Advent is a weird liturgical season because it’s the antithesis of everything that’s happening around us this time of year. Stores are decked out in bright red and green, while Advent uses more somber tones such as blue and purple. Jolly Old St. Nick’s boisterous “Ho, Ho, Ho,” competes with John the Baptist’s woeful lament: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand…Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” Songs such as the annoying joyful “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” butt heads with “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lowly exile here, until the son of God appear.”
You see what I mean? It’s enough to give a good Lutheran a case of whiplash! What are we to make of the solemn Advent season that tries to compete with the commercialization of Christmas? It seems to me we need a better marketing campaign because Advent is a hard sell when compared to the festivities which surround us.
And yet, there are many people who aren’t feeling very festive the time of year. Some can hardly put food on the table, let alone buy gifts for their children. Others are overwhelmed by grief or illness, and the constant pressure to be merry only makes things worse. Some are dreading getting together with loved ones because their family dynamics are usually dysfunctional and chaotic. Other are SO ready to put 2016 behind them, but they are also fearful that 2017 might be even worse.
If you are one of these people, then WELCOME TO ADVENT! Have I got a holiday for you! Feel free to wail and lament like John the Baptist. Stand in solidarity with those who “Mourn in lowly exile here, until the Son of God appear.” Rejoice that the only preparation we need to do is create a space in our lives for the Christ Child to dwell. Welcome to Advent, weary pilgrims! Viva la revolución! I love this season. It speaks to my heart. And I have the sneaking suspicion it may speak to your heart as well.
At this point in the sermon you’re probably wondering, what does all this have to do with angels? Did Pastor Dave abandon his sermon series? Fear not, because in Luke’s gospel Advent begins with the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. It’s a tale that moves from barrenness to blessing, which fits the themes of Advent perfectly. Furthermore, Archangel Gabriel is the one who proclaims that the time of barrenness is over. So, let’s wade in the Advent waters of this powerful story and see what it can teach us about angels and about ourselves.
As the story begins we learn that Zechariah and Elizabeth were descendants of two important families. Her husband, Zechariah, was a descendant of King David. He also belonged to the priestly order that oversaw the worship life of the Temple in Jerusalem. Elizabeth was a descendant of Aaron, the older brother of Moses, and one of Israel’s greatest prophets. Both of them were pillars in their community. In fact, Luke testifies to their moral character, saying, “They were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord.” [Lk 1:6]
From all outward appearances their life should have been easy. But Luke adds a hint of sadness, saying, “They had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.” [Lk 1:7] Now we might hear this detail and not give it a second thought. We might feel sorry for them or wonder why they didn’t adopt if they wanted children. But in 1st century Israel, barrenness was seen as a sign of God’s disfavor and a legitimate reason for divorce. Furthermore, the blame for Elizabeth’s barrenness would have been placed solely on her. We hear her desperation in verse 25 where she speaks of the “disgrace” she has endured among her people.
If we listen closely, we can hear others whisper and gossip behind her back: “Poor thing, I wonder what she did in order to deserve this punishment from God?” “You know her husband us a preacher! Surely if he had enough faith, God would give them an heir.”
I believe we can all empathize with Elizabeth and Zechariah’s plight, because we’ve all experienced barrenness in one form or another. Brian McLaren, in his book “We Make the Road by Walking” says the following about of Gospel Lesson: “All of us experience this sense of frustration, disappointment, impatience and despair at times. We all feel that we have the capacity to give birth to something beautiful and good and needed and wonderful in the world. But our potential goes unfulfilled, our promising hopes miscarry. so we live on one side and then on the other of the border of despair. And then the impossible happens.”
We, like Elizabeth and Zechariah, experience the death of dreams. We all have times in our lives when we try to give birth to something beautiful and needed in our world, but it just doesn’t seem to be happening.
Thankfully, the story doesn’t leave us in this space of desperation and frustration. Archangel Gabriel visits Zechariah in the synagogue and tells him that he and Elizabeth are going to have a son. Zechariah doesn’t believe it and Gabriel literally leaves him speechless. I’m fairly certain that Elizabeth, much like her matriarch Sarah in our First Lesson, laughed out loud when she heard the news that she was going to have a child. But the impossible became possible and Elizabeth began to feel the stirrings of life in her womb. Her body began to change and create a sacred space for her baby to grow. In her joy she exclaimed that God had looked favorably upon her. I’m fairly certain Zechariah rejoiced as well. In fact, when he regained his speech, he offered a song of praise at John’s birth that is recorded later in chapter 1.
Friends in Christ, this story gives hope to those of us who “mourn in lowly exile” this Advent season. In the midst of our barrenness, in the midst of the death of dreams, in the midst of tragedies that have wounded our hearts, Archangel Gabriel speaks a word of good news.
This is what he tells us: “Fear not. Fear not, my child. God is at work in your life and in the lives of others. No matter how barren you may feel, No matter how scary the world around you may seem, salvation is near. Wonderful things are surely coming because God is working to make them happen. So hang in there. Wait expectantly. Keep on the watch, my Advent children. For the Christ Child is coming, and he is coming soon!”
You might find it interesting to know that Gabriel means “God is my strength.” Perhaps, Gabriel can be the messenger who reminds us this Advent season that God is our strength. Perhaps he can remind us that even in our barrenness, we can be strength to others. We can stand with them in solidarity, because we know EXACTLY how they feel. In the midst of the commercialization of Christmas we can be the voice of one crying in the wilderness, bringing hope and healing to others. We can be the son of Zechariah and Elizabeth, who calls for a simpler and saner way to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
In closing I offer a beautiful prayer I found this week that was written by Whitney Hopler. For those who experience barrenness in their lives, it’s the perfect prayer for this Advent season: Archangel Gabriel, angel of revelation, I thank God for making you a powerful messenger to deliver divine messages. Please help me hear what God has to say to me so I can follow God’s guidance and fulfill God’s purposes in my life. Amen.
Copyright ©2016 by David Eck