to fail.
We received that grace in Jesus Christ. He has come and he will come again. At Christmas, we remember that the God of Heaven descended to earth as a vulnerable baby taking on human life to live out the life He has given to us. We remember He has come and look to the day with hope when He will come again.
I think we sometimes approach our faith in much the same way Zechariah went about his priestly duties. He did what he was supposed to do. He believed. He served the Lord. He was righteous. But, he entered the Temple not expecting to receive an answer to his prayers. I am afraid that we, including myself, pray to God and worship Him and aren’t always expectant of an answer or an encounter with the Divine.
After 2,000 years of waiting on Christ’s return, we say He is coming again, but do we really believe it could be today? Many of us have lost our anticipation and excitement that He will come again. Advent is a season when our hope can be renewed in Christ’s second coming. We prepare ourselves for the day when He will come again. We restore our faith in miracles. We see the world swell with generosity. We remember that a little baby in a stable in Bethlehem brought salvation to the world. And, with hope, we wait for God to, once again, come to us in an unexpected way.