1st Sunday in Advent “Angels: Messengers of Hope” (series)
November 27, 2022 Luke 1:5-25
Dear brothers & sisters in Christ,
For our Wednesday evening advent devotion times, we’ll answer the question: Who is Jesus? = by looking at His lineage, and the ways He is referred to as a ‘son’. During our Sundays in Advent we will review those times God used Angels leading up to Jesus’ nativity. At a few very key times, an angel appears to relieve doubts or fears, or to confirm that something impossible was taking place. To help God’s people overcome unbelief, & keep their faith, God’s angels were the ultimate messengers of hope.
Angels are not human; they are a special creature God made to serve Him in various ways, in & out of heaven. We hear of the angel Michael, a powerful heavenly soldier, who battles Lucifer. We also read of unnamed angels who are dispatched to protect God’s faithful people in times of danger, or to bring comfort in times of severe distress. But their most important identity is in the meaning of that word in Greek, angelus; which means = messenger. This is not just any messenger sent to just any person; it is a heavenly courier, sent on very rare & important occasions. In those times we read of in Scripture, they come out from the very presence of God to deliver some life-changing & history-changing message that the failing & condemned world needs: the message of hope.
Hope is the main theme of the Advent season. Historically, the Church chose the color blue in the altar paraments to symbolize hope; it’s a warm, pleasant color of encouragement, since the winter months are a season of coldness & darkness, which remind us of God’s Law & judgment & death. Even tho the sudden appearance of a heavenly being is shocking and disconcerting, they declare the great message of hope = brought directly from the very throne-room of heaven.
The first mention of angels in the infancy story of Luke is when Gabriel comes to an elderly priest by the name of Zechariah as he is carrying out his duties in the temple of Jerusalem. Luke writes: “Now while [Zechariah] was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.
And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense.” (vv 8–11).
Luke tells us certain things about Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth. He says, they were “righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” So, they were ordinary people of faith, trusting in God’s promises, trying to live the best faithful life they could in a fallen world = like you & me. Luke also tells us of a special burden in their lives: “They had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.” (vs.6- 7).
It seems to be part of the cruelty of this fallen world that -at times- the things we long for the most become out-of-reach for us. That’s bad enough when we want a certain job or career, but we lack the skills or we can’t afford the training. There are times we desire to move to another town/state, but the opportunities or money are not there for us to move.
It’s a deeper kind of ‘sad’ when it’s the natural desire of a married couple to have children & a family, but it doesn’t happen. It’s even worse when that couple can look around at how easily some get pregnant & don’t want to; & selfish people neglect or abuse the children they have. And worst of all = a couple sees people -in our evil culture- fight tooth & nail for abortion, & celebrate the so-called ‘right’ to get pregnant & then murder that baby in the womb =even up to the moments after its been born.
Zechariah & Elizabeth could look around themselves at a very similar godless Roman culture and see the same wickedness. They had the desire to bring life into the world & raise a family in godliness, but they couldn’t. At some point, they had lost the hope of being parents. What they didn’t yet know was that the Lord had them in mind for something special; & even for more than a child. God would place them in the middle of the greatest story ever told = the greatest rescue plan ever conceived. And Luke tells it like this: “Do not be afraid, Zechariah,” the angel said, “for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.”
Now, we’re not sure how old this couple was, 60s, 70s? They had had hope with their desire of children; but after years of waiting, they realized that their ‘biological clocks’ were out of time. At some point, hope just fades, & we give up to protect our hearts & minds from more disappointment.
There are times in the Bible we read about people who lost hope, & when a word from the Lord came to them, they didn’t believe it.
In Hebrews 11, we read: “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, it’s the conviction of things not seen.” People don’t hope for things they have; they hope for things they desire to have. But plain hope eventually wears out. Only a Spirit-given faith can give a hope that does not wear out. Zechariah is a man of faith; he’s not doubting his priestly work, or his own forgiveness & salvation. But his faith (like ours) is not perfect. When presented with something that is improbable, nearly physically impossible, how many of us are free from doubt?
The 1st improbable thing is the presence of the angel itself. Was he imagining things? On the other hand, he was there in the Holy of Holies = it’s reasonable that an angel would hang-out there. What is not reasonable is the 2nd unlikely thing: the message about Elizabeth bearing a son. He MUST be dreaming. Luke says that Zechariah became both troubled and afraid. He already had to ‘mind his Ps & Qs’ while serving in the Holy Place = it was death-defying duty. But now he finds himself in the presence of God’s holy messenger.
Thankfully, this angel immediately tells him he did not need to fear; which meant that the message was not one of judgment or punishment. Instead, the message was a promise & a gift. God had decided to answer their prayer! We all have some faith that God hears our prayers; otherwise, we wouldn’t bother praying. Our faith hopes that He will find a way to answer those prayers. Our faith will sustain that hope for years when it seems that our prayers are not being answered right away. Like those prayers we pray for our family members who have some sickness or injury; or those family members or friends who have turned away from the Christian faith. I wonder if, by now, Zechariah & Elizabeth had stopped praying their prayer; maybe they gave up some years ago when they looked in the mirror & realized how old they were getting. Sometimes we give up, too. But God hears & remembers ALL our prayers. Believing His promise sustains our hope.
