“GABRIEL AND THE DOUBTING PRIEST”

SERIES:  “ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD ON HIGH”

LUKE 1:5-25

NOVEMBER 29, 2009

 

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On a scale of 1-10 E! Online rated the pilot for this new television show an “11.”  King features entertainment reporter, Cindy Elavsky, calls the show “the best new show on television, by far.”  She writes, “The writing is intelligent and time-relevant; and the acting is first-rate. The first five minutes alone will hook you for the entire season."  Ms. Elavsky and E! Online are speaking of the science fiction television series “V” broadcast earlier this month.  The new show chronicles the arrival to earth of a technologically advanced alien species who ostensibly come in peace, but actually have sinister motives. 

            For a number of years Americans have been fascinated with the idea of extra-terrestrial beings visiting our planet.  For decades we have been deluged with stories about so-called flying saucers and other unidentified flying objects.  Movies like E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind have been big hits at the box office.  All this, in spite of the fact that there is not one shred of verifiable scientific evidence to prove that extra-terrestrials beings have ever visited our planet.

            The Bible, also, claims that other-wordly beings exist, and they visit the earth and play a part in the affairs of humankind.  These beings, however are not the kind of beings depicted in science-fiction movies or television programs.  These beings are called angels.  They dwell with God, and following God’s orders they visit the earth and sometimes communicate with us.

            And the Bible describes at least 40 incidents of angels intervening in human affairs, from the angel who showed Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar the spring of water in the Book of Genesis, to the angel who stood by Paul on the deck of the storm-ravaged ship in the Adriatic Sea, in the Book of Acts.  Four of the forty appearances of angels in the Bible are connected to the birth of Jesus.  That’s ten percent of all the angelic visits in the Bible.  No other happening has so many angels associated with it.  So to understand the full meaning of Jesus’ birth, we need to take a closer look at these angelic visits.  We’ll take them in chronological order, beginning with an angelic visit to an elderly priest named Zechariah, and I want to divide today’s visit into four sections: the man, the angel, the problem, and the message.

            First, the man, Zechariah.  He’s the central character in the story.  He’s an elderly priest, married to woman named Elizabeth.  Every direct descendent of Aaron, (Remember him from the time of Moses?), was automatically a priest.  That meant that for all ordinary purposes, there were far too many priests in Israel.  At the time this was written, there were around 24,000 such descendants of Aaron.  They were divided, therefore, into twenty-four sections or orders across the land, and Zechariah was a member of one of those sections, the order of Abijah.  Only three times a year did all the priests serve: at Passover, at Pentecost, and at the Feast of the Tabernacles.  For the rest of the year they served if their name was chosen by lot. Fifteen months before Jesus’ birth, Zechariah, drew the lot to burn incense in the temple. 

            So on that particular day, fifteen months before Jesus’ birth, Zehcariah put on his priestly vestments and walked out of the priest’s quarters, across the porch of the temple, as people stood in the courtyard praying.  Carrying a golden container of incense, he entered the great doors of the temple.  Inside, by the flickering light of the tall seven-branched lamp stand, he poured the incense on the golden altar in front of the huge tapestry drapes that concealed the Most Holy Place.  He lit the incense, and a large cloud of fragrant smoke filled the air.  Then he closed his eyes and raised his hands to offer prayers.  Normally, when the prayers were finished, he would walk backwards out of the temple through the open doors, and then turn and bless the people who had gathered in the courtyard outside.

            But this time it was different.  Shockingly different.  When Zechariah opened his eyes, he saw an angel standing beside the altar of incense.  No doubt his mouth fell open, his eyes grew wide, and his heart began to pound. 

            Before we move on to section two: the angel, let me say one more thing about Zechariah.  Note Luke’s description of Zechariah and his wife in verse six.  Luke writes, Both of them were righteous before God.  I love that line.  Just think what that means.  Most of us are playing our lives to someone.  We may be trying to be righteous and Christian for the benefit of and esteem of our neighbors, friends and family.  That’s not all bad, but think how much better to be righteous before the One who sees us in secret, who knows our thoughts and actions when we are alone.  Zechariah and Elizabeth  were two very unusual people.  They were playing their lives to God.

            OK, we are ready for section two of our story: the angel.  The angel immediately said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah.  Your prayers have been heard.”  What prayers?  The answer lies in the angel’s next words, “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John.” 

            Here we meet one of the angels in the Bible and he bears little resemblance to the angels we see in gift shops.  Today’s angels are often “luscious creatures, plump and dimpled, little Kewpie doll cherubs ... all fluff and meringue, kind and non-judgmental.”  Then we meet Gabriel.  His presence terrified Zechariah as it had terrified Daniel in the Old Testment.  In fact, Gabriel’s presence so terrified Daniel that he collapsed and fell into a deep sleep (Daniel 8).  When Gabriel encountered a guy named Balsam, Balsam saw a fearsome apparition with a drawn sword and Balsam fell on his face.  When Zechariah saw Gabriel, Luke says, “He was terrified and fear overwhelmed him.” 

            Most often an angelic visit in the Bible was an awesome, powerful, terrifying, holy event.  A message carried by these couriers of God, and by the way the word “angel” comes from the Greek word “angelos” which literally means “message,” these messages are not to be ignored, and when Zechariah questions the message asking, “How will I know this is so?  For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years,”  I love Gabriel’s response.  It comes with a bit of an attitude.  Verse 19.  “The angel replied, ‘I am Gabriel.  I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent by God to speak to you and to bring you this good news.  But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things are over.”

