Today’s reading: Luke 1.
Angels are somewhat like God’s secret agents – rarely seen but always at work in the background. Only occasionally does God pull back the curtain and let us see them. Those are moments of serious importance. Abraham on the verge of sacrificing Isaac. Moses at the burning bush. Joshua preparing to attack Jericho. Daniel laying out the prophetic forecast for the end of time. The announcement of the births of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth.
Angels are also God’s messengers. They bring God’s most important messages at those most important times. When it absolutely, positively has to be there. So Zechariah, an aging priest with no children, stands before the altar of incense in the Holy Place of the temple, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, when the angel Gabriel suddenly reveals himself. He gives the shocked man the news that he will have a son, and not just any son, but one full of the Holy Spirit who will prepare the way for the coming Messiah.
Zechariah asked the angel, “How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” The angel answered, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.” Luke 1:18-20
Angels can have an attitude – at least Gabriel can when pushed to the limit of his patience by a priest with a questioning faith. Zechariah’s mistake was in demanding proof of the angel’s promise. Gabriel gave him proof and punishment in one stroke by removing his voice.
Half a year later Gabriel returns to a teen-aged girl, related to Zechariah and Elizabeth, and gives her an even more important message.
But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.” “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Luke 1:30-38
Mary’s question sounds a lot like Zechariah’s, but there is a difference. Mary only questions how, not if. Gabriel finds no problem with her question and patiently explains the mystery of the virgin birth. Mary responds with the obedient surrender that should be a model for every believer.
The angels return in a dream to Mary’s betrothed husband to make sure he understands what is happening, to the shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem so they can give witness of the Savior’s birth, and again to Joseph to protect Jesus from those who are determined to kill him. In all these situations God’s messengers are dealing with matters of the greatest importance and delivering news that absolutely, positively has to be there.
Image by Steve Day on Flickr, CC by-nc-sa 2.0