Advent Through the Eyes of Gabriel, Part 1
Isaiah 2:1-5Luke 1:8-20
“Do not be afraid…”
In Scripture, these words always seem to accompany the appearance of angels. “Do not be afraid.” As we wind our way through the next four Sundays of Advent, this time of preparation and anticipation before the celebration of Christmas, we will be focusing on the New Testament lessons where angels appear. Angels feature prominently in the gospel accounts leading up to the birth of Jesus. Twice that angel is named, Gabriel, just as in our lesson this morning. And with each arrival, as angels visit with Zechariah and Mary and Joseph and shepherds, the first words out of their mouths, like the President’s “my fellow Americans,” are “Do not be afraid.”
We Presbyterians don’t spend a lot of time talking about angels. I’m sure for many of us that the notion might seem a bit mystical for our rational age and our reasoned theology. And then there are those domesticated versions of angels that appear in popular culture: the rosy-cheeked cherub, the kind and gentle Hollywood manifestations of Michael Landon and Roma Downey, there’s this Hallmark-ish character to it all that might not be to everyone’s taste.
And yet, here is our text this morning, with this angel Gabriel, appearing out of nowhere, sharing good news of a child, and striking Zechariah dumb.
The truth is that angels are throughout Scripture. And the vision of angels that appears in Scripture is far different from that of our popular culture, of loved ones gone before who get their wings, of gentle strangers who appear to assist us at unexpected moments. In Scripture, angels are a created order unto themselves. They exist in a world of spirits, kind of a divine council of sorts, below God and above humanity. In the Old Testament period, where God’s presence is somewhat separated, the angels often act as mediators. They are visitors coming to receive Abraham’s hospitality. They wrestle with Jacob and appear in his dreams. They speak to prophets and praise God around the heavenly throne. But their primary purpose is to act as God’s couriers. In fact, we get our word angel in English from the Greek of the New Testament. Angel, at its root, means messenger.
But there is also this thing about instilling fear that seems to be an integral part of what they do. Why is that? Is it the startling, sudden appearance in unexpected places? Is it the message itself, news of miracle and wonder that, far from comforting, is actually pretty jolting? Or is it the image of an angel, a floating, white, satiny creature with two wings and a halo, which would scare us out of our wits?
That last bit, by the way, that popular image of angels, has very little to do with the angels of Scripture – other than the wings, perhaps. A description that might get to the heart of this notion of fear, I think, comes from Madeleine L’Engle’s wonderful children’s book The Wind in the Door. In the story, two young children are visited by an angel named Proginoskes. At first,its appearance leads them to believe they’ve spotted a herd of dragons: “wings, it seemed like hundreds of wings, spreading, folding, stretching – and eyes how many eyes can a drive of dragons have? and small jets of flame…” Now that, a snorting, fuming, flapping, blinking, floating mass is an angel who could frighten.
Perhaps we’re spending too much time talking about appearances, though. After all, the essence of angels is their role as messengers. It’s important what they say, not what they look like, right? But then again, maybe there is value in breaking down these images we have, examining and reshaping them in light of what we read in Scripture. That way, we can not only begin to see things differently, but also hear them with that sense of a fresh perspective.
Our lesson from the gospel of Luke this morning focuses on the priest Zechariah. The lot, the sign of God’s favor, has fallen on him alone to offer the ritual prayers for the people in the Holy of Holies, the most sacred space in all of most sacred Jerusalem. This is a once in a lifetime chance for a priest, to celebrate the liturgy there in that place. And as he does, this angel appears by the burning incense. Blinking? Snorting? It doesn’t say…
And after the angel dispenses with the familiar “Do not be afraid,” there come these simple words: “Your prayer has been heard.” Which prayer? The prayer he was saying as part of the traditional liturgy, the ancient longing of the people for the arrival of Messiah, deliverer, salvation? Or the prayer that he no doubt carried with him into that holy place, his own personal, unfulfilled longing for a child? Both, it seems, for this son of his, John, will be the predecessor of the Messiah. Through his austere lifestyle and is Spirit-filled preaching, he will begin a magnificent work of repentance among the people. He is the one who will “make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”
And then comes this moment: Zechariah, right there in the Holy of Holies, the heart of ancient faithfulness, shows his flickering doubt of what is happening right before his eyes. He’s old, his wife is, too. He needs more than the appearance of an angel to convince him of this promise. He wants a sign: “How will I know that this is so?” And for that, the angel is revealed as Gabriel, one of only four named angels in the Old Testament. In the Book of Daniel, it is Gabriel who is sent to help the prophet interpret his vision for the days to come. And here, sent from the presence of God, Gabriel hits the mute button. Zechariah won’t be able to speak again until John is born. Ask for a sign, be careful; you might just get one.
