Filled with the Holy Spirit – Nov. 29, 2020

Filled with the Holy Spirit; The Angel and Zechariah

A Sermon by Rev. Karen A. Mendes

Luke 1:5-23

November 29, 2020

Main Idea:  Angels call us to follow God

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer.  Amen.

In this challenging year, it is comforting to turn to the familiar and powerful stories of our Advent and Christmas seasons.  Of course, the central truth of Christmas is extraordinary, that God would choose to dwell with us, born a tiny baby to poor, young parents in an oppressed, backwater town.  Another extraordinary aspect of the Christmas stories are the encounters with angels.  The Christmas story is so familiar that we forget just how extraordinary angels are.  We like Angels, yes?  We put angel decorations up during this season.   Some of us have angels displayed all year round.  Some of us have experienced angels in our lives.  Our Bible is full of angels from Genesis to Revelation.  Angels are messengers from God and heavenly, eternal beings of great power.  They bring messages of hope and of warning.  When angels are described in Scripture, they are never cute little baby cherubs or willowy women who could be confused with fairies.  Their descriptions are frightening and bizarre.  They are overwhelming in their radiant presence.

During this Advent season we will be talking with angels or more accurately, we will be listening to angels as they share words of promise and challenge to people who are both surprised and frightened by their presence. Each Sunday from now until Christmas we will hear angelic proclamations and ponder our response to them.  Next week we will hear the familiar story of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary but today we will explore Gabriel’s earlier, less familiar visit to Zechariah.  Through this story we recognize that angels call us to follow God.

Our text for today begins with a mention of King Herod of Judea. This is the only time Herod is mentioned in Luke’s nativity story but it sets the scene both historically and narratively as the threat of Herod hangs over all that follows.   Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are introduced as good and righteous folk, descended from priestly families.  They have no children and are getting on in years.  Their similarity to Abraham and Sarah of the Old Testament is no coincidence. 

Zechariah was a Temple priest; one of many, who “were divided into 24 groups, and each group served twice a year for a week at a time in the Temple…. [At the Temple] a sacrifice was offered twice a day, both on the outer altar and on the inner altar, inside the sanctuary, [the Holy of Holies]. A list was [kept] of those priests who had [not yet] been chosen to enter the sanctuary, and then lots were cast to determine the priest who would bring the sacrifice to the altar…This honor normally came only once in a lifetime.” (Culpepper, NIB vol. 9 p. 46).  When Zechariah was chosen to enter the sanctuary, it was the best day of his life, the highpoint and the culmination of his career and vocation.  As he entered the sanctuary, the “whole assembly of the people [were] praying outside.”  Everyone watched as he entered and waited with baited breath for him to return and give a blessing to the crowd.  This was the moment he had waited for, and prepared for, his entire life.

Zechariah, all alone, entered into this holiest of holy places to offer the sacrifice of incense.  He walked in, and looked up, and there before him was an angel!; standing at the right side of the altar.  Zechariah was overwhelmed with both awe and fear.  Perhaps he fell to the floor.  Perhaps he was blinded by the light. Certainly, he had no frame of reference with which to make sense of what he was experiencing.

The angel Gabriel is one of only two named angels in our Scripture, the other being Michael who is named in the book of Revelation. Gabriel is mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures and is featured prominently in the Koran.  In the book of Daniel, Gabriel is described as “having the appearance of a man” (Daniel 8:15) with the ability of “swift flight” (Daniel 9:22).  Gabriel comes to Daniel and helps him understand a vision but the experience with Gabriel leaves Daniel overwhelmed and sick for days. (Daniel 8:27)

The first thing said by Gabriel (and the first thing spoken in Luke’s gospel) is “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard.”  Zechariah had entered the sanctuary focused on his job.  The appearance of the angel had pushed out all other thoughts but Gabriel spoke of the deepest prayers of Zechariah’s heart. “Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John, (1:13) which means “YHWH has shown favor” or “YHWH is gracious”  (Culpepper p. 46).   Gabriel continued   “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.” (1:14) “Even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God.” (1:15-16).  He will “turn the hearts of parents to their children [looking to the future], and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”(1:17)

Wow!  To experience an angel, to learn that your deepest hope was to be fulfilled, and that your child would be a special prophet for God, filled with the Holy Spirit, would have been beyond overwhelming; it would be beyond comprehension.  Zechariah could not take it all in.  Instead of thanking the angel, he expressed uncertainty.  “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” (1:18).  “I don’t know what you are talking about.  It seems outlandish to me.”

I imagine the angel looking incredulously at Zechariah.  “You doubt me?  I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.”  I can go anywhere in the universe but God has sent me here, to you. This is good news, the news for which you have been praying.  This is tremendous news, not only for you but for all of Israel, for the whole world.  “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 occur.” (1:20) And with that Gabriel left him.

While Zechariah was having his angelic audience, the people outside were wondering what was taking him so long.  When he finally came out, unable to speak, they realized that he had seen a vision.  His life had been dramatically changed. What he had anticipated to be the pinnacle of his vocation, serving in the sanctuary, turned out to be a tiny footnote to the most amazing experience of his life, speaking with an angel of God. For nine months he was without speech.  For nine months he had nothing to do but ponder Gabriel’s words and prepare for his child.  His voice did not return to him until 8 days after the birth of his son when he wrote on a tablet, “His name is John.” (Luke 1:63) Then his voice was freed and he sang out in praise to God.

Zechariah, whose name means “God has remembered”, a man whose life was dedicated to God, he, was surprised and overwhelmed when an angel of God came and spoke to him. Even serving in the holiest of holy sanctuaries did not prepare him to experience the presence of God.  He had prayed and prayed to God but he was shocked and unprepared when his prayer was answered. However, he put his nine months of silence to good use; for his child John did grow up to be the prophet Gabriel had foretold. 

What do we expect when we gather together for worship? The author Annie Dillard wrote that “we should all be wearing crash helmets” for the presence of God is so powerful.  It can surprise us and change us.   What do we expect during this Advent season? So much of our world is devastated and needy.  So many are grieving and bewildered.   Are we ready to move into this time of waiting and preparing for the birth of Emmanuel, God with us?  Can we open up our hearts and minds to listen for angels’ voices and to look for the presence of God?  God comes to us at unexpected times and in unexpected ways.  Gabriel told Zechariah that his son would be filled with the Holy Spirit.  We know that the Holy Spirit moves among us here and throughout creation.  In this extraordinary year, this extraordinary season, let us be on the lookout for angels among us, bringing us good news of joy and gladness.

Let us pray,

Awesome God, we praise you and thank you for your angels who come to us bringing comfort and challenge.  Help us to heed them.  Help us to prepare for the birth of our Christ, the love and light of the world.  Amen.