preached at the Mint Methodist Church, Exeter, by the Minister,
Angel Voices (Luke 1:5-25)
evening’s Gospel we have heard one of the
less familiar Advent Gospel readings –
the story of Zechariah meeting an angel
who tells of the forthcoming birth of John the Baptist,
the one who is to prepare the way for the coming of Christ.
is a little background
and context for the story,
followed by a few brief comments on what it might have to say to us.
was one of the Priests of Israel.
There were lots of them – if you were a man born into a priestly family
you would almost certainly be a part of the priesthood.
Scholars often estimate that there were
around 7000 priests in Israel at the time of Jesus.
They were scattered all over the country,
and were divided into groups of maybe 300 priests.
Each group took a turn on the Temple rota –
your group did 2 weeks a year.
Within the group there was a lottery to see which priest was on duty.
The real key job was burning incense before the altar.
Once you had done that job once,
your name was taken out of the lottery on future occasions.
Zechariah, this guy from somewhere upcountry,
we don’t quite know where, comes up to the big city
and gets literally his one chance in a lifetime
to perform the most sacred part of the temple ritual.
is to burn the incense
(the symbol of the people’s prayers rising to heaven)
on the heated temple altar.
Then he is to come out and pronounces
the traditional blessing on the people outside.
that Zechariah was meant to come out
and pronounce the Aaronic Blessing. But that never happens.
the altar Zechariah meets the Archangel Gabriel
who tells him that he and his wife are to have a son called John
who will prepare the way for Christ.
Zechariah says he doesn’t believe it.
What happens then?
God strike Zechariah deaf and dumb
as a sign of his ability to do what he says he will do?
more prosaically, does Zechariah
in the stress of the moment and experience suffer a stroke?
are we to understand that the stroke
is God’s way of imposing himself on Zechariah?
We may have our own ways of reading the Bible and understanding that.
can all be clear on is the Gospel message arising out of the story:
God is at work here. He has a future planned for his people
which comes from his power not their deserving.
And Zechariah is part of the plan.
So what messages do we draw from this story. A few thoughts.
God uses ordinary people
It may sometimes be encouraging to look at Mary the Mother of Jesus
saying “Let God’s will be done”
and the early saints of the Church offering their bodies to martyrdom –
these are people to emulate.
But on other occasions we may find it more helpful
to look at Peter – time and again getting the wrong end of the stick,
running away, denying Christ;
and Zechariah, who far from accepting the angel’s words,
refused to believe them.
We may not seek to emulate them
but we can draw immense comfort and challenge from their stories.
There was a Blues singer in Nashville called Nashville Fats.
In 1993 he suffered a stroke and was partially blinded.
(so maybe there is a parallel with Zechariah here?)
As a result of his experiences he was converted to Christianity –
he found spiritual sight.
and began a new career as a Christian singer.
That was true for Zachariah, and it is true for us.
You never know how and when
God will appear.
Sometimes you may be inclined to despair of his appearing at all –
but you never know - be patient. Never give up on God.
Zachariah did a lot of waiting in his life –
waiting for the priestly lottery to throw up his number; waiting for a baby.
But gosh – it was worth waiting when it came!
And the people outside the temple were awaiting God’s
and it didn’t come – what they didn’t know
was that in God’s providential plan the withholding of a blessing that day
was a precursor to the great blessing of John’s ministry 30 years later
and the one he would point to.
So when prayer are unanswered and we despair –
remember that God’s perspective is much longer
and God’s vision much clearer than ours –
the day will come!
God is faithful even
when we are not
Karl Barth, one of the great theologians
and preachers of the 20th Century,
talking about this passage comments
on how often his lack of faith
leaves him dumb when preparing a sermon –
Like Zechariah, he says,
I lack faith in God’s Word and am rendered speechless.
He does not mean that he is physically dumb like Zachariah –
he means that without faith the preacher has no true word to offer.
Often we fail in what we are called to do in God’s name –
we are weak and dumb and doubting,
not strong and eloquent and faithful for the Lord.
But God does not give up on us!
Even though Zachariah does not believe,
the baby is promised and Elizabeth conceives.
In our modern baptismal service,
God’s offer of baptism comes first,
our response, our promises second –
God keeps working in the world –
he sets off and bids us follow.
So let us be learn from Zechariah –
· let us know our role as ordinary fallible people.
· Let us wait for God’s word and look for him everywhere.
And when we fail him, let us know
that he never fails us –
he is out there ahead waiting for us to catch up.
finally a coda – we’ve talked about Zechariah, not the angel
When we have seen and heard and when we have our voice for the Lord,
maybe he is not merely calling us to be a Zechariah,
he is calling us to be an angel.
“Oh be an angel” we say when we want someone
to pass the jam or open the door - –
but this is not just about household chores -
an angel is a messenger –
maybe God is saying to us- “Be an angel” –
he needs human angels –
lets hear God speaking,
lets have faith in his word,
lets open our mouths and speak for him –
Lets be an angel.
ORDER OF SERVICE
led by Andrew Sails and Michelle Ireland
Hymn 81 “Come thou long expected Jesus”
Prayers (MWB p.117)
Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11 (p. 723)
Luke 1:5-25 (p.1025)
Hymn 87 “The Angel Gabriel”
Sermon “Angel Voices” – Andrew Sails
Hymn 788 “Behold the Servant”
Prayers (MWB p.121)
Hymn 95 “Born in the Night”
Holy Communion (MWB p. 124)
Hymn 101 “Glory be to God on high”