The angel told him that they would finally know “joy and gladness” and that many others would rejoice at the birth of their son. Even WE still rejoice in their child’s witness. It’s because theirs was not just another child. Gabriel announced that this one would come ‘in the spirit and power of Elijah the prophet; sent to call people to repentance and faith.’
Their child would be a history-changing figure at the center of the story of the world’s Messiah. He was John the Baptist, the one who came to announce Christ’s arrival.
You & I cannot imagine how we would react to such a message. And, as if an angel appearing & making this promise was not enough, Zechariah’s immediately reaction is to say he needs proof, because he knows the elderly condition of himself & His wife. So, how can such an unnatural promise be made? What good is a false hope? Zechariah’s doubt-filled reaction kind-of ticks-off this divine messenger, who now has a follow-up message.
He says, “I am Gabriel [whose name means ‘mighty one of God’]. I stand in the presence of God. I was sent to speak to you . . . this good news.” (‘and now here’s your proof): you will be unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words.’ Zechariah wanted to hope, but his faith faltered. His muteness reminded him every day of his moment of doubt; but it also reminded him that God had not retracted His promise of a child as he watched his wife for those nine months. God had renewed his hope.
Hope can be a difficult thing to keep alive. We all struggle to be optimistic. This season of Advent-hope comes at a time of the year when nature appears lifeless. Our experience tells us that spring will come, but what we see right now is a long, cold winter; so we might wonder IF it will come. Is ‘doubt’ the reason why this is a season of depression for many? We call it ‘Seasonal Affective Disorder,’ or ‘SAD.’ It’s when a person emotionally assumes that the cold, dark bleakness of today will not get better tomorrow; even tho mentally we know the sun will come up tomorrow. When hope is only tied to our emotions, which go up & down, it’s not a solid hope.
Now, faith is not emotion; faith is a spiritual gift, Spirit-given. Faith is not based on what we think or feel; it is based on the concrete Words of God. Our faith is the foundation of any real hope we have. When God promises things to us, our faith clings to His Words, & so we have real hope that they are true. This faith is anchored in the person of Jesus Christ; who is the Word-made-flesh, and who fulfilled the key promise of God for us: redemption.
Abraham & Sarah received a message similar to Zechariah & Elizabeth, and faced the same improbable promise, as Abraham was about 100 yrs.old; ‘as good as dead’, says Paul in Romans 4.
Yet, Abraham ‘believed beyond hope,’ says Paul, because he was “fully convinced that God was able to do what He had promised.” (Rom 4:19, 21).
Many of our hopes come from just earthly wishes or temporary desires for happiness. As we get older, we’ve been disappointed so many times, we learn to hope cautiously. Age & wisdom teaches us the difference between wishful thinking and reality. As time goes on, we realize that we need more than earthly hope; we need something stronger than ‘the power of positive thinking’, or optimism. We need to pin our hopes on something more reliable than our wishes. There is nothing more reliable than God’s Word. Zechariah needed to learn this lesson; so the Lord made a way to strengthen his faith, and gave him a little ‘quiet’ time.
Every time he opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t, Zechariah faith was pointed to the angel’s message and the power & promise of God. He & Elizabeth had hoped for just a child, but the Lord was bringing into their lives the very forerunner of God’s own Son, who was their hope of salvation. I’m sure they often marveled at the thought that a heavenly creature like Gabriel was sent from the very presence of God himself, to give more than just a little hope to an old couple. That message was about the greatest hope for the whole world.
Luke tells us about this ordinary, old couple because Gabriel’s message can apply to us in the times of our hopeless disappointments. The words & promises of God are given to all those He has called to Himself. You have been baptized into the death & resurrection of Jesus Christ; you have been washed in the name of the Triune God. When you pray with the hope of receiving an answer from the Lord, your faith knows that He hears, and your faith also believes that whatever you hope for now for this life He has planned far greater things for you in the life to come. Our chief hope is our forgiveness, life & salvation in Jesus, the Christ.
We have this hope because of the work of Jesus at the cross, defeating sin & death. When earthly things disappoint us & don’t happen, God always points us forward to His better things. When Gabriel was sent to Zechariah with a message of hope, we also learn some lessons. We learn not to be afraid to pray for godly things that seem improbable, because we have the promise that the prayers of God’s people are all brought before the Almighty’s throne.
We learn that we should not be afraid to pray that the Lord would open the heart & mind of the unbeliever, or to rekindle the faith of those who have fallen away.
We learn that the Lord can turn us away from our own doubts & fears to be absolutely sure of all that He has promised.
And finally we learn that just as the lives of Zechariah & Elizabeth encourages us to keep our hope in the Lord & in His Word, so OUR lives of faith will also show what true hope is in Christ Jesus, and give courage to those around us who need a message of real hope when life in this world disappoints them. Amen.