December 20, 2020
There aren't a lot of angel sightings in the bible. And there are only two named angels; no not Harold...the herald angels... The two actual angels are Michael and Gabriel. But apparently they are not sweet and friendly in appearance like the angel here on the altar. Why do I say that? Because every angel sighting of which I'm aware has the angel saying, “Fear not” or words to that effect. Why that assurance if they are not a bit scary? Today's reading records the second appearance of Gabriel in Luke's gospel. Earlier in chapter 1, he appeared to the husband of Mary's relative Elizabeth. Luke 1: 13, “Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard; and thy wife Elisabeth shall bear thee a son.” Zacharias and Elizabeth had longed for a child and they were quite old when Gabriel showed up. But his announcement was an answer to their prayers.
But when Gabriel shows up to Mary, it is doubtful that he was answering any prayer of hers. It's doubtful she was praying for a baby having never known a man. Gabriel showed up unsought for and unexpected. And he brought news that was neither expected nor necessarily hoped for.
A little later in Luke, there is another angel, this one unnamed. On a quiet Bethlehem evening, this angel appeared to the shepherds tending their sheep outside of Bethlehem. I can imagine they were whiling away the night, sharing stories and passing the time anyway they could. Suddenly, BOOM, a bright light, an angel. “And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not.” The angel brought them news of the birth of the savior.
I want to look at these three appearances and compare and contrast the recipients of these visits. First, Zacharias and Elizabeth had long prayed for a child and the angel brought news that their prayers were answered. The angel brought hope to those seeking a message of hope. Gabriel announced a miracle to Mary who was not looking for a miracle. And the shepherds routine was disrupted by the visitation... “the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.” What good news to those just going about their daily chores!
But there is another way we compare and contrast these visitations. There is the contrast in social status. Zacharias was a priest, he served in the temple; he represents those with resources, power and influence.
Mary, by contrast, is a poor, unmarried, young girl. She lacked any of the prestige, resources, power or influence associated with Zacharias. She is young, inexperienced; vulnerable. And this miracle the angel announces is not going to make her life easier. No, her life suddenly becomes more difficult. Unwed, pregnant, poor, in-between households.
Finally, the shepherds. Members of the working class. They were far down on the scale of careers. Like Mary, no power or influence; little money and few options in life. But they were the first to receive the news that the long-awaited Messiah was here!
Every person to whom the angels appeared had reason to question their place in the world. Zechariah--”Why hasn't the Lord answered our prayer?” Mary, “Where do I fit in in this world?” The shepherds, “What's the point of sitting out in the field every night, doing the same thing over and over?” These are the kinds of questions all of us face at some time in life. We pray for healing and our loved one dies. We don't fit in, we are in a rut. We are looking for security, for assurance that we are loved, for positive outcomes in a too often negative world.
The whole birth narrative in Luke calls us to recognize God's work in the world. And on a personal level, the angel conveys God's care for people at all status levels in the world. Gabriel told Mary, “thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee.” That may have been a surprise to Mary. How about you? Do you realize that you are highly favored by God? I think it was Max Lucado who said, “If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it.” This world can kind of beat us up. We can feel isolated and lonely and susceptible. And while we can't expect an angel to come with these words, we can share them with each other. You are highly favored! I like the way William Young put it in his book The Shack when he has God tell the main character, “I am especially fond of you!” But we discover in that book that God is especially fond of all of God's children. And we discover in the bible that God is especially fond of you and me! That's a message that we can all stand to hear over and over in this world that often beats us down. God is especially fond of you!
Mary was an ordinary girl in an ordinary time without great expectations. We are gathered here on an ordinary Sunday for an ordinary worship service. But listen and hear these words of God which can be for you as they were for Mary, “you are highly favored... you have found favor with God...the Lord is with you.” As we enter Christmas week, enter it with that understanding. God loves you, God is with you, you are blessed. It yesterday's “These Days” devotional,Gordon Timbers wrote, “Scripture writers for widely different times and circumstances have declared that God's faithful love extends to all people, through all generations.” Gabriel's words to Mary are an extension of God's message to us, you are loved.
My theme for Advent has been verbs. I haven't even mentioned verbs yet today. But as we sing our next hymn, Breath of Heaven, a hymn sung as if by Mary, listen to and make these verbs your own in prayer and action: “Be with me now... hold me together... be forever near me... lighten my darkness, pour over me your holiness... I offer all I am... help me be strong...help me.” God loves us and want to help us. May we know God's presence in a new and personal way this Christmas and all our days going forward. Amen.
Hymn: Breath of Heaven