This advent season my thoughts are on the angels in the Christmas story. In the Old Testament books, we see a smattering of angelic visits and even fewer after Jesus’s resurrection. But in the Christmas story, angels are everywhere.
Angels appeared to Zechariah to foretell the birth of John the Baptist, to Mary and Joseph, to the shepherds, and to the magi. In some of these instances, their appearance was real, in others as a dream. In every instance, they proclaimed a message from God. This flurry of noticeable angelic activity highlights the momentous event of Christ’s birth.
The first time an angel appeared in relation to Christ’s incarnation is often overlooked. Well over a year prior to the events of Bethlehem an angel appeared to Zechariah. The story is recounted in Luke 1:5-24. Zechariah was of the priestly line and during his week of service at the Jerusalem Temple he was chosen by lot to burn incense in the Holy Place.
As Zechariah fulfilled his duties at the altar an angel appeared. Luke reports that Zechariah was “shaken and overwhelmed with fear.” I think we would be too. Not just fear because it’s an angel but the unexpected suddenness of Gabriel’s presence would have startled the hardiest of souls.
As we look at the angelic appearances of Christmas we’ll often hear them say “fear not” or “don’t be afraid.” I’d like to think that in this post-resurrection Holy Spirit indwelling era that angels could show up and just say “hi” without their normal greeting of “fear not.” But I think their presence would stir us still.
In Zechariah’s eventful temple service the angel is named. Only three angels are named in the Bible, Lucifer who rebelled and became Satan, Micheal the waring archangel (Jude 9, Rev 12:7), and Gabriel the messenger sent to Zechariah and Mary.
To Zechariah, Gabriel brought a message of answered prayer. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth no doubt prayed for many years to have a child. Now in their advanced age, when it seemed impossible, their prayers are about to be answered.
Gabriel also brought some very specific instructions. “Don’t be afraid, Zechariah! God has heard your prayer. Your wife, Elizabeth, will give you a son, and you are to name him John. You will have great joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the eyes of the Lord. He must never touch wine or other alcoholic drinks. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth. And he will turn many Israelites to the Lord their God. He will be a man with the spirit and power of Elijah. He will prepare the people for the coming of the Lord. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and he will cause those who are rebellious to accept the wisdom of the godly.”
Now, instead of saying “wow” or “I’m not worthy” or “amen, amen, amen” Zechariah responds with something like “So how is this going to work? We’re kind of old now you know.” Gabriel responds with a bit of anger, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the very presence of God. It was he who sent me to bring you this good news! But now, since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born. For my words will certainly be fulfilled at the proper time.” (Note to self: when an angel announces that a prayer is about to be answered nod vigorously.)
Gabriel brought wonderful news. Not only are Zechariah and Elizabeth to have a long-desired child, but he will be someone fantastic! Like the Old Testament Prophet Elijah heralding the coming Messiah kind of fantastic. This is gigantic and the first of several encounters with angels in the Christmas story of Jesus.
Before we leave however it is wise to consider our own response to answered and not yet answered prayer. Zechariah’s story is a reminder that all answers to prayer are subject to God’s timing. We don’t know how many years they prayed or the worried hours they spent wondering why nothing happened or when they stopped praying. I get the feeling from Zechariah’s response that they had given up and perhaps even made peace with their childless lives. But even with those doubts, God answered their prayers.
Too often we judge God or fail to see that He did answer our prayers. Faith in God means having trust in God. He does hear our prayers and He does answer them, but those answers may not be in the way or in the timing we expect or desire. Zechariah’s failure, and often our own, was not accepting God’s answer with faith.
God is answering your prayers. My prayer for you and me is that our eyes would see with grateful acceptance those answers unfold in God’s timing and in His way.