The text is filled with Biblical allusions. The aged couple Abraham and Sarah, the prayers of Hannah, the priestly descendants of Aaron and Abijah, there are echoes from the Old Testament which ring into this passage. And there is foreshadowing as well, as angels continue to come bearing news of miraculous birth which will fulfill ancient desires. It is not long before the parents of Jesus are swept up into the unfolding story. This moment between Zechariah and Gabriel is a bridge between what has been and what is to come.
But what of that promise, the words that are spoken? After all, if an angel is a messenger, then perhaps it’s the message on which we should focus. As Gabriel speaks to Zechariah, we immediately see the implications for the elderly couple and for the days to come, as birth follows birth, as promise follows promise, as savior follows prophet. But what about us, some two thousand years removed from the scene? Those echoes that began with Abraham and Sarah which carry through this holy moment and on into the future, can we hear them today?
There must be something to this. After all, Advent is not only a four week long season of preparation for Christmas, a time of delay and waiting. Advent reminds us that, even though Christmas has come, we are still waiting. The perfection of history, the completion of those promises of Christmas and Easter has not year happened. We still live in a time whose yearnings could very well find expression in those words of Isaiah, that there would come a day when we beat our swords into ploughshares, our spears into pruning hooks, that we not lift up the sword or learn war anymore. The Prince of Peace has been born. And we have firm glimpses of that peace in our lives. But perfected peace? The end of war? It is a hope for which we still look with longing hearts.
What is it that we hear in Gabriel’s message today that points the way forward for us?
For the past few days, I have been alone in my house. Elizabeth and Ramsay have headed off to Texas for a while to be with Grandma. The place is a lot quieter these days. I busied myself as usual, keeping the stereo running most of the day to fill the emptiness. And then Friday, in the middle of the day, the stereo blew; it stopped working, just like that. The silence was deafening.
Here’s the thing about me: I’m an extrovert. And that doesn’t just mean that I’m outgoing, it’s an analysis of how I process things. I talk them out. I learn more socially than I do in isolation. Even so, there is still a part of me that remains an introvert, one that is less likely to be nurtured by that dominant, extroverted part of me. So while I didn’t see any eyes or wings, I couldn’t help but wonder if an angel had come to hit my mute button for a while, to help me to learn how to listen again.
What about you? What is it that the angel might say to you in this story? Do you have unfulfilled longings, prayers for which you wait? Maybe it’s a decision you’ve been dreading or one with which you’ve been wrestling. Maybe the wisdom is right there, waiting for you to listen. Or perhaps it’s a soul-sized ache that has been hurting for years. Maybe there’s that possibility of healing, of knowing that there God’s presence is with you, even through the darkest of days.
Or is it doubt, the stunned response to promises of miracles and peace? Do you find yourself unsure about these things we proclaim week to week, that God is love, that Christ is peace, that the Spirit is present? Have you even gone so far as to ask for a sign? Maybe there’s something in this momentary angelic encounter, a promise that clarity will come; not in its fullness, but in glimpses of truth, in relationships of integrity, in words and moments of deep and profound insight.
Or is it fear? Do you feel pity for Zechariah, overwhelmed with the feeling? Perhaps there’s uncertainty for you, about your future, your present, your past: economic anxiety, spiritual angst, physical fear, emotional doubt. Maybe there’s something about the stranger, the “other,” which frightens, taking down those walls, letting someone in, letting them truly know you. Hear Gabriel’s words again: “Do not be afraid.” These are not merely the perfunctory introduction to an angelic address. They are repeated promises of Godly presence, of divine love, of perfected mercy that transcends the barriers we build and opens up new possibilities of reconciliation, of welcome, of embrace.
Or is it that possibility of silence which speaks to you? Is there never time to stop and reflect? Does the whirr of life spin by? Does this time of year crush in as businesses make that last push, as our culture screams at us to consume, as our eyes and ears are bombarded and approach sensory overload?
Do you hear the sound of flapping?