            In other words, “God sent me.  How dare you argue with me?  As a result, I will turn on the mute button on your speech until all this comes to pass.  Take that and see if you will ever question me again, anytime soon!” 

            There must have been something in Zechariah’s tone of voice that particularly pushed Gabriel’s button because later we will see Mary question Gabriel, but he doesn’t  push her mute button.  So that’s the angel, and before we move on to the next section: the problem, let me say more about angels in general.

            There are 108 references to angels in the Old Testament and 165 in the New Testament.  So, to ignore or reject angels is to remove a large part of scripture from religious experience.  The Bible describes them as immaterial creatures, created by God with super-human intelligence and power, also with emotions and free will, which we see played out here Gabriel’s pressing Zechariah’s mute button.  Angels have the ability to move from place to place quickly, and this is why they are often depicted with wings.  If necessary, these immaterial beings take on an appearance conducive to their mission so that we can see them.  Normally, we cannot see them.

            OK, enough of that, now let’s turn to section three: the problem.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were childless.  Jewish rabbi’s of the time said that seven people were excommunicated from God and the list began, “A Jew who has no wife, or a Jew who has a wife and who has no child.”  In first century Jewish circles childlessness was a valid ground for divorce.   And then Gabriel appeared and announced that God had heard his prayer and it will be answered.  Elizabeth will give birth to a son, and not just any son, but a bouncing baby boy who will grow up to be a great man, preparing the way for the coming Messiah.

            Of course, Zechariah found the promise very difficult to believe given his and Elizabeth’s ages.  I love the story of the man in his nineties who had a bum knee and went to his doctor to fix it.  The doctor said, “At your age, what do you expect?” 

            The man said, “I expect you to fix this knee.”

            He said, “My other knee is the same age and it works just fine.”

            Obviously, Zechariah was praying here without conviction.  His problem was so big, he didn’t think God could do anything about it.  Even a righteous man can pray with no sense of expectation. 

            And then, finally, the message. First, let me read a little section of what Zechariah says when he gets his speech back after the birth of his son, after Gabriel’s promise has been fulfilled.  Listen what he says about his new-born son.  Verse 76.

 

            And you child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

                        for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.

            to give knowledge of salvation to his people

                        by the forgiveness of their sins.

            By the tender mercy of our God,

                        the dawn from on high will break upon us,

            to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

                        to guide our feet into the way of peace.

 

            Every now and again, I hear about a church, and I put that church on my list as a place to go and worship if I am ever in the area.  One such church is the Mount Zion Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee.  It’s an African-American church and Mount Zion’s pastor is Bishop Joseph Walker III, and to honor graduates here’s what they do.

            Early in the service, the graduates parade, single-file, to the front of the sanctuary to be acknowledged by the congregants, to receive a gift, and to pose for individual photos with the Bishop.  It’s a big church, so there are a number of people in that parade, sometimes well north of 200 people.

            First come the beautiful children transitioning from kindergarten to first grade.  They are followed by handsome teenagers who graduated that month from high school.  After them, a dignified line of college graduates and those who have just received a master’s degree and Ph.D degrees.

            As each, from the smallest to the oldest, is introduced by name, a word was said about what they intended to do with their lives.

            When the five and six year olds came by you heard, “This is James H. Brown, and he wants to be a police officer.  This is Leticia T. Clark, and she wants to be a surgeon.” On and on it goes.  This child wants to be a pilot; this one wants to be a filmmaker; this one wants to be an Olympic track star.”  There were future basketball players, and barbers, and astronauts and firefighters.  There were even a wannabe preacher or two.  Every child had dreams of doing something.  There was no small thinking among them.

            Each high schooler was introduced by name and by the college or university they would attend in the fall.  They were all headed somewhere up the educational ladder.  One girl was headed to Princeton; others were on their way to the University of Tennessee, Spellman, Morehouse, and Georgetown.

            And the college grads?  More than a few of them were pointed toward graduate school with the intention of tackling medicine, theology, law, biology or music.

            As each child, youth, and young adult stepped up to the Bishop’s side for his or her picture the congregants cheered and whistled and applauded.  You would have thought these young people were superstar athletes being celebrated by a crowd at the nearby Tennessee Titan stadium.

            Listen to what a man who attended one of these graduating Sundays at Mount Zion Baptist Church had to say of his experience.

 

            As I sat there I felt a rush of simple, unadulterated hope.  In these young men and women, I saw possibilities for tomorrow.  I had visions of them carrying the love of Jesus into airplane cockpits, classrooms, biology labs, and operating rooms and the visions made me glad.

            You get this kind of celebration in a church were older men and women make the development of the younger generation their highest priority, where those of us who have been around the block a few times engage with younger people in order to teach them, tell them our stories, and affirm them as they listen for God’s voice.

 

            There once was a man named Zechariah.  In his aging years his wife gave birth to a son they named John.  Of this child Zechariah proclaimed these words,  “And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways.”

            And John did, partly because an old guy, his father, started pouring hope into him when he was still fresh from the womb.

            And that’s what they were doing at Mount Zion Baptist Church that one Sunday morning: pouring hope into young people.  Why can’t we do that in every church and in